AMES - For most in the predominantly white crowd of about 250 at Ames Middle School Friday, the issue of immigration is a political fight. For Marshalltown's Eren Sanchez it is personal.
Sanchez, 24, listened intently as Democratic Senators Tom Harkin, of Iowa, and Dick Durbin, of Illinois, and others spoke in favor of immigration reform.
The Senate passed, with some Republican support, an immigration reform bill earlier this year. Included was a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants along with more fencing on and expanded patrols of the U.S.-Mexican border and E-verify, an electronic database for employers to confirm a potential employee's citizenship status.
T-R PHOTO BY LUKE STALZER
Eren Sanchez, of Marshalltown, speaks with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, after an immigration forum held at the Ames Middle School Friday morning. Sanchez thanked Durbin for his work in fighting for “DREAMers.”
Also included was the DREAM Act, something Durbin first introduced in 2001. It would allow those brought into the United States when they were children to remain if they have a clean criminal record, are working or going to school and have learned English. So-called DREAMers must also pay a $2,000 fine and wait 10 years to apply for citizenship, a process that often takes a few years to complete.
"It's not an easy path," Durbin said.
The act would allow those, like Sanchez, who have lived in America virtually all their lives to live without fear of deportation.
"If you got caught speeding you don't expect the child in the back seat to also get a speeding ticket," Durbin said.
The DREAM Act nearly became law in 2010; it was passed by the then-Democratically controlled House of Representatives and garnered majority support in the Senate, but a Republican-led filibuster derailed the effort.
Last August, President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals - an executive order that so far has extended many of the same opportunities included in the DREAM Act extended to Sanchez and about 500,000 others.
Sanchez was born in Tijuana, Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was 8. After staying a few days in California she moved to Marshalltown.
"My father realized Iowa was a better place to raise children," she said.
Third-grade teachers helped Sanchez learn English - a language she'd only previously heard on television from stations in nearby San Diego.
Watching those English-speaking TV shows is one of the few memories she has of Mexico. Sanchez played soccer and was a cheerleader for Marshalltown High School. After graduation she earned an associate degree from Marshalltown Community College.
A few weeks ago she received her DACA status in the mail on what was "the happiest day of my life, I kid you not. I think since I've gotten my DACA the colors seem brighter."
"I have always called Iowa my home, but after I received my little document in the mail, you walk with a little more confidence knowing this is my home," she said.
DACA status clears the way for her to attend a four-year college - she's deciding between Iowa, Iowa State or Grinnell - to study political science.
Those in the audience who spoke did so in favor of the DREAM Act and many booed at the mention of their Congressional Representative Steve King. The conservative Republican, no stranger to provocative comments, angered many when he recently told the conservative website Newsmax that many criminals would be granted amnesty under the Senate-passed immigration bill.
He said of undocumented immigrants: "For every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
Many Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, condemned the remarks.
"They don't represent my experience in Iowa at all," Sanchez said.
Panelist member Eduardo Rodrigues, 24, also decried King's words. Rodrigues lives in highly conservative Sioux County - which hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1936 and gave more than 80 percent support to King in his most recent reelection. Rodrigues said 20 years ago when he was in elementary school he and his brother were the only non-whites, but now about a quarter of Orange City's elementary school children are Latino.
"(King's) district is changing, and he needs to understand that," Rodrigues said.
King, though, had several supporters rallying outside the school. Constance Strait, of Clutier, was one of about 30 gathered outside to push back against the Senate bill.
Strait, who declined an interview request, held a sign that read "20 million unemployed (no) amnesty." Her sign also had a red heart drawn next to Steve King's name.
Michael Means' sign read "secure the borders first."
"I'd like to see people to take the legal way to become citizens. I think if they close the borders they'll keep a lot of terrorists, drug dealers and criminals out of here," he said.
Means, a mechanic from Ames, feels it is too easy to gain access to the county. Under the Senate bill, the number of border agents would roughly double to 40,000 and hundreds of miles of additional fencing would be installed. Still, Means felt more needed to be done to secure America's border with Mexico.
Means, though, also said those, like Sanchez, who came here when they were children should have the right to pursue citizenship.
"I don't have a problem with that," Means said.
Sanchez shook her head at the protesters.
"I had to wait 16 years. That's hardly amnesty," she said.
With Congress now on recess, the bill won't come up for a vote until September at the earliest. Both Harkin and Durbin remained optimistic that something would happen before the end of the year though each admitted they've received no commitment from Boehner to bring up a bill in the House.
Durbin remains optimistic, though, because he feels public opinion favors Democrats.
"There is a growing sentiment on the Republican side that they can not ignore this issue," Durbin said.
There are still many conservative members, like King, in the Republican-led House that oppose the bill. King introduced an amendment in June to defund DACA saying it is unconstitutional. The larger bill it was attached to passed.
"My amendment blocks the provision that are mirrored in the Senate's (immigration) bill. If this position holds, no amnesty will reach the President's desk," King said in a statement on his website.
Harkin closed the forum referencing King's amendment.
"To those who want to denigrate our new immigrants, our DREAMers, they had their vote. I now call on the House of Representatives to bring up the Senate-passed immigration bill and let us have our vote," he said.