Rep. Steve King, arguably the loudest and most offensive anti-immigrant voice in the GOP, has long been a thorn in our side. He has steadfastly opposed immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, strongly supported self-deportation and been instrumental in the GOP's lurch to the right on immigration in recent years.
But, an amazing transformation has happened over the past few weeks. King has gone from being the bane of our existence to becoming an ally. No, he hasn't changed positions. No, he isn't doing it on purpose, either. He just keeps doing what Steve King does.
King's first big move was a legislative initiative. In June, while the Senate was in the throes of considering and approving broad immigration reform on bipartisan basis, King wanted to send a message that the hardliners were still in charge over in the House. He offered a measure to defund the popular DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) - an executive action initiated by President Obama in June of 2012 that gives temporary status to DREAMers, young immigrants who are American in all but paperwork. Almost 400,000 DREAMers have been, as the street staying goes, DACAmented. King's amendment, if passed into law, would end DACA and subject DREAMers to renewed deportations.
Remarkably, House Republican leaders gave King his vote. Even more remarkably, it passed 224 - 201, mostly along party lines (221 of King's GOP colleagues and 3 Democrats voted with him; 195 Democrats and 6 Republicans opposed him). As the final tally was announced, a cascade of boos from Democrats nearly drowned out the vote announcement. Fortunately, the measure will die in the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats will make sure of that.
Nonetheless, King was thrilled. The hardliners in the House are on top, he thought. I'm on a roll. Can't wait to take on the DREAMers again. He soon got his chance. In an interview with a NewsMax, the conservative website, he was asked about the DREAMers, the fact that many are valedictorians and what he thought of legislation being drafted by fellow Republicans that would give some of them a path to legal status and citizenship. He said:
They aren't all valedictorians. They weren't all brought in by their parents. For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert...Those people would be legalized by the same act.
Speaker John Boehner and other members of House GOP leadership denounced him, repeatedly. Yet his nasty remarks resulted in multi-day coverage in English and Spanish language media. They struck a chord in popular culture, lighting up twitter and getting the Daily Show treatment. Online actions launched by CREDO, DRM Action Coalition, Presente.org and United Farm Workers calling on Boehner to remove King from the House Judiciary's subcommittee on Immigration resulted in tens of thousands of signatures.
Activists with United We Dream, United Farm Workers and America's Voice (where I work) delivered cantaloupes to King and the offices of the other 223 members who sided with him against undocumented immigrants. Each cantaloupes included the message, "This cantaloupe was picked by immigrants in California. You gave Steve King a vote. Give us a vote for citizenship." This set off yet another round of intensive media coverage about King and the GOP on immigration, with the explicit reminder that the only real connection between immigrants and cantaloupes is that they do the back-breaking work to put these fruits on our breakfast tables.
The icing on the cake? Senators Tom Harkin and Richard Durbin went right into King's congressional district to host the largest ever pro-immigrant event in Ames, Iowa. The event had amazing participation from across the spectrum. On the other side, despite being on his home turf, a total of 11 King supporters showed up to protest. In fact, the gathering highlighted a little known fact: a majority of voters in King's district, according to a recent poll, support immigration reform with a path to citizenship.
For his part, King is undaunted. He is sticking by what he said and has been jumping in front of every TV camera and radio microphone he can find to do so. Late last week, King told the Sioux City Journal, "This was a very well-grounded statement that I made." In fact, King has so fully embraced his role as the face of the GOP for Latinos he recently appeared on Univision's "Al Punto" with Jorge Ramos (A Sunday show akin to "Meet the Press," a news anchor akin to Walter Cronkite). In front of millions of Latinos, the Iowa Congressman proceeded to defend earlier comments in which he compared immigrants to dogs.
While King is causing major headaches for the GOP, he's energized our side. 41 activists got arrested in front of House office buildings to protest the fact that the House leadership won't schedule a vote on reform with citizenship - despite the fact that King got a vote on his measure. (BTW, Speaker Boehner, are you sure that Hastert Rule is such a good idea? I can't find it in my pocket-sized version of the U.S. Constitution).
During August recess hundreds of events are being organized throughout the country to press purple district Republicans and House Republicans leaders to give us a vote on citizenship. And when Huffington Post's Sam Stein recently asked Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY "Does it help that you have people like Steve King out there talking about drug mules?" Schumer replied, "Yes, I think Steve King, the more he speaks, the more he helps us get a bill passed." That view was also endorsed by GOP strategist Ana Navarro this weekend on Meet the Press. After King repeated his anti-immigrant screed, she said, "Frankly, I think [King] is being helpful to the immigration debate because it is emboldening other Republicans to speak out strongly against him."
No doubt Steve King will continue his outreach to Latino voters on behalf of the Republican Party. There are indications he's thinking of running for President (Run, Steve, Run!). Hell, if he keeps this up, we won't be sending him cantaloupes, we'll be sending him thank you cards and flowers.
But Steve King's success as our unwitting ally has put Speaker Boehner in something of a bind. He can slow walk immigration reform to death - but that would let Steve King's push to deport DREAMers stand as the only major immigration vote Republican leaders have allowed and approved this year. Or he can schedule a vote on immigration reform that includes an inclusive path to legal status and an eventual path to citizenship and allow the majority in the House today that supports it to express its will - even if somewhat fewer than half of the GOP caucus votes for it.
Speaker Boehner, it's time for you, not Steve, to be the King of the House. It's time to do the right thing.
The future of millions depends on it. The future of your party does, too.