BETTENDORF – It was a Republican political rally, complete with politicians, voter registration and speeches about conservative issues.
But unlike President Donald Trump’s boisterous rallies, Monday night’s forum at the Pleasant View Baptist Church in Bettendorf was often somber.
That’s because the topic was immigration — or “the crisis of illegals,” as one attendee put it.
The packed church hall heard from several “angel parents,” or men and women whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants.
They spoke from a stage adorned with Christmas trees and an Iowa flag, which hung below a large cross. Their stories were often emotional, recounting some of the worst days of their lives.
During intermissions, loudspeakers played Kanye West's newest album, "Jesus is King."
The parents came to east Iowa from around the country to advocate for the end of illegal immigration, the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020.
“You’re all a victim of illegal aliens in this room — whether you’ve had tragedy or not,” said Mary Ann Mendoza, an “angel mom” from Arizona whose son, Sgt. Brandon Mendoza, was killed five years ago in an auto accident.
Kiyan and Bobby Michael, of Florida, spoke about their son, Brandon Randolph, who was killed 12 years ago by an allegedly twice-deported illegal immigrant.
“We don’t hate immigrants,” Kiyan said. “We don’t have that in us. We love immigrants. It’s those who come here illegally.”
Though the attendees and speakers railed against “illegals” broadly, their stories centered on Mexican immigrants. Many used “illegals” and “Mexicans” interchangeably.
The final speaker was Nick Fuentes, a far-right activist who attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and has been condemned by some on the political right as racist. Fuentes railed against both illegal and legal migration due to the “drastic consequences” of immigration from non-European, non-white countries. He argued that immigration into the U.S. should be shut down so that a “monoculture” can be created for “others to assimilate into."
“These demographic changes are actually quite drastic, and will change the texture of our lives and the lives of our children and our children’s children,” Fuentes said. "The mantra we’ve been pushed is that diversity is good.” Driving around majority non-white neighborhoods of cities like Chicago, he said, show how demographic changes are “not good.”
Democrats, the speakers said, prioritize illegal immigrants over “everyday Americans,” particularly in the criminal justice system.
“They are given privileges, they are given excuses and they are given freedom,” Deborah Elkins said of illegal immigrants. Her son Aaron "Joshua" Hampton was shot to death in November 2018 by a man originally from Mexico who authorities said was in the U.S. illegally.
Elkins warned that gang members such as members of the notorious MS-13 gang are often indistinguishable, “walking your streets” or even “sitting next to you right now.” “They could be the man working at Taco Bell or the man picking up your trash,” she added.
The forum was hosted by the Scott County Teenage Republicans, a group founded in early 2019 by Adam Parcel, a senior at West High School in Davenport. The group provides a “safe place” for young conservatives like himself who have endured what Parcel described as ridicule, intimidation and death threats in school. “I’ve been marginalized,” Parcel said.
In an interview, Parcel said that his interest in illegal immigration comes from his Christian faith, particularly the belief that Christians should “love thy neighbor” — namely, the families affected by illegal immigration.
When asked if immigrants were also his neighbor, Parcel said, “I’m all for people who come here legally. Illegal immigration is a crime itself."
The event featured some levity from Scott Presler, a long-haired conservative activist and celebrity of right-wing Twitter. In order to show that “our movement is based on love,” Presler, walking through the aisles of the church in his American-flag cowboy boots, led attendees in a round of applause for the media present. President Trump routinely degrades journalists as “fake news,” and several of Monday night’s speakers condemned the “liberal media” and “fake news.”
The event opened with a rendition of the national anthem and a prayer from Pastor Joseph Huss, of Northside Baptist Church, in Davenport. “Lord, we love people from other nations,” Huss said, “but we need help staying free.”
The church's event dueling speeches from Republican candidates for Iowa’s second congressional district, Bobby Schilling and Mariannette Miller-Meeks. The latter’s speech was interrupted by a heckler who was escorted out.
For attendees and panelists, one of the biggest political aims of their activism is the judiciary, including ensuring a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court and impeaching local judges. Trump, Kiyan Michael said, was “put in the White House to save our nation.”
“If I’m a hatemonger, so be it. If I’m a racist, so be it,” said Steve Ronnebeck, an Arizona congressional candidate whose son Grant was shot to death by a man he said was in the U.S. illegally. “I support our president. I support the fact that we’re going to build that wall.”
Ronnebeck explained that his “hatemonger’s holidays” involve spending time at his son’s gravestone.
Michelle Wilson-Root, an Iowan whose 21-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver in the U.S. illegally, urged the crowd to support Trump because he “cares truly about American people,” she said. “We need to come first. Not illegal aliens.”
Graham Ambrose is the Iowa politics reporter for the Quad-City Times.