Off the Wall: Mike Pence and Immigration

Before Trump became the face of anti-immigration, Pence championed a very different approach.

Pence’s record as governor isn’t the only thing that got overlooked in 2016. His record as a congressman was also obscured by the Trump tornado—and there’s no better place to see that than on the issue of immigration.

Trump, of course, built his candidacy around an aggressive anti-immigration platform, with millions deported and a Mexico-funded wall. A lot of voters loved this rebuke of the Republican establishment and its many failed attempts at immigration “reform.” Yet one of those attempts came from Mike Pence, though last fall no one seemed to remember.

It all started in 2006. Actually, it began a couple of generations before, when Pence’s grandfather emigrated from Ireland. “He got off that boat an Irish lad,” Pence once said. “He died an American. And I am an American because of him.” This family journey made immigration a personal issue for Pence. But it remained a controversial one for many Republicans, with immigration reform pushing the party into a civil war during the Bush years. So Pence proposed a compromise in Congress, a bill that reinforced the border and deported many illegal immigrants—but then let them quickly and legally return to America.

To sell the bill, Pence marshaled his skills as a communicator, pitching it on TV, writing about it in The Wall Street Journal, and defending it in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. But this only angered conservatives. Pat Buchanan, who has as good a claim as anyone to being a proto-Trump, called Pence’s plan “fraudulent,” “insidious,” and, worst of all, “amnesty.”

Pence’s bill eventually fizzled; the war within the Republican party only worsened, until the real Trump arrived to lead the anti-immigration side to victory. But The Donald and most of his supporters never noticed that Pence had once fought passionately and publicly for the other side.