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Immigration Reform Summer: Steve King’s Hateful Slurs Have Some Unintended Effects

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Below is the fourth article in the series, “Immigration Reform Summer,” by Gebe Martinez, Advisor to America’s Voice Education Fund.  This article is available for reprint as long as the author is given proper attribution.  View other posts in the series here.

Sometimes the strength of a political movement can be seen as much in how supporters react in the low points as in how they achieve victories. One of those moments is occurring in the northwestern Iowa district of Republican Congressman Steve King.

King’s fiery, anti-immigrant rhetoric is nothing new, but with immigration reform in the spotlight, finally, his constituents have had the opportunity to challenge his hateful words and pledge to fight for humane immigration reform with a path to citizenship.

The cause of this boomerang is King’s recent attack against DREAMers – young people who were brought to the U.S. as children without documents — describing them as having “calves the size of cantaloupes” because they are drug smugglers. DREAMers responded by delivering cantaloupes to Capitol Hill.

Despite being denounced by embarrassed House GOP leaders, King has stood by his hateful words.

In his district, the remarks are still reverberating.

Following what was perhaps the largest pro-immigration forum in King’s district last week, Iowa DREAMers have found the community support and the national platform to tell their stories in support of reform with a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S.

“This was a great opportunity for people to realize that not everyone agrees with King,” said Eduardo Rodriguez, a DREAMer from King’s district who spoke at the forum in Ames. “It’s also been a really big boost of morale for the local community and the undocumented community.”

Being an immigrant in King’s conservative district carries a stigma that prevented DREAMers from publicly disclosing their status. “They didn’t necessarily know that there were other people (like them) out there,” said event organizer Erica Johnson.

That changed after the rally, where Rodriguez proclaimed his status, but also his love for Iowa in front of the crowd of more than 200. “I love the cornfields and even sometimes the smell. That is home. That is where I feel comfortable,” Rodriguez said.

The 24-year-old DREAMer became a hit on social media, said Matt Hildreth, another organizer. “King gave Ed a platform. Ed would not have been able to tell his story without King’s comments.”

Indeed, King’s remarks have underscored how much his own district has moved away from him on the issue. A conservative pollster recently found that 65 percent of voters in King’s district favor an earned path to citizenship.

At King’s Roman Catholic parish, St. Rose of Lima in Denison, about 30 percent of parishioners are Latino and four out of five baptisms are of Latino children. “That’s the future of the church,” Father Paul Kelly told the local newspaper.

The rising Latino congregations at most churches has prompted an aggressive multi-faith campaign for immigration reform with the path to citizenship.

In a rare public statement following King’s latest anti-immigrant comments, Sioux City Diocese Bishop R. Walker Nickless, said the remarks undermined immigrants’ human dignity.”

The Ames forum drew about 270 of King’s constituents who had a chance to say they, too, are tired of King’s invectives against immigrants. It was sponsored by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin and co-hosted by Senate Assistant Majority Leader Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the lead sponsor of the DREAM Act that would expedite the citizenship process for eligible youths.

Business, labor and faith community representatives showcased support for immigration reform and tried to dispel any notion that Iowans are unwelcoming of immigrants.

Nick Harrington of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 222, received a standing ovation after calling for acceptance of Iowa’s changing communities. “You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future and the future is ours,” Harrington said, echoing the words of Cesar Chavez.

No one expects King will ever change his immigration position but his comments have hurt the GOP. They may be more worried about the impact on their national image, but last week’s event revealed that Iowans from King’s very own district were waiting for a chance to show he doesn’t represent their views.

Outside of Iowa, the key Senate sponsor of that chamber’s immigration measure, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, agrees King already has helped the cause.

“I think Steve King, the more he speaks, the more he helps us get a bill passed,” Schumer said. “I am more optimistic today than I have been since our bill passed.”