11/25/2013 05:31 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 05:59 EST

Starving for immigration reform: protesters fast before U.S. Congress

WASHINGTON - Just within eyeshot of the U.S. Capitol building, a few people in tents are starving themselves in the hope that some key lawmakers might start paying attention to them.

The organized fast is an attempt to put a human face on immigration reform after years of false starts and dashed hopes for the millions of people living in the U.S. without official documents.

Cristian Avila hasn't eaten in two weeks and doesn't plan to start again until a doctor orders him to. The 23-year-old is daydreaming about his next meal and has already drawn up a list of foods he'll chow down on when he gets the chance.

He regrets that his liquid diet will scrub this week's U.S. Thanksgiving feast but, the way he puts it, that's nothing compared with what his family went through while illegally crossing the Mexican border when he was a child.

"My first reaction (when I heard about the fast) was, 'No, no — I like to eat!' I probably eat four to six times a day," he said in an interview Monday.

"But I reflected on it. ... I know the great sacrifice my father made, crossing the desert to give us a better life. Now it's my turn to make a sacrifice."

The Arizona man now spends his days on Washington's National Mall, and his nights sleeping in a church basement. Three other people are on the long-term fast, while larger groups of sympathizers are joining for shorter periods.

Advocates of immigration reform believed they had momentum behind them following last year's presidential election, but the issue has languished again in Congress where deep divisions exist over whether to grant a path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally.

Opponents say that would reward illegal behaviour. Proponents say it's justice for people like Avila, who was only nine years old when he entered the U.S. on a fake ID and who now says he would like to join the U.S. Marines.

The U.S. debate has no parallel in Canada.

While illegal immigration might occasionally pop up as a political issue in Canadian politics, the actual number of undocumented migrants is believed to be less than 100 times the size in the U.S. where the issue has galvanized the political discussion.

U.S. President Barack Obama expressed optimism Monday that progress might actually be on the way. He welcomed an apparent openness from Republican leadership in the House of Representatives to tackle the issue, perhaps in a piecemeal series of bills.

He made it clear, however, that any such one-piece-at-a-time approach should address all the major issues — the inference being that a path to citizenship had better be included.

"It's Thanksgiving," the president told a Chinese community audience in San Francisco.

"You know, we can carve that bird into multiple pieces. A drumstick here and breast meat there. But as long as all the pieces get done soon, and we actually deliver on the core values we've been talking about for so long, I think everybody's fine with it. They're not worried about the procedures. They just want the result."

An obvious reason the issue has dominated politics in the U.S., and not in Canada, is the American proximity to poorer countries with net migration outflows.

But another factor might be at play: immigrants have a better chance of entering Canada through legal avenues.

According to OECD calculations, Canada takes in more than double the number of immigrants per capita — with 0.72 per cent of the national population per year, compared with 0.34 per cent in the U.S.

One lawyer who was born in Winnipeg, and has practised U.S. and Canadian law, says people simply can't apply for a work permit in the U.S. if they don't fit into a set category.

While there might be challenges in Canada, and delays, and while the rules might have been tightened for some types of applicants in recent years, there's still a potential legal route.

"The general structure of U.S. immigration laws is to not allow foreign nationals into the U.S., subject to certain concessions made to U.S. employers who require a foreign worker or a U.S. individual who wanted to be reunited with a family member," said Henry Chang.

"Canadian immigration recognizes the value of allowing immigrants into Canada. ... No one wants to be an illegal immigrant so, if there is a legal means to come to Canada, foreign nationals are more likely to favour that route. This may be why, at least to some extent, illegal immigration is less of a problem in Canada than in the United States."

He said people might still falsely attempt to enter Canada by inventing details for a refugee claim.

In Avila's case, his family made several attempts to cross the Mexico-U.S. border in 1999. His father had gone up first, crossing the desert on foot, although he still doesn't talk about the ordeal.

The rest of the family tried to join him with the help of a human smuggler — a so-called "coyote."

But they were forced to retreat when the group spotted U.S. federal authorities. The second attempt was cut short when bandits attacked the group, which included Avila, his mother, and his younger brother and sister.

Finally, they opted for another solution: nine-year-old Avila obtained someone else's ID.

He then spent the better part of his childhood hiding — fearful of having his secret discovered.

He recalls how his mother would see a police patrol car and tell him, "Put your head down!"

His feelings changed in high school, during a symposium where he heard migrants tell their stories.

He recalls one man who described a heat so scalding that it melted his shoes, and how people still shared water with others despite their own agonizing thirst.

He thought about his father crossing that desert.

It was then that the old sense of shame, the fear of being caught, started to recede: "I wasn't an animal. I wasn't a criminal."

He still can't have a driver's licence, because of laws in his home state of Arizona. He was also rejected when he tried applying for the military.

But he can now work without fear of deportation, temporarily, under a memorandum signed by Obama called "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," and now works with the Latino community political organization, Mi Familia Vota.

His long-term career aspirations still include the military. But he doesn't want to apply again until his parents have legal status, too.

"The last thing I want is to be overseas fighting a war, then finding out my parents got deported."

Some high-profile visitors are dropping by that protest tent, set up by a coalition of labour, community and faith groups called Alliance for Citizenship. Organizers say they want to show politicians, and the public, the human face of the debate.

Joe Biden passed by last week.

Inside the tent, there's a shrine to people who have perished trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. There's a single running shoe. A wallet. Crucifixes, scrawled with names and dates.

There are also posters, including one that touts a potential benefit of reform: "11 million to pay taxes."

Avila said the vice-president spent about 20 or 25 minutes there and promised to keep fighting. "(Biden) said something like, 'The 11 million people living here are Americans. Because America is an idea.'"

Avila hasn't had a meal since Nov. 12, when he ate eggs, rice and beans. He's starting to feel too weak to make his bed. And although he's already drawn up a food dream-list, and will miss that Thanksgiving turkey, he's doing all right.

"I fell in love with the country I came to. I know this is the country where I want to raise my children," he said.

"Physically, I feel drained. Morally, I feel rich."