Over his seven decades, labor leader Eliseo Medina has, quite literally, proven his hunger for immigration reform. In 2013, the retired international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a man described by the Los Angeles Times as one of the most successful labor organizers in the country, engaged in a hunger fast on the National Mall to draw attention to the need for immigration reform in Congress. “Immigration has been a presence and a cause throughout my life,” Medina says.
I think that it is a disgrace to this country that we have 11 million people living in the shadows.
As one of the key organizers of Fast for Families, Medina was prepared to face grave health consequences for his beliefs. His family and friends convinced him to end his 22-day fast, however, after former President Barack Obama and the former first lady sat down beside him. Michelle Obama reportedly shed tears when she heard some of the fasters’ stories. Medina’s action also helped inspire a number of elected officials to engage in shorter, single-day hunger fasts to show their solidarity. “Our immigration system doesn’t work for anybody — not for immigrants and not for U.S. citizens,” Medina says. “It needs to be updated to reflect the realities of today’s economy, and it needs to be brought into the 21st century.”
The 2013 hunger fast is just one in a long chain of high-profile accomplishments for Medina. He immigrated to the United States in 1956, at the age of 10. For decades, his father had crossed the border back and forth from Zacatecas, Mexico, to work on American farms, both legally and without papers. “My family would spend days roaming from field to field, looking for work,” Medina recalls. “At those times, we were looked at more as farm implements rather than human beings by the growers. If anybody complained about the pay or the working conditions, they were fired on the spot.” From a young age, Medina was aware of constant immigration raids, arrests, and deportations around him, although his own family immigrated legally. “It was common to have immigration agents knock on your door at 3 a.m.,” he says. “Many of my friends and family members experienced this.”
The family eventually settled in Delano, California. At age 15, Medina dropped out of high school to work in the fields full-time. He initially made 90 cents per hour. By the time he was 19 he’d joined ranks with the United Farm Workers and begun his professional trajectory as a labor leader under the tutelage of mentor and friend César Chávez. Medina helped execute the famed Delano grape strike by leading the grape boycott in Chicago and Ohio.
Medina became a U.S. citizen in 1974, joined SEIU, and rose through the organization’s ranks, becoming SEIU’s elected international secretary-treasurer. He championed immigrant rights and was instrumental in a successful 1999 campaign to get the AFL-CIO to reverse its opposition to immigrant workers. “The more I got involved with the farmworkers union, and eventually with SEIU, immigration reform continued to be ever-present in my life,” he says. “The cause is to try and get it fixed.”
Specifically, he says, undocumented workers who are contributing to the economy need a way to attain legal status. “I think that it is a disgrace to this country that we have 11 million people living in the shadows of our society, where they are exploited, where they have to constantly be worrying whether they are going to be arrested one day and deported, leaving their families behind,” Medina says. “Everybody knows that we rely on them. They are approximately 5 percent of our workforce. If they were ever removed from the workforce, the economy would collapse. In many cases they’re anywhere between 50 and 75 percent of the workforce. California’s agriculture economy would collapse without them.”