As a member of Congress more than a decade ago, Mike Pence unveiled an immigration proposal offering a chance for legal status to people who had come to the country illegally.
Hardline conservative activists were furious.
Tom Tancredo, then a firebrand Republican congressman from Colorado, called the vice president’s proposal both “amnesty” and “an atrocity”: A political action committee he co-founded set up a running “Pence Watch” online. The populist pundit Pat Buchanan likened Pence’s call for “a principled consensus on immigration reform” to a betrayal from “The Godfather” and said it could mean “the end of Mike Pence as a rising star of the GOP.”
Pence’s 2006 plan, which he insisted did not amount to amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally, died quietly and has been mostly forgotten in Washington.
But not by those hawkish advocates, who suspect that Pence is quietly seeking to have a moderating influence over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including what the president introduced as his new “pro-immigrant” plan on Thursday.
Although Pence largely echoes Trump’s talking points and has given few public hints that he sees things any differently, his critics have noticed with growing alarm that he is playing a greater behind-the-scenes role in Trump’s immigration policy than has been previously understood, a fact confirmed by people close to Pence.
Immigration hawks say Pence’s involvement is a warning sign that “establishment Republicans who are interested in more workers — and not more relief for American workers” — are making inroads into Trump’s policymaking, said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, who attended a meeting with Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law.
Vaughan and her influential allies are in constant battle with what they see as Chamber of Commerce-style establishment Republicans, who are far more interested in ensuring an ample labor supply than in Trump’s themes of secure borders and national identity. That approach is at odds with the plan Trump released Thursday, which does not aim to reduce the overall number of immigrants allowed in the U.S. legally or address the illegal immigration population — issues he had rallied against for years.
Though the latest immigration proposal was crafted by Kushner, the vice president and his staff attended discussions at the White House over the past several months as it was being shaped. Those meetings included at least two meetings between Kushner and various advocacy groups, including business and agriculture organizations, according to four people who attended the meetings. He has held at least one call with activists on immigration. More recently, he has spoken at a series of immigration events focused on securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pence was primarily observing when he sat in one of Kushner’s meetings earlier this year, according to an immigration activist, who supports more enforcement, though he did mention several times the plan he proposed while in the House.
A person close to the vice president said that some themes of Pence’s old bill had been discussed as part of the new effort, while the activist also said Pence had been involved in the developmental phase of the plan and had attended other meetings more recently.
“He’s been an active participant in the discussions that Jared has led, trying to find a good balance between, for example, guest worker programs for agriculture workers, things like that,” the person close to Pence said. That same person said that some themes of Pence’s old bill, including providing skilled labor in critical industries such as agriculture and retaining talent trained in American universities, particularly in STEM, were discussed as part of the new effort.
A White House official said that Pence has attended meetings for months about immigration, primarily about border security, but also about the issue broadly as well as Kushner’s developing plan. Some of his staff, too, have attended meetings, the official said. But the official said that while Pence and his team had been involved in some discussions, they had not played a leading role in Kushner’s plan.
Instead, Pence was tasked with helping solve the impasse over border wall funding that led to the longest federal government shutdown in history and ended with a bill that funded new barriers on the border, more detention space, surveillance equipment and immigration judges. Since then, Pence has traveled to nearly a dozen states thanking homeland security employees for their work.
Still, other people who are either close to Pence or involved in the negotiations see it differently.
Pence brings a more pragmatic approach to a subject that Trump sees in uncompromising, almost good-and-evil terms, according to one former White House official familiar with the situation.
“There’s a solid respect for what the VP brings to the table,” the former official said, adding that Pence had been “figuring out how to do this legally, figure out how to do it in a way that makes sense.”
House members and governors often air their private feelings on a range of issues with Pence, according to someone close to him.
In some ways, Pence is an unlikely understudy to an extreme immigration hardliner like Trump. Associates say his views on immigration in large part stem from a grandfather who immigrated from Ireland, whom he was very close to, and the large agricultural community in his home state of Indiana.
“As the grandson of an Irish immigrant, I believe in the ideals enshrined on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor,” Pence wrote in a June 2006 Wall Street Journal op-ed. “America always has been, and always will be, a welcoming nation, welcoming under the law any and all with courage enough to come here.”
The new White House proposal doesn’t quite invoke that sort of language. But it would move the U.S. toward a process that welcomes immigrants through a merit-based system, as well as boosts border security.
Pence “recognizes the crisis on the southern border but also understands that there are people who add to our economy and are doing this because they’re seeking employment and, frankly, in jobs that Americans aren’t willing to do at this point, so there is a need,” the person close to Pence said.
The new White House plan would increase the number of migrant workers while reducing the number of family members whom U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can sponsor to come to the country under the current system — a zero-sum plan that would leave overall immigration levels unchanged.
“If anything … I think the vice president is more invested in the outcome than Jared is,” said one of the people who attended a meeting with Pence. “He’s a regular old-style Republican. He’s a regular Chamber of Commerce Republican.”
While Pence hasn’t advocated for a specific plan, he offered specific thoughts — including support for J-1 visas, a program that allows for short-term work experience in the U.S. — according to a person familiar with the situation. Trump officials have argued that the visas can reduce summer job opportunities. The White House official said there had been no direct vice presidential involvement in advocating for or against J-1 visas.
Pence’s 2006 House bill would have allowed immigrants who were in the country illegally to apply for legal status by leaving the U.S. and returning briefly to their home country.
When Trump tapped him to be his running mate, some immigration groups pushing for enforcement were worried.
“Pence was very much a part of the Republican establishment that paid lip service to the public’s concerns about immigration enforcement, while promoting the agenda of the Chamber of Commerce,” the Federation for American Immigration Reform said in a statement at the time.
The White House official said Pence had made no effort as vice president to revive his 2006 House plan.
During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Pence has served as a point person on legislative issues. He helped build the White House legislative affairs office, held weekly calls with select Republican members of Congress during the transition, and visits regularly with Senate Republicans for lunch.
“If it’s a legislative issue, Pence is going to be involved,” said a former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House.
The vice president has a vested interest in the final White House immigration proposal because, like other major policy plans, including healthcare and tax cuts, he will be expected to try to sell it on Capitol Hill.
“We are calling on the Congress to act,” Pence said recently at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in Baltimore. “We have a broken border. We have a broken immigration system.”