Obama visits immigration hunger strikers in US capital

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visit with individuals who are taking part in Fast for Families on the National Mall in Washington, Friday, Nov 29, 2013. Seated nearest Mr Obama are Dae Joong Yoon (left) and Eliseo Medina (right)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visit with individuals who are taking part in Fast for Families on the National Mall in Washington, Friday, Nov 29, 2013. Seated nearest Mr Obama are Dae Joong Yoon (left) and Eliseo Medina (right). -- PHOTO: AP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - United States (US) President Barack Obama paid a visit on Friday to hunger strikers calling for immigration reform, who are camped out on the National Mall in Washington.

Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, the President stopped by the grassy esplanade several hundred metres from the White House, in a trip that was not mentioned in his official daily agenda.

The President and the first lady were visiting individuals taking part in "Fast For Families" on the National Mall to "offer their support for those who are fasting on behalf of immigration reform," the White House said.

Journalists accompanying the couple were kept at a distance.

During their visit, the Obamas thanked the activists for their "sacrifice and dedication" according to a White House official.

"The President told them that it is not a question of whether immigration reform will pass, but how soon," the official said.

Since November 12, the immigrant rights activists, who have set up a tent a stone's throw from the US Capitol building, have been on hunger strike, urging the House of Representatives to vote for an immigration reform measure already approved by the Senate.

The official said that the president told the activists "that the only thing standing in the way is politics, and it is the commitment to change, from advocates like these brave fasters, that will help pressure the House to finally act".

The reform, which would bring one of Mr Obama's major 2008 and 2012 presidential campaign promises to fruition, was adopted by the Senate, dominated by Mr Obama's Democratic allies, on Jun 27.

The Senate plan, crafted and approved with Republican support, would give some 11 million people living illegally in the country US citizenship under strict conditions and after a minimum transitory 13-year period.

It would also strengthen the border with Mexico and reorganise the visa system to give priority to high-demand fields, including engineers and farm workers.

House Speaker John Boehner recently said he was willing to have his chamber consider such a measure, but in a piece-by-piece manner.

It's an approach that Mr Obama, speaking in San Francisco on Monday, said would work "as long as all the pieces get done". In the House of Representatives, Republicans hold the majority and are more hostile toward what some conservative critics see as "amnesty" for the millions of foreigners living illegally in the United States.

Mr Boehner and his Republican Party are under heavy pressure ahead of 2016 presidential elections to improve their standing among Hispanic voters for whom immigration is a cherished political goal.

In 2012, 71 per cent of Latino voters cast their ballot for Mr Obama over his Republican opponent Mitt Romney.