U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, (left) speaks with Latino immigrant Hector Salamanca after a hearing in Ames Friday.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, (left) speaks with Latino immigrant Hector Salamanca after a hearing in Ames Friday.
August 5, 2013

Ames, Iowa

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, sought to counter a high-profile Congressman Steve King insult of Hispanics with a different picture of Iowa.

About 270 people turned out for an immigration reform forum and rally at Ames Middle School Friday morning. Harkin said the event was intended to raise awareness on immigration-associated issues, and not directed at King's statements. But U.S. Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., a key player in immigration reform, said King's comments drew him to Ames - one of the larger cities in the 4th District, represented by the Kiron Republican.

"We Iowans are a welcoming people," Harkin said. "We are a compassionate and caring people. We do not believe in characterizing people with hateful, spiteful, degrading language."

King on July 18 told the conservative news website Newsmax that he didn't agree with the suggestion that many Hispanic youths who aren't legal citizens are also high-achieving. "For every one 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," King said.

Durbin authored the DREAM Act, a long-sought but never enacted plan to establish a path toward citizenship for young people who came to the United States illegally but who have attended college or served in the military. (DREAM is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors). Durbin challenged King's characterization of Hispanic immigrants.

"The suggestion that these are petty criminals or drug runners, it just doesn't square with reality," Durbin said.

Durbin said he came to Harkin after King's remarks and said he couldn't let them go unchallenged.

Both senators stopped short of calling King a racist when asked directly if they thought the label fit the western Iowa Republican.

"I don't know if I'd do that," Harkin said. "They're hurtful. They're denigrating comments about good people."

Harkin and Durbin said polling of the 4th District shows overwhelming support for a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the United States without proper papers.

According to Politico, a poll released in late July from the conservative American Action Network shows that 68 percent of voters in Iowa's 4th Congressional District support an "earned pathway to legal status," while 65 percent support an "earned pathway to citizenship." Of the Republican voters in King's district, 70 percent back a path to legal status, while 51 percent back a pathway to citizenship, the poll showed, according to Politico.

One panelist at the Ames event, Eduardo Rodriguez, 24, said his family entered the country illegally when he was 1 year old, soon settling in Sioux County. He attended the K-12 system in Orange City and graduated from Northwestern College there with a bachelor's degree in sociology. He now works with at-risk youths.

"I didn't tell a soul until I was 21 that I was undocumented," Rodriguez said, adding that, "I love the cornfields."

He didn't choose to come to Iowa, but it is where Rodriguez said he built his life.

"That is home, that is where I feel comfortable," he said.

Hector Salamanca, 20, a West Des Moines Dowling High School graduate, said his family came to the United States illegally from Mexico when he was 3.

His status prevented him from going to a four-year college after high school. He plans in a few weeks to attend Drake University, where he will start as a junior after compiling community college credits.

"Don't let your undocumented status prevent you from achieving your goal," Salamanca said.

Both Rodriguez and Salamanca benefit from an executive decision (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) signed by President Barack Obama in June 2012 making certain undocumented immigrants immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, graduated from a U.S. high school or earned a GED, or served in the military.

Durbin said a just society doesn't penalize children for the actions of their parents.

"If you got caught speeding, you don't expect the child in the backseat to get a speeding ticket," Durbin said.

The Illinois senator said the proposed path to citizenship would be no red carpet. It would include fines, paying of any back taxes and registration components.

Durbin said there is "life in this issue," and that Republicans in the U.S. House know what awaits them at the polls if they don't take up the comprehensive immigration-reform bill passed in the Senate.

In a phone interview, David Oman, Des Moines businessman and former co-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and a former chief of staff to GOP Govs. Terry Branstad and Robert Ray, said King's comments "only subtract votes" from all Republican candidates.

Oman characterized himself as a friend of King's who is disappointed with the comments.

"Steve's comments obviously angered some people, disappointed many more and entertained too many, whatever that number is," Oman said.

Outside of Ames Middle School Friday, a handful of pro-King protestors gathered with signs saying, among other things, "Steve King has the right idea."

Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said in a phone interview that while Republicans clearly don't want King speaking about immigration, the congressman isn't intent on changing his style anytime soon.

"He has a huge amount of political instinct in his gut so he doesn't operate on the basis of opinion polls," Schmidt said.

Schmidt said King's language, as "inelegant" as it may be, connects with a wide swath of America.

"Many, many, many Americans have stereotypes in their heads of Jewish people, African-Americans, Hispanics, Mormons and so on," Schmidt said.