Like many people, Rep. Steve King, the newly named vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, remembers his father reading to him when he was a young child.
But it wasn't Dr. Seuss or Mother Goose that the little boy from Storm Lake, Iowa soaked up like a sponge from the time he was six years old. It was the U.S. Constitution, the Code of Iowa, and parts of the many law books, he said, that filled the bookshelves of the King home.
“I was taught by my father a high reverence for the rule of law,” says King, a Republican who has been in Congress since 2003, to Fox News Latino during a recent visit to New York City. “He demonstrated why the law was important, there was never any consideration for ignoring the law. It’s the law, so you followed it.”
His formative years were influenced by other relatives who were in law enforcement.
“The adults I grew up around were law enforcement officers, adult men who wore uniforms and enforced the law,” King, 61, says with visible pride.
The sight of the uniforms, the discussions of law and order that surrounded him, the message of little tolerance for anyone who tried to skirt the law – regardless, in most cases, of the reasons or, as he sees it, excuses – all congealed to form a hard line on illegal immigration.
King, who was the ranking member of the House immigration subcommittee when Democrats were in control, is steadfastly against proposals that would give undocumented immigrants a break.
This week, he introduced a bill that would deny automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants -- a right given to them under the 14th amendment. King says that U.S. born children of illegal immigrants beget chain migration, by then being able to sponsor family members overseas to come here to live.
In December, he came out swinging against the DREAM Act, a lame-duck bill that passed in the House but failed in the Senate that would have given undocumented youth who meet a strict set of criteria conditional legal status and a chance to become citizens some day.
Not one to mince words, he often has ruffled feathers of his own congressional colleagues, including those in the GOP – and grabbed national headlines -- when talking about illegal immigration.
His in-your-face style could have influenced, some say, his failure to get the chairmanship of the immigration subcommittee -- as its ranking members in the Democrat-controlled House, King had been seen as the heir apparent.
He has called illegal immigration “a slow-motion terrorist attack,” and in 2006 raised the idea of having an electrical current on a fence along the U.S. border, noting “We do that with livestock all the time.”
Even though the top post eluded him, as the immigration subcommittee's vice chairman, and in a House now controlled by Republicans, King's influence on immigration policy is expected to be strong.
Indeed, the chairmanship of the committee has ended up being given to California Rep. Elton Gallegly, a self-described hawk on immigration who has nearly identical views to King on most immigration issues. Gallegly has voted against giving undocumented immigrants breaks of any kind, and has sought laws denying educational benefits and health care services to the undocumented.
So in Gallegly, King is sure to find reinforcement and momentum for his ideas.
King's take-no-prisoners view -- and pugnacious rhetoric -- makes him a hero to people who believe that the United States has been lax about doing something about its porous borders.
Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, lauds King's approach to immigration. Smith shares many of King's views on the issue.
"Throughout his tenure in Congress, Rep. King has been a strong supporter of immigration enforcement and border security," Smith says. "Rep. King understands the critical role immigration enforcement and border security play for our national security."
Immigration advocacy groups find King's hawkish approach to illegal immigration chilling.
“We’re entering a meaner, darker period on immigration," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington D.C.-based group that advocates for pathways to legalalization for undocumented immigrants.
“The debate is going to be ugly, the legislation coming out of the House is going to be radical.”
The National Council of La Raza assailed King on Friday in a mass email where it said: "The exact day that Republicans felt it necessary to read the Constitution aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives to remind everyone of the importance of upholding its principles, Rep. Steve King added his name to the list of those who want to deface it.
"He introduced a bill that would change the spirit and intent of the 14th Amendment," the NCLR statement said, referring to the measure to deny citizenship to U.S. born children of illegal immigrants..
Some proponents of strict immigration policies support measures that would allow certain illegal immigrants to legalize their status. Former President Bush, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, described as a possible presidential contender in 2012, are among political leaders who support enforcement, but who say that the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States cannot be deported.
Self-styled conservative Republican Tamar Jacoby, who is known for her writings on immigration, says King is generally skeptical about more recent waves of immigration, compared to the waves that came from Europe.
Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a Washington D.C.-based national federation of small business owners working for immigration reform, says hard-line views ignore “our own part” in illegal immigration.
She says illegal immigration is a result of “the people who hired them, the people who ate the food they helped pick, the people who live in the houses they built.”
Jacoby favors immigration reform because, she says, “people need to come forward and make up for [being here illegally].”
“We’re not going to wave a wand and say it doesn’t matter” that they violated immigration laws, she says. “But for our sake as a country it’s better to have them on right side of the law and in the system.”
King balks at those who ask for mercy and compassion for people who are undocumented.
They broke the law, he says. Period.
“There’s always going to be people that have a personal story that is compelling, even tragic,” King says. “We should not set policy upon those personal stories. We should look at the border data and the rules of law and what’s good for Americans.”
“This is my most consistent position on immigration,” he says. “We need to have an immigration policy that’s designed to enhance the economic, the social and the cultural wellbeing of America. We cannot be the relief valve for the poverty in the world, there’s too much.”
“America has the most generous immigration policy in the world—we admit one million legal immigrants each year," Smith says. "Illegal immigration puts a strain on our ability to admit legal immigrants, takes jobs from American citizens and legal immigrant workers, and burdens taxpayers."
Proponents of immigration reform legislation that would address both tougher enforcement and a pathway to legalization had seen the DREAM Act as their best hope for a bill that would give the undocumented a break.
They framed it as a bill about children, not adults who'd broken immigration laws, and felt it would gain the support of even some hard liners.
The measure would have given conditional legal status to undocumented youth who meet a strict set of criteria, including having come to the United States before the age of 16, having graduated from a U.S. high school, demonstrating good moral character, and attending college or being in the military for at least two years.
Senior military officials, the head of Homeland Security, and the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, all came out in support of the DREAM Act.
Those who supported the DREAM Act argued that many undocumented children consider the United States home, speak English as their primary language, identify as American, and that they should not be punished for the decisions of their parents to live here illegally.
But King was unfazed, he said he was unswayed by appeals calling for Americans to have mercy on undocumented youth.
He says he doesn’t buy that undocumented youth all are innocent bystanders. He says there are kids who come into the country illegally and unaccompanied, so he doesn’t see them as forced to come here by adults. King sees the DREAM Act as another “amnesty,” another way to reward law-breakers.
“We’ll undermine the rule of law,” he says. “Then you get more law breakers and the succeeding generations will teach their child that amnesty was good and that you can break the law and get rewarded for it. It undermines American civilization.”
King stresses that he does not envision actively rounding up undocumented immigrants.
On the issue of undocumented students, for example, he said that if “law enforcement encounters people they should deport them back to their country.”
Supporters of the DREAM Act say deportation would be especially punitive to these youths, since many are culturally mostly American and are predominately English-speaking.
King says those are reasons why these students, whom supporters argue would be an asset to the United States, would be more beneficial in their native homelands.
“If they speak English, that will help them in their countries,” he says. Through them, he adds, “we can export our way of life. They’d almost be like Peace Corps volunteers.”
King wants to see more local law enforcement agencies partner with federal immigration officials to crack down on illegal immigrants. He’d like to see more states follow Arizona, which has the toughest state-level immigration laws in the country and is fighting lawsuits challenging their constitutionality.
And, among top priorities, he says, he wants to see passage of a bill he has introduced several times called the Illegal Deduction Elimination Act, or New IDEA, which would require employers to check the status of their workers.
“This brings the IRS into the enforcement,” he says.
The IRS long has allowed undocumented immigrants to file tax returns using a special nine-digit number, and it promises confidentiality. King says he does not agree with that system.
Having the IRS be part of immigration enforcement, King adds, is a way to enforce the law “without having to use an iron fist in the process.”
Supporters of legalizing undocumented immigrants vehemently oppose such moves, which they say will drive the undocumented further underground. They say undocumented immigrants who are victims or witnesses of crimes will not reach out police if they think that doing so will put them at risk of deportation.
“If you draw the lines” on cooperation between law enforcement agencies, King says, “you incapacitate law enforcement.”
And including the local police and other government agencies in the war on illegal immigration, he says, harkens back to what he learned growing up.
“I’ve always watched the cooperation between various law enforcement offices,” King says.
“That’s the constellation of the men I admired when I grew up.”