U.S. Representative Steve King has carved out a niche in Congress as an unrelenting foe of legalizing undocumented immigrants, and last night the Iowa Republican was the star attraction at a rally where he pressed his case in the hometown of one of his party’s leaders.
“Let’s restore the rule of law, let’s restore the dignity of the America citizen, and let’s restore the destiny of the American nation,” King said, his voice booming from a Richmond, Virginia, hillside park that overlooks House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s district. Those backing a citizenship path for undocumented immigrants “have no vision for what kind of country we would have,” he said.
King spoke to about 50 people at a gathering called a “Stop Amnesty Tour” that featured more than two hours of speeches and drew activists focused on the immigration issue, anti-tax Tea Party members and a smattering of local residents. Some brought their children and sat in portable stadium chairs. Others brought bright red signs that read, “NO! Amnesty.”
As Congress’s monthlong recess moves into its second week, the debate over rewriting immigration policy is playing out in shouts and whispers. While advocacy groups on both sides try to grab headlines with rallies and forums featuring high-profile speakers, lawmakers key to the legislative effort are largely steering clear of immigration-centric events and are keeping their comments to a minimum.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and one of the lead authors of an immigration bill the Senate passed in late June, breezed through the topic in 90 seconds during a 35-minute speech yesterday to the Rotary Club of Jacksonville.
He said that while measures that include legalizing undocumented immigrants are “deeply unpopular” among some Republican voters, the U.S. is in a “competition for talent” that helped spur the Senate bill.
“If you’ve got the next great idea, if you’re the next Albert Einstein, you may struggle to be able to stay” in the U.S., he told a lunch crowd of about 300 in a hotel ballroom. “This makes no sense and it has to be fixed.”
The Senate legislation includes more work visas, a $46.3 billion commitment to additional border security and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- a comprehensive approach that was essential to attracting bipartisan support for the measure. Rubio is among those urging fellow Republicans to back the proposal to help the party improve its appeal to Hispanic voters, whose 71 percent support for President Barack Obama helped him win re-election last November.
Republican House leaders, though, have rejected the Senate bill and are taking a piecemeal approach to the immigration debate, preparing separate measures on the issue.
‘Hold the Line’
Roy Beck, executive director of Arlington, Virginia-based Numbers USA, said those who favor legalizing the undocumented have “a heavier lift of changing minds” during the congressional recess, while anti-immigration groups like his must simply “hold the line.”
Numbers USA organized the Richmond rally and plans similar events next month in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and other cities.
“So far I’m not seeing the pro-amnesty bandwagon catching fire,” Beck said in an interview. “It just goes to show that what these guys hear once they’re back in their districts is very different from what the Republican consultant class in Washington has been telling them” about the party’s needs.
One of the most visible pro-immigration groups, FWD.us, founded by Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, has been hosting roundtable discussions with supportive lawmakers. Representative Jeff Denham, a California Republican, joined technology executives for one on Aug. 7 in San Francisco.
Denham has long favored citizenship for the undocumented. Other Republicans have used August to debut their acceptance of such legislation, arguing that the proposals under discussion don’t amount to amnesty because undocumented immigrants would have to pay fines and meet other criteria to apply for citizenship.
Representative Dave Reichert, a Washington state Republican, said in an Aug. 8 interview on radio station KVI in Seattle that he supports a “way to find a solution” for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S.
“I want to hold them accountable, and then they get citizenship, and they’re going to pay taxes,” Reichert, a former county sheriff, told host John Carlson, a one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate in Washington who suggested on his show that any means of legalizing undocumented immigrants would be perilous.
Reichert, who spoke yesterday at a U.S. naturalization ceremony in Chelan, Washington, is on a list of 22 Republicans whose comments indicate openness to legislation that includes some kind of citizenship pathway. The list is compiled by America’s Voice, a Washington-based lobby group that advocates for legalizing undocumented immigrants and includes unions, business leaders and others.
Another recent add to the list is Representative Aaron Schock, an Illinois Republican. At an Aug. 5 town hall in Heyworth, Illinois, he said undocumented immigrants should have to pay taxes, be crime-free and wait for a “provisionary” period. “Then they can apply for citizenship,” he said.
In the House, backing from most of its Democrats and a minority of Republicans would provide a majority for immigration legislation -- yet such a vote is unlikely to occur. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said he doesn’t plan to bring to the floor immigration-related bills that aren’t supported by a majority of the chamber’s Republicans.
Many House Republicans have expressed opposition to a citizenship path for undocumented immigrants, and King’s outspokenness on the subject has chafed party leaders. Boehner and Cantor were among those who condemned his comments last month that far more children brought into the U.S. illegally served as drug runners and have developed “calves the size of cantaloupes” than have become high school valedictorians.
King was addressing the willingness among some Republicans -- including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia -- to consider a path to citizenship for some young people who entered the country illegally as children.
Cantor, in comments on Aug. 4 on Fox News, said that undocumented immigrant children shouldn’t be held liable for their parents’ illegal acts. He also promised that the House would be “more deliberative and smart” than the Senate in its debate on immigration policy.
Cantor’s comments raised concerns with Kristi Corbett, a constituent who attended last night’s Richmond rally. Holding signs that read “Hello Eric Cantor” and “No Amnesty for Invaders,” Corbett said she doesn’t trust Cantor -- who wasn’t present at the gathering -- to be “deliberative.”
“I don’t believe he’s listening to us any longer,” she said.
King, 64, told his listeners that events like the one they were attending send a message to lawmakers.
“We know what to do,” he said. “We have to convince them what’s right.”