WASHINGTON — Rep. Steve King is well-known for delivering provocative statements on hot-button issues, but even some of his fellow Republicans were saying Tuesday that he crossed the line by broadly painting illegal immigrants as drug smugglers.
In an interview with The World-Herald, King wasn't backing down. He stood by his comments and said they were based partly on his own observations at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The conservative Republican from northwest Iowa has taken a hard line on immigration, opposing any pathway to citizenship for anyone who is in the country illegally.
Speaking with the conservative outlet Newsmax recently, King noted that he has sympathy for those who have worked hard and graduated as valedictorians after being brought into the country illegally as young children.
But he said not all of the 11 million people in the country illegally are so upstanding.
“For every one who's a valedictorian there's another hundred out there that they 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. “Those people would be legalized with the same act.”
That brought rebukes from Democrats and Republicans alike.
“I thought what he said was reprehensible,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., typically is diplomatic when his colleague from across the river blows up the Internet with provocative comments, but he echoed Gowdy’s criticism.
“It’s so far from the truth,” Terry said of the idea that most illegal immigrants are drug smugglers.
He said that while some of those in the country illegally commit crimes such as dealing drugs, that’s the “exception to the rule.”
Terry also said King’s comments hurt GOP efforts on immigration. Republicans are trying to get across the message that their position on illegal immigration is about applying the law equally to everyone.
“We’re trying to show the Hispanic community this isn’t personal, this isn’t about them, this is about the greater issue of immigration as a whole,” Terry said. “This really is deflating when you’re trying to build up a relationship.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., also opposes a path to citizenship but said she tries to be respectful in commenting on public policy matters and that characterizing groups of people the way King did is disruptive.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said King’s comments were “inappropriate and they shouldn’t be part of the debate.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, declined to comment until he had the chance to see all of the King interview. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, just shook his head and walked on when asked about King.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia also denounced King’s comments, describing them on Twitter as “inexcusable.”
King expressed surprise that anyone would be offended by what he said.
“They’re forced to admit the reality of what I’ve said,” King said. “Because they thought they were going to pass an amnesty bill that only talked about the good things, and now they’re forced to deal with the other side of this coin.”
A report by the Center for Investigative Reporting in March stated that four of every five drug arrests by the Border Patrol involved a U.S. citizen.
That was based on an analysis of about 40,000 arrests from 2005 through 2011. The center noted, though, that information on suspects was not available for another 40,000 incidents in which drug loads were abandoned and no one was caught.
King said his statements represented an estimate based on his own observations at the border.
“I have been to the border,” King said. “I’ve watched them flow across. I’ve been there when they’ve been picked up.”
He said he also has seen videos of border crossings made by others.
“Just remember that valedictorians come one at a time,” King said. “Drug smugglers come in bunches and they come every night.”
King’s comments come at a sensitive time, when House Republicans are looking to move forward on smaller, piece-by-piece immigration initiatives that emphasize border security and employer verification but could also provide some legal status for groups such as those brought into the country as children.
Gowdy suggested that while King’s comments aren’t helpful, he represents a small group of House members.
“The number of people that have Steve King’s precise ideology with respect to immigration is not a sufficient number to derail anything,” he said.