WASHINGTON – By the time Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King reached the top of Capitol Hill after leading a mile-long walk across Washington, his blue oxford shirt was drenched in sweat.
“I may be the only one here today that is actually happy that it’s going to be 100 degrees in Washington, D.C.,” King told a crowd of several hundred gathered near the U.S Capitol Monday to protest federal immigration reform.
“No you’re not!” a man in the audience yelled back. “I like it hot!”
“It’s the sweat of American workers that have built this country,” King went on. “So I think it’s all together fitting and proper that we should sweat here today as we stand up for the American workers.”
A half-hour before, King had kicked off the demonstration across town at Freedom Plaza — the same patch of concrete where a faction of Occupy Wall Street had pitched tents nearly two years before — to protest efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
After railing against the immigration bill in his brief speech earlier that day, King sped through the crowd, leapt over a concrete barrier and took a spot at the front of the group. He led the group down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol while chanting “Close the Border! Now!” and “No Amnesty!”
The protesters on Monday, bused into town from several states, represent the most staunch hardliners against immigration reform. In Congress, the Senate passed a bill last month with bipartisan support that would offer lawful status to unauthorized immigrants and increase border security, and the House is taking up its own immigration legislation later this year. Many who joined the march said they oppose any legislation on immigration and want to see current laws enforced and unauthorized immigrants sent back to their home countries. They waved American flags, wore red shirts with the words “Protect American Jobs: No Amnesty” printed across their chests and held massive signs that read things like “DEPORT.”
To the outside observer, the march had the traditional look of a tea party rally: the Gadsden flags; the aging baby boomers wearing red, white and blue T-shirts with fold-up lawn chairs; the homemade signs. But this event wasn’t cobbled together by the usual suspects behind tea party rallies. At the helm this time was an organization called the “Black American Leadership Alliance,” a group of longtime activists working to rally African Americans against the immigration effort that has connections to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nativist, anti-immigration organization. Its primary message: that low-wage immigrants threaten jobs of black workers.
The fusion of tea party regulars and black protesters — many who voted for President Barack Obama and are registered Democrats — made for an unlikely pair during the daylong rally, but it shined a light on how some conservatives view the immigration debate as a rare opportunity to join some in the black community against an issue.
Throughout the day Monday, event speakers and rally-goers made intentional efforts to make black leaders part their arguments against the immigration bill.
During the march toward Capitol Hill, one white demonstrator shouted toward three black men unaffiliated with the event who were sitting on a park bench.
“Black young men need jobs!” she yelled toward them. The trio sat still and stared back in silence as the woman and other demonstrators filed past them.
Later, during the rally, speakers made a point to name-drop civil rights heroes and black leaders. Names like W.E.B Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglas were staples in many of the speeches.
King, for instance, quoted Abraham Lincoln and emphasized his own family's role as fighters for the North in the Civil War.
“My family on my mother’s side of the family were abolitionists. They helped form the Republican Party. They paid their price,” King said, mentioning an ancestor who had been killed in the Civil War. Reaching into his sweat-drenched breast pocket, King pulled out a small copy of the New Testament that he said a relative carried with him during the war. “I’m sure there was a lot of sweat on it from all the time he marched to put an end to slavery to emancipate people. Because he believed profoundly, and we believe today, that we are all God’s children created in his image.”
(He also took a moment to point out that he was the owner of “a tape of Whitney Houston.” )
Another speaker, Allen West, the black Republican former congressman from Florida, alluded to Rosa Parks to argue that the federal government would prefer foreign workers in passing the Senate’s version of immigration reform.
“Oh, you don’t believe or respect our laws? That’s OK, just come on in, and we’ll tell Americans to take the back seat,” West said, providing his translation of the bill. “Americans ride in the front seat of this bus!”
The crowd, both white and black, cheered them on.
The rally, of course, does not represent some kind of turning point for black voters or prove that they will suddenly vote for the Republican Party. (More than 90 percent voted for Obama last year.) But it does provide insights into how some of the most conservative Republicans are attempting to woo black voters on the issue, even while they struggle to find common ground elsewhere.
Some of the black demonstrators said after the rally that it was the first time they had cheered for politicians like King and West.
Two siblings at the the rally, Courtney and Brandee Reddix, both black Democrats who traveled by bus from Los Angeles, said that immigration was something they could rally around, at least for now, even though they disagreed with conservatives on most issues.
“I recognize this is a more conservative rally, but we are working toward one singular issue,” Courtney said.
“We’re with him on the amnesty issue, but on other issues we differ,” Brandee added. “We can have different ideological values and still agree on this one issue. We’ll still have things to work out once this is settled.”