More than 20 top Republicans — including almost a dozen potential presidential candidates — descended upon Iowa on Saturday for the unofficial kickoff of the 2016 Republican presidential primary, the “Freedom Summit.” The event was co-hosted by Rep. Steve King, who has over the past few years become a lightning rod in the debate over how to reform the nation’s immigration system.
Immigration was at the top of the agenda here Saturday, just days after King’s comments referring to a young DREAMer as a “deportable” made headlines.
At King’s summit, Republican candidates talked extensively about immigration, many of them looking to tiptoe on the fine line between appeasing the conservative base and avoiding anything that could be deemed offensive.
Across the street, a small group of young immigrants who identified as DREAMers and their allies protested for much of the day. And toward the end of the day, they interrupted the speeches of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Early in the morning at the Hoyt Sherman Place in downtown Des Moines, King began the summit with another rather awkward comment about undocumented immigrants. King misspoke at first, saying that Americans “come from every possible planet — uh, every possible comment.”
Then he took a jab at the DREAM Action Coalition, the group protesting across the street.
“They’re across the street, those people that come from another planet,” King said.
The activists across the street didn’t take too kindly to that description. They held signs thanking President Barack Obama for taking recent executive actions to stem the flow of deportations, as well as posters that called on Republicans to express whether they agree with King’s “deportable” comments.
Monica Reyes, a 24-year-old DREAMer who came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 3 years old, said the group wanted to make clear that Republicans who stand with Steve King wouldn’t have the support of the Latino community.
“If they’re going to take a stance against undocumented immigrants, they’re taking a stance against keeping families together,” Reyes said.
'Steve is right'
Many Republican candidates discussed the issue of immigration in the terms of national security. Former Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a rising rockstar in conservative circles, told the crowd that the next president — who he hopes is a Republican — should make it a goal to “seal the border” within a year of taking office.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who is not running for president, talked with reporters about it in the context of securing the border against possible infiltration from the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). Donald Trump, who said he is “seriously considering” a presidential bid, said he’d build a “beautiful fence” to “keep out terrorists.”
It wasn’t until former Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, spoke late in the afternoon that a Republican stood up for King’s policies.
“Steve is right,” Santorum said, suggesting in his remarks that undocumented immigrants were partially to blame for stagnant wage growth.
“We need to step forward with an immigration policy, but we need to do so in the context of standing strong with American workers.”
But the Republican divide on the issue was evident in the list of names missing from the Freedom Summit’s roster. Christie, Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and more were in attendance Saturday.
Absent: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).
“It’s going to be an issue the American people demand to get addressed,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), who attended the Freedom Summit, told Fusion in an interview. Blackburn is the sponsor of an amendment to freeze Obama’s executive order delaying the deportation of young DREAMers.
“We’re on the right side of this,” she added.
Juan Escalante, a 25-year-old DREAMer from Florida, told Fusion he thought it was encouraging that at least some prospective candidates skipped the event.
“I think they’re bucking their own party, which is good,” Escalante said. “But it goes back to the whole thing about how there is not a concrete plan. We can talk and talk about securing the border, and we can continue to talk about what we need to do and what the steps are.
“But until they get their party to actually agree with them — whether it’s Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, whoever — then it’s going to be a lot of talking without a lot of substance.”
'Would you deport me?'
Later in the day, the sold-out crowd of more than 1,250 at the old theater slowly started to trickle out, the protesters finally made their move inside. From the balcony, they interrupted former Perry’s speech, asking him if he would deport them as president. They held signs that said, “Deportable?” referencing King’s term earlier in the week.
“Would you deport me?” they shouted. “We are Americans! We are DREAMers!”
The activists were escorted out of the venue by police and arrested, one officer told Fusion. One protester, however, remained in the theater and later interrupted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s speech.
The protester called Christie “Gov. Perry,” which gave Christie a chance to snap, “Don’t you know I’m from New Jersey?!”
Christie and Perry both pressed on during and after the interruptions. Perry raised his hand with King after his speech, and Christie praised King throughout his address.
One of the speakers at the event compared King to Taylor Swift, urging him to “shake it off” when people criticize him. For his part, King took a shot at those absent from his party.
“Do you believe that the next president of the United States is going to be speaking from this stage to you today?” King asked.
The crowd erupted.
“As do I.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.