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Durbin, Harkin Take On Immigration Critic In His Own District

Mary Campos of Des Moines, Iowa, sits outside a forum on immigration held by senators Tom Harkin and Dick Durbin.
Charlie Neibergall
Mary Campos of Des Moines, Iowa, sits outside a forum on immigration held by senators Tom Harkin and Dick Durbin.

Two top Senate Democrats took the fight for an immigration bill to the home district of one of the issue's toughest critics, Republican Rep. Steve King, on Friday.

Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) went to Ames, Iowa, to make hay out of King's remarks about the "Dreamers," those young people brought here as children by their undocumented parents.

"There have been some characterizations of these young students that aren't fair at all," Durbin said at a rally on Friday.

King often makes headlines for his extra-strong statements, but he struck a bigger nerve recently when he said there are 100 drug smugglers for every valedictorian among the Dreamers. Even some top Republicans called the statement hateful and ignorant.

Immigration bill supporters are using the incident to rally for their cause. Durbin is a kind of hero to immigration activists; he's the author of the Dream Act, which creates a path to legal residency for Dreamers. He's also one of the "Gang of Eight," the bipartisan group that shepherded a comprehensive immigration overhaul through the Senate.

"We came together on a bipartisan basis," he told the crowd, "and at the end of the day we passed a bill."

The rally was in King's district, but most who showed up were not on King's side. "I'm very much opposed to his position," said retired county attorney and now immigration activist Mary Richards. She would like to see the Republican-controlled House take up the Senate bill.

King turned down requests for interviews, but on a conservative talk show on Omaha's KFAB Radio he said he didn't care if even Republican House Speaker John Boehner criticizes him.

"There's no denying the fact of what I said," he said. "So they attack the messenger because the facts undermine their Dreamer amnesty agenda."

A small group of King supporters did protest outside the rally. Retired journalist Larry Clayton held a banner saying, "Secure the Borders First."

"I believe that the amnesty bill, which is what I call it, or the Dream Act or whatever, makes a mockery out of our current immigration system," Clayton said.

It's unclear what part of the Senate package could come up for a vote in the House. King's Republican leaders say they plan to look at immigration bills on a piecemeal basis starting this autumn.

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Joyce Russell is a correspondent based at the Iowa Statehouse. Joyce has been covering the Iowa Statehouse since shortly after joining the news staff at WOI Radio in 1988. Her earlier broadcasting experience included news reporting at commercial stations in Oklahoma City and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Joyce’s reports can be heard on National Public Radio and American Public Media programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace. She covered the last six Iowa caucus campaigns and interviewed numerous candidates for president, including some who went on to attain the highest office in the land.