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Phoenix hunger-striker breaks fast after 22 days, but protest continues

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WASHINGTON – After 22 days with no food as part of an immigration reform protest, Phoenix resident Cristian Avila broke his fast Tuesday and was sent to a Washington-area hospital for a checkup.

Avila was one of four hunger strikers who had been living and fasting in a tent on the National Mall in hopes of compelling congressional action on immigration reform.

In a ceremony Tuesday, the four shared bread that was provided by a priest. They took off the crosses they had been wearing for the past three weeks and put them around the necks of a new group of hunger strikers who will continue the fast.

“Today we end one fast and we begin another, all to draw attention to the importance of immigration reform,” said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.

“I want to commend the courage and witness of those ending their fast today,” said McCarrick, who led the ceremony. “We love them very much, and we thank their witness…. You truly put your faith into action.”

Avila and the others were whisked off to the hospital immediately after the ceremony. But Ciara Taylor, who took the cross from Avila, said he expressed his gratitude to her for taking his place and standing up for his family.

“I don’t know him personally, but he just has the strength and the spirit,” said Taylor, a Florida resident. “I am really grateful to have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.”

The fast in the shadow of the Capitol has drawn national media attention and visits from the Obama family, Vice President Joe Biden and other lawmakers and officials. That continued Tuesday, when high-ranking House Democrats were on hand along with Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., who took one of the crosses and committed to continuing the fast.

Kennedy said he was honored to be with his colleagues, mentors and friends “to carry on the fight.”

“I hope to be able to continue to support those efforts and carry them on any way I can,” he said.

Like Avila, Taylor said she would keep fasting until her body gives up.

“I think just continuing to connect myself with why I am here, that’s the most important part, remembering why I’m here and who I’m here for,” Taylor said. “I believe in this cause.”

Avila said all five members of his family are undocumented. While he and his brother and sister are living under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he said his parents are still at risk of deportation.

The Senate in June passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that calls for tougher border security, a revamped visa system and a potential pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in this country illegally.

But the momentum stalled in the House, where Speaker John Boehner has said repeatedly that he will pursue a piece-by-piece approach to immigration reform. Where the Senate passed a 1,200-page comprehensive bill, the House is considering several separate measures.

“The speaker has been clear about his support for fixing our broken immigration system in a step-by-step way,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an email Tuesday. “Our House committees are going to continue their work to make progress on that goal.”

Boehner also announced Tuesday that he has hired a staffer to work specifically on the issue of immigration reform.

But Laura Vazquez, legislative analyst of National Council of La Raza, said she was disappointed Boehner was not opening door to the protesters.

“We would continue to urge him, and the leadership in the Republican Party to figure out how to move forward with immigration reform,” she said.