A video released online earlier this week managed to possess every ingredient for an instant viral smash. An infamous loose cannon caught off-guard on his home turf. Two sympathetic young people earnestly digging for answers. And lastly, a brief cameo from a big-name character to round out the cast list and raise its legitimacy.
Republican Rep. Steve King’s altercation with two DREAMers — undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as kids — encapsulated the ongoing debate about how to tackle immigration issues while it remains one of the American public’s top concerns.
When activist Erika Andiola confronted the conservative Iowa congressman on his extreme anti-immigration positions, King cut her off and quipped, “You’ve very good at English.” The clip created a firestorm that DREAMer groups are prepared to capitalize on.
They are planning to stage similar encounters across the country to suss out the unfiltered opinions of the officials elected to represent them. A handful of other politicians – from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – will be targeted over the course of the next month as DREAMer groups coordinate protests around the country at largely unscripted events where virtually anything can happen.
“The moment you confront the bully they crumble and they don’t know how to behave,” said Chris Torres of United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth organization in the country.
The grassroots groups are focusing efforts on the members of Congress with outspoken views on immigration, as well as House Republicans who are formally pushing for legislative attacks against DREAMers. While organizers are hesitant to reveal the details of their plans and tip off the lawmakers, they say there are nearly a dozen different actions in the works all across the country in efforts to repeat the success of the viral King video.
Confronting Steve King is a bit like poking a beehive – his words might be shocking but the overall outcome is not all that surprising. After all, King is now infamous for likening DREAMers to drug mules who cross the U.S. border with “calves the size of cantaloupes.” He also once compared immigrants to livestock and warned that immigration was a “slow-motion terrorist attack.”
In recent weeks however, King has become more than just an isolated far-right adversary to immigration activists. King championed House Republican efforts to abolish the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, which has provided more than 580,000 young immigrants temporary protection from deportation. Though the measure was largely symbolic and stood no chance of making its way to President Obama’s desk, the rise in King’s legislative clout on the issue was enough to motivate DREAMers to get involved.
“The most urgent issue is ensuring that DACA is expanded,” said Cesar Vargas, one part of the duo of DREAMers who ambushed King in Iowa earlier this week. “This is not an abstract political issue, these are our families.”
King’s exposure adds a layer of pressure to the potential 2016 candidates who are flocking to Iowa this month to make inroads with party leaders in the crucial primary presidential election state.
Sen. Rand Paul learned that lesson the hard way. Though the Kentucky Republican makes little more than a 20-second silent cameo in the clip from Monday, Paul received just as much attention for scurrying from the scene to avoid getting sucked into the spectacle.
“I hope he thinks about it twice before he shows up with Steve King and talks about things like immigration,” Erika Andiola, the primary activist in the clip, told MSNBC’s Jose Diaz Balart.
It was a lesson that Mitt Romney failed to learn in 2012. The GOP presidential candidate – whose immigration platform involved “self-deportation” – became the target of an ambush by DREAMers outside a fundraising event in New York. He later went on to garner a measly 27% of the Latino vote that election, leading to a massive identity crisis for the Republican Party.
The candid camera approach to confronting politicians has a long history of success for DREAMer groups, where in a number of cases, elected officials opted to engage. “It’s a very effective tactic for getting the real voices of politicians out there,” said Mohammad Abdollahi, an organizer for the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA).
Last year, two teenagers initiated a sneak attack on House Speaker John Boehner while he was eating breakfast on Capitol Hill. The Ohio Republican was confronted on a separate occasion in March – again at Pete’s Diner – by a DREAMer mom who demanded Boehner answer why he wanted to deport young immigrants. Back in 2010, the same group that approached King also caught Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to share the obstacles they overcame in order to graduate from college. When put on the spot in Texas, Sen. Cruz told agitators that a path to citizenship was “fundamentally unfair.”
Organizers are hoping to repeat the scene with a series of protests rallying against Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, who has tried to have it both ways on the immigration debate. But it’s not just Republicans who are being targeted. In Texas, groups are staging a hunger strike outside of Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar’s office next week in solidarity with the thousands of migrant kids who have made the trek from Central America to the U.S. border on their own. Cuellar is the architect behind the so-called HUMANE Act, which would roll back provisions of a 2008 human trafficking law designed to guarantee kids an extra layer of screening for asylum or other humanitarian relief.
“He needs to listen to his constituents. He’s not on the same side of immigrants that he says he is,” Samantha Magdaleno, executive director for the Rio Grande Valley Community DREAMers. “There’s no reason why these cases should be expedited. These are child refugees.”
It’s taken several years for the groups to assemble a clear nationwide strategy toward enacting meaningful change. But notably after the heartbreaks over the death of the DREAM Act – which would have provided conditional residency for young immigrants – and in the two years since DACA was launched, there has been a growing rebellion against complacency with the status quo of inaction – for lawmakers on both the left and the right.
“Even if they don’t have a vote,” Abdollahi said of his fellow DREAMers, ”they still have a voice.”