Kicking off an August of likely intense debate over immigration, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat traveled to Iowa Friday to rebuke House Republicans who oppose major changes embraced by the Senate.
Sen. Richard Durbin's strategically targeted visit was a fairly small and calm foretaste of planned demonstrations by opponents and supporters of the proposed immigration changes during Congress' summer recess. The Senate measure would heighten border security and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living here illegally.
Durbin, of Illinois, joined Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin at a forum in a college town represented in Congress by Republican Rep. Steve King. King is among Congress' fiercest opponents of granting citizenship to immigrants now here illegally. Republican leaders have denounced King's most inflammatory remarks, but some Democrats depict him as a symbol of widespread GOP resistance.
Harkin said Iowans "are compassionate, caring people and we don't characterize people with hateful, spiteful, degrading language."
King said in a July interview that some Hispanics brought to the country illegally as children become high school valedictorians. But for each of those, he said, "there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds, and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
Durbin focused on the so-called DREAM Act, which would offer eventual citizenship to some immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
"If we can fix this immigration system, we can build the American economy and we can do the right thing," Durbin told the Ames gathering. "To suggest these are petty criminals or drug smugglers just doesn't square with the reality of the DREAM Act."
The forum featured potential DREAM Act beneficiaries.
Hector Salamanca, 20, came from Mexico as a child with his parents, who stayed in the United States after their tourist visas expired. His undocumented status made him ineligible to attend a state university or receive government-sponsored grants or loans, he told the audience of about 200.
Salamanca said he earned an associate degree at a community college and will attend Drake University. He said he tells Hispanic youths, "don't let your undocumented status prevent you from achieving your goals."
Some House Republicans have expressed interest in a version of the DREAM Act, although King calls it "backdoor amnesty."
The Obama administration and many activist groups have said they will not settle for the DREAM Act alone. They are pressing the GOP-controlled House to embrace something similar to the Senate bill.
Many House Republicans resist the idea. They point to GOP primary voters in their districts who oppose "amnesty" for people here illegally, and who say a Democratic administration can't be trusted to keep promises to tighten the border with Mexico.
Durbin noted that President Barack Obama won re-election with strong backing from Hispanic and Asian-American voters. Many Republican strategists say their party must improve its relationship with these groups, and backing broad immigration changes could help.
"If Republicans in the House don't respond honestly and in a comprehensive way, this will continue to overshadow any other political issue among certain groups of Americans," Durbin said.
Opponents of the Senate bill say they will use the August recess to stiffen House resistance. About 100 individuals and groups, led by the Tea Party Patriots, sent a letter this week to all House members expressing opposition to any legislation "that bears any resemblance to ... the Senate amnesty bill."
Meanwhile the pro-immigration-reform group America's Voice said its activists "are on the move with hundreds of grassroots events planned from coast to coast" this summer.
Demonstrators, who support legalization for millions now here illegally, blocked a major street outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, and some were arrested.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said such protesters do their cause more harm than good.
"People just see it as a campaign," Nunes said in an interview Friday. "People get their feet set in cement when they see campaigns going on."
King, meanwhile, said he was mourning the death of a Vietnam War hero on Friday rather than responding to Durbin's and Harkin's visit to his district.