SIOUX CITY, Iowa — U.S. Rep. Steve King fed a new group of U.S. citizens a story Friday about mashed potatoes, laced with American exceptionalism.

King, who is one of the nation’s staunchest foes of illegal immigration, was the guest speaker at a naturalization service for 30 new citizens.

While he opposes illegal immigration, King says he believes legal immigrants inject “vigor” into the nation.

He also believes in American exceptionalism. He told the new citizens that he learned this nation was special sitting on a stool in his grandmother’s kitchen, where she forced him to clean his plate because, in other countries, people were hungry.

“As I learned from that stool — gagging down cold mashed potatoes — we live in the unchallenged greatest country in the world,” said King.

The Iowa Republican was the keynote speaker at a naturalization ceremony in federal court in Sioux City. He was invited by U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett, who said he may not always agree with King, but he respects the conservative congressman “immensely.”

“One of the things I admire is, he’s outspoken,” Bennett said. “He doesn’t put his fingers in the air before giving his opinion.”

King does have a reputation as being a firebrand, with a knack for creating verbal controversies. In 2013, for example, he angered immigrants — and was rebuked by his own party’s leadership — after he described many illegal immigrants as drug mules with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

He has advocated putting an electric fence on the southern border, saying “we do this with livestock all the time.”

Of the 30 new citizens at Friday’s ceremony, 13 came from Mexico. The others came from a wide swath of countries, including Vietnam, Cuba, Laos, South Sudan and Somalia. For many, it had taken five or more years to come to this country and earn citizenship.

Many of the new citizens at the ceremony had never heard of King and knew nothing of his positions on immigration.

Several said they did appreciate King’s views, but they made it clear that they didn’t see the issue in his black-and-white terms.

Norma Alvarado, 34, of Sioux City, noted that she is the daughter of a former illegal immigrant.

Her father came to work in the meatpacking plants during the 1980s and was part of the large number of immigrants granted amnesty under President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

“It is easy to judge, but every person has their own story,” said Alvarado, who came to this country legally after her father became a citizen.

Daniel Cano Pargas, 18, of Sioux City, was born in the United States. He was attending the ceremony to celebrate his father’s new citizenship.

He said neither he nor his parents — who are from Mexico — were willing to condemn those who came to this country illegally.

“I can’t really say there is one better way (to immigrate) than others,” said Pargas.

For his part, King said attending naturalization ceremonies was one of his greatest legislative duties, along with awarding medals to soldiers and veterans.

People who follow the law and come to this country are motivated to succeed, he said.

“We get the vigorous from every donor civilization on the planet,” said King. “They are self-selected to come here to achieve.”

He acknowledged that illegal immigrants may be just as “vigorous.” But he argued that illegal immigration runs counter to the United States being a nation of laws, which is one of the things that attracts immigrants to this country.

To look the other way when people break this nation’s immigration laws, King said, would be to embrace that which other immigrants are attempting to leave behind.

“It would be really foolish for us to embrace the lack of standard they are leaving,” King said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1309, robynn.tysver@owh.com

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