Rep. Steve King: Holding Up Immigration Reform

Rep. Steve King: Holding Up Immigration Reform

By Pooja Bhatia

Representative Steve King (R-IA) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on October 15, 2013. Stop-start negotiations to end the U.S. fiscal impasse left congressional leaders and President Barack Obama desperately searching on Tuesday for a way to reopen the government and raise the country's debt limit ahead of a Thursday deadline.
SourceJoshua Roberts/Corbis


Wonder why we likely won’t see an immigration reform bill this year? Steve King can explain. 

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

He’s the subject and I’m the journalist, but first, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has some questions. Where did I grow up? What do my parents do? Where did I go to college? And then: “Did you sense any racism growing up, in school, in Clinton, Iowa?” he asks. 

“No,” I respond, like I always do. Iowa was great to my family, immigrants from India, and I’ve long attributed our comfort there to Midwesterners’ kindness and my parents’ eagerness to assimilate. 

“I sensed that would be your answer,” King says. He smiles. King, 65, is the nation’s premier antagonist of immigration-reform efforts and, besides that, has likely offended a wider swath of humanity than any Iowan who’s come before. And — of course! — he is personable. Ready smile, clear blue eyes, easy mien.

If immigration reform fails to pass this summer, King would happily take credit, though he says he wouldn’t deserve it.

Over the course of an hour-long interview in his Rayburn building office, King will deprecate himself, tease me when I ask an obvious question and speak earnestly about his childhood, immigration and his ideas about America. King’s prognosis of the nation’s future tends to bleakness, and his accent is flat, with a bit of hokey twang. The only thing we have in common is Iowa, but I see his appeal. 

The day will end with the surprise primary defeat of Eric Cantor, House majority leader. Immigration reform will land squarely on the national agenda again, thanks partly to tea party opposition to reform. But it is morning, and King and I are for the moment unaware.

We are comfortable in blue leather armchairs that once sat in Tom Tancredo’s office, King tells me, Tancredo being the former Colorado congressman who was in his day the bane of immigration reform. Nancy Pelosi once got pissed off at Tancredo for smoking cigars in those chairs, King says. Nowadays it’s King who incites the wrath of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has called him a “far-right, way-out-of-the-mainstream” spewer of hate. And it’s King who throws out bizarre, offensive comments about the bodies and behavior of undocumented kids (e.g., “calves the size of cantaloupes”).

If immigration reform fails to pass this summer, King would happily take credit, though he says he wouldn’t deserve it. Not the way Tancredo did. Schumer may berate King and accuse the House GOP of following him “off a cliff” on immigration reform; King maintains his fellow Republicans are just being logical. “It’s very difficult to sell an idea if you’re wrong,” he says. “They’re not really following the leader; they’re following their convictions and also their political barometer.” 

Rep. Steve King address an audience outdoors. Someone is waving a small American flag in the foreground.

A group of Minuteman Civil Defense Corps volunteers and members of the media listen to U.S Congressman Steve King (R-IA) in Arizona, May 27, 2006.

So is King, as he tells it. His opposition to the Senate’s immigration bill, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, is part principle and part political strategy. The political strategy, as King sees it, is this: Immigration reform unifies Democrats and divides Republicans. It would enlarge the Democratic constituency, just like extending unemployment benefits or raising the federal minimum wage, but permanently. You can’t revoke citizenship. Bringing H.R. 15, the House equivalent of the Senate’s immigration bill, to the floor would light a “powder wedge” that would explode the Republican caucus, he says, and House Speaker John Boehner knows better than to try.

As for principles, it’s a rule-of-law thing. King enjoys talking about the pillars of ”American exceptionalism.” The central pillar is the rule of law, and the path to citizenship — what King calls “amnesty” — is a direct assault on it. “Without respect for the law, our country actually falls down. And becomes Third World,” he says. 

[King was] tea party before there was a tea party.

 Steffen Schmidt

I ask about the words on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” 

“Emma Lazarus,” says King.

Isn’t that American exceptionalism, too? I ask.

“Well … hmph,” King says. “First, the poem that’s on the Statue of Liberty is not any part of public policy. There’s nothing that’s been voted on or approved by the American people. It’s a poem that was put on there. I think it’s very fitting.” 

King, you see, says he doesn’t oppose immigration. He’s against illegal immigration. Democrats have willfully conflated the terms, he says. His reaction, when people tell him America is a nation of immigrants, as they often do: “Okaaaaaay. Then I would say to them, ‘What’s your point?’”

His own grandmother came from Germany through Ellis Island, King says — one of her siblings died on the way — and like everyone who made it through, she was legal. Some of them, the ones who didn’t meet certain physical or mental standards, were sent back. 

It’s never morning in Steve King’s America.

When her son, King’s father, returned from his first day of kindergarten, she told him, “‘Speaking German is for you from now on in this household verboten. You will go to school and learn English and bring it home and teach it to me,’” says King, pronouncing the words in what sounds like a German accent. “That was the law, and it was laid down on the first day.”

Five of her sons ended up serving in World War II, four fighting against Germany, the “fatherland,” King says. “That was embracing America and immersing themselves into the American civilization and culture and being grateful,” King says. 

Seven years ago, a ranger at Ellis Island gave King a copy of the ship’s manifest with his grandmother’s name listed on it. “I read that and I just — tears came to my eyes,” he says. “It just washed over me — the irony, and how my grandmother, had she lived to see that, would have felt about how the country had embraced her and rewarded the sacrifice of her sons by placing one of her grandsons in the United States Congress.” 

Well before he became immigration reform’s bogeyman, King had compared the torture at Abu Ghraib to “hazing,” called Joseph McCarthy a “hero for America,” and became a renowned opponent of animal welfare. He was “tea party before there was a tea party,” says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. For years he’s been one of the first calls Republican aspirants to statewide or national office make. 

Portestors in winterwear standing with signs outdoors during the day

Immigration activists gathered on Capitol Hill in Washington. A chief Republican foe of immigration legislation says it would be a

So he likely will be for the 2016 presidential campaign, even though his Democratic challenger this November, a rosy-cheeked Iraq vet named Jim Mowrer, has significantly outraised King. King’s district, on the western edge of Iowa, has long been conservative. But the state has gone Democratic in five of the past six national elections, and some analysts believe that even western Iowa will tilt left. 

“In the end, Steve King’s brand of conservatism has an expiration date,” says Anthony Gaughan, a political analyst and law professor at Drake University, in Des Moines. It’s not just because of America’s demographic changes, but because of King’s pessimism. It’s never morning in Steve King’s America, Gaughan says, and a little time with King confirms the description.

“We have a serious erosion of the culture and values system in this country,” King says. Restoring it will require “a fundamental change in the hearts and minds of the people in this country.” In 2010, King led a ballot recall of three Iowa judges who’d ruled against a ban on gay marriage.

“I think there’s a crisis in national confidence. I think there’s a crisis in our national security. We have a foreign policy that, every move I can think of has been the wrong one. We have a president who doesn’t really believe in free enterprise. He does believe in crony capitalism and Chicago politics.” 

Against this, there’s only so much a conservative Congressman can do. At a breakfast that morning, he told folks: “I am looking for God to raise up a leader whom he will use to restore the soul of America.” 

Some hours after our interview, tea party upstart David Brat utterly routed Cantor, the majority leader, in a primary. King tweeted: “Earthshaking primary results in Virginia tonight. Resounding rejection of #Amnesty and support for Rule of Law. Personal regrets to Eric.” He and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) were yesterday looking for a majority leader opposed to “amnesty.”

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.