Iowa Latinos Mobilize off Rep. Steve King's Rhetoric

Image: Citizens United And Americans For Prosperity Foundation Host Leading Conservatives For Freedom Summit
An April 2014 photo of Iowa Republican congressman Steve King. Latinos in the state say they are ready to "strike back" after his proposed legislation and previous comments about Hispanic immigrants. Darren McCollester / Getty Images

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Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King may soon feel some pushback from Latinos in his home state, who say they can no longer just ignore him or shake their heads at his rhetoric.

King has raised hackles with comments made over the years: that an electrified fence could be used to deter illegal border crossings, similar to keeping livestock contained, and that some young immigrants have calves the size of cantaloupes because they haul marijuana across the desert.

Most recently, King slammed plans by fellow Republicans to push a bill that would allow young immigrants here illegally to join the military. “As soon as they raise their hand and say ‘I’m unlawfully present in the United States,’ we’re not going to take your oath into the military, but we’re going to take your deposition and we have a bus for you to Tijuana,” said King.

Joe Enriquez Henry, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, (LULAC-Iowa) said he’s been asked over the years by leaders of the non-Hispanic community, usually Democrats, what Hispanic leaders planned to do about King.

Generally, the community didn’t have a way to respond, Henry said. But in the past three years, that has changed.

“Those of us in the Iowa Latino community, we are going to strike back,” Henry said. “We didn’t have the ability to organize, but in the past three years, we’ve had many activists step up, we’ve generated a lot of energy and response to people who use hate to promote themselves. He is using this hate and racism to promote his position in Congress.”

There are communities within King’s district whose populations are at or near 30 percent Latino. “They are the ones helping rebuild their communities...They want to air their concerns about what King is saying.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee and King’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Although Hispanics were just 5.3 percent of Iowa’s population in 2012, Henry said there are communities within King’s district and nearby whose populations are at or near 30 percent Latino.

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“They are the ones helping rebuild their communities, they're becoming stakeholders and they want to air their concerns about what King is saying,” Henry said.

King won his last election with 52.9 percent of the vote in his Republican-leaning district, defeating Iowa’s former first lady Christine Vilsack in 2010. Even so, his Democratic opponent for this year’s mid-terms, Jim Mowrer, drew fundraising help from Vice President Joe Biden and national party support.

Henry said King’s comments can help engage increasing numbers of young people showing interest in organizing as well as bring more information about issues before Congress.

With Iowa the first caucus state for 2016 presidential races, the timing to begin responding to King couldn’t be better, Henry said. "The parade of presidential hopefuls creates a perfect opportunity for talking about Latinos and what is important to them “and how hate and racism does not work,” he said.

“The things he is saying are the things you’d see and hear 50 years ago in times of rampant racism, they are from the good ‘ol days of attacking people based on their skin and race,” Henry said.

Vanessa Marcano, an organizer for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said King’s statements are “just on the fringe."

“They are going to be met with countermobilization or they are just going to be acknowledged as fringe comments that shouldn't even be paid attention to,” Marcano said. “What we should be paying attention to is how broken our (immigration) system is. We see people in our communities affected.”

Although King has his fans, many of them Tea Party activists who want tougher immigration enforcement, his comments have rankled even House Speaker John Boehner.

After King made the cantaloupe and marijuana hauling comments, Boehner denounced his comments. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, wrote in an essay for Texas Monthly that when he and another Texas Democrats thanked the speaker for doing so, the Speaker responded: “What an a--hole,” in reference to King.

One question is why focus on King, who is not expected to change his mind on immigration, when more moderate House Republicans who have said they support immigration reform have not advanced legislation.

To Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Illinois, King’s comments can't be ignored because they get tacit approval from his GOP colleagues.

Rep. King is an outlier in the Republican Caucus, but it’s clear he carries weight in that group, said Illinois Democrat Rep. Luis Gutiérrez.

“He’s an outlier in the Republican Caucus, but it’s clear he carries weight in that caucus,” Gutiérrez said. “Steve King is allowed to say some crazy, mean-spirited things about immigrants and he faces no consequences from other Republicans.”

Certainly there are a few Republicans willing to stand up against King, Gutiérrez said, noting Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado and Jeff Denham and David Valadao of California.

But last summer, all but six House Republicans voted for an amendment sponsored by King that seeks to end the deportation deferrals the Obama administration granted hundreds of thousands of young DREAMers.

“He’s the spokesperson for the Republican Party. Steve King is the poster child,” Gutiérrez said.