Hungry for justice in Chicago’s Little Village

    Photo of the hunger strikers from José Landaverde's Facebook page.

    Eight days into a hunger strike in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, Fr. José Landaverde, an Anglican priest, said participants are “feeling a little weak.” They do not, however, intend to break their strike until the hospitals they are denouncing, Loyola Medical Center and University of Illinois Medical Center, “put life before money.”

    One of the hunger strikers, Lorenzo Arroyo, suffers from amyloidosis, a rare hereditary disease which has attacked his organs, and he needs a transplant. But because he is undocumented, Arroyo says the medical centers won’t budge on their decision not to provide life-saving surgery. Doctors monitoring his condition are watching for signs that the strike could complicate his health situation further. Despite the risks, a press release issued Thursday by Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Mission indicated that he remains firm in his decision to continue.

    Landaverde is among those protesting the hospitals’ decisions not to provide potentially life-saving transplants to three undocumented immigrants. He says that the hospitals have not yet responded to their protest, and in the past they have insisted that they will not provide transplant surgeries to undocumented immigrants. The strike, Landaverde believes, is an act of desperation by people left without hope. They are confounded by two complex and unfair systems that are in this case, intimately intertwined: healthcare and immigration. Landaverde is in Washington D.C. today where he plans to meet with a White House official and legislators to discuss growing distress in the immigrant community over policies like this one which he believes violate human rights and are symptomatic of a broken and unjust immigration system.

    The hospitals which are targeted in this protest are not alone in their resolve to draw a line at transplants for the undocumented. Medicare won’t pay for a transplant because it is not considered an emergency procedure. Due to potentially astronomical costs associated with transplant surgeries, hospital officials across the country are already struggling with reduced and backlogged government payments, and they say they’re forced to make tough choices when it comes to providing this kind of procedure to people who can’t pay; when it comes to undocumented immigrants, they can’t recoup the costs through state and federal funding programs.

    Healthcare injustice extends beyond the undocumented community. Citizens and legal residents who are uninsured and poor face similar struggles when it comes to major healthcare interventions such as transplants, because hospitals and physicians often have to bear the cost. But the obstacles to providing care for the undocumented are especially formidable.

    For those who believe that a person’s life should not be dependent on a piece of paper, the options are limited. Comprehensive healthcare reform means overcoming daunting political challenges. Those in desperate need have little choice but direct action.

    This hunger strike and the policy it hopes to change is the seed of a growing movement for immigrant rights, which underscores the need for serious dialogue about the damage lack of fair and humane immigration reform has caused. Dying people have nowhere to turn, and those who have the power to save them are barred by economic concerns from respecting human life and dignity. In the absence of government action, people must be determined and focused if we are to be heard.

    Groups like the Little Village protesters staging this hunger strike are the backbone of such a movement, and they are no strangers to nonviolent action. In recent years, some of these same organizers have led and participated in numerous campaigns including protests, marches, letter-writing, lobbying, sit-ins and other hunger strikes to raise awareness and fight for justice for immigrants. They have partnered with immigrant rights organizations, ecumenical and community organizations, and individuals throughout the region to demand change. Press releases and constant updates on action and results are posted on Facebook and organizers are readily available to share information and respond to calls for action.

    This kind of grassroots organizing puts a human face on our society’s escalating crisis of identity. The question of how to solve a clear impasse between healthcare and immigration policy may not be solved by a hunger strike, but it demands our attention and poses serious questions. When one of our children is faced with a tough, moral decision, my husband and I often ask, “What kind of person do you want to be?” We all need to ask ourselves that question both individually and collectively, and not stop there. If we answer it the way we hope our children will, action is the only acceptable response.

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