WASHINGTON - House Republican leaders are denouncing one of their own for remarks made last week that disparaged most illegal immigrants as drug smugglers.
The comments by Rep. Steve King, Iowa, came as the GOP is trying to improve its image and political prospects among the fast-growing Latino community.
King, one of the House's most vocal opponents of immigration reform, told the conservative website Newsmax that for every young illegal immigrant who becomes 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."
The Iowa lawmaker has been at the forefront of a group of House conservatives who are staunchly opposed to any path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally, but his rancor has begun to alarm top Republicans.
As the immigration reform debate stretches on, some GOP leaders are concerned that overzealous anti-immigration voices could further harm the party's standing with Latino and Asian voters, who overwhelmingly supported President Obama's re-election last fall.
The House is deliberating a series of smaller-scale immigration proposals, eschewing the comprehensive bill approved last month by the Senate that includes a path to citizenship for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., condemned King on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who was born in Puerto Rico, called King's remarks "irresponsible and reprehensible."
"What he said was out of touch with the conference. There's nobody in the conference who would say such a thing, and I hope that he, if he thought about it, he wouldn't say such a thing again," added Labrador, who spent months working with seven House colleagues on a comprehensive immigration reform bill before dropping out of the stalled effort last month.
King's office did not respond to a request for comment. But in an appearance on Radio Iowa on Tuesday evening, King stood by his remarks, saying his description of some immigrants as "drug mules" came from talking with Border Patrol agents.
He said that if immigration reform proponents "choose to characterize this about valedictorians, I gave them a different image that we need to be thinking about, because we just simply can't be passing legislation looking only at one component of what would be millions of people."
While most House Republicans oppose a path to citizenship, Cantor is working on a proposal that would offer potential citizenship to young people brought to the country illegally as children.