WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence came before this year’s White House Cinco de Mayo celebration ready to correct an earlier flub. “Buenas tardes,” he said in welcoming the crowd of Latino Republicans, getting his grammar right after earlier greeting a conservative Hispanic business group with the incorrect “buenos tardes.”
More importantly, Pence came to the crowd with his well-worn story of how his grandfather, Richard Michael Cawley, immigrated to the United States from Ireland.
It's the kind of routine people might roll their eyes at — a politician pulling an immigration story out of his pocket just because he's in front of a bunch of Hispanics. But in a White House that has been criticized for its lack of Hispanic hires and outreach to the community after insults from Donald Trump reigned during the campaign, Pence has quietly used valuable time early in the administration to tell this story, and speak directly to American Latinos.
And conservative Latino groups, looking for a sign of cooperation from the White House, are taking notice.
Pence has a history of involvement in Latino issues. Eleven summers ago, Pence, then a congressman, stood sweating in a tomato field among Mexican workers to push for an immigration compromise conservatives could get behind. He didn't want amnesty — a touchy word even before the Obama immigration wars that were to come — but he proposed a guest-worker program that would see immigrants leave the country and come back to work legally. "Why was a congressman from Indiana focused on the border?" reporters asked at the time. Pence was ready with his response: "April 11, 1923," the date his grandfather arrived on Ellis Island.
Pence heartened Latino Republicans with his story in May, by not just saying that an immigration overhaul should get done, but that it would get done.
The vice president has taken a similar message to groups around the world, with limited press attention. He was the keynote speaker in Washington in March for the Latino Coalition, a nonpartisan conservative business group, where he extolled veterans and Latina business owners; he went to Miami in June to tell the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America that the administration was with them to "root out crime and corruption;" and he introduced Trump for the president's Cuba policy speech during the same trip. Next month, Pence will visit Panama, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina to meet with government and business leaders to discuss bilateral trade and investment in the region.
While Trump made the high-profile Cuba policy speech in Miami, he has not engaged in meetings with Hispanic groups since the campaign, despite repeated requests from civil rights organizations, business groups, and nonpartisan entities.
The under-the-radar dynamic between Pence and Latino organizations reflects a vice president who is comfortable with, and interested in, speaking to Hispanic groups and to Latino Republicans — who view Pence as an ally as they continue to feel their way on Trump, who, during the campaign, hurled insults at Mexican immigrants and at a Mexican-American judge overseeing a Trump University lawsuit.
"I think because of the statements Trump made, there's always going to be a certain trepidation," said a source close to the administration. "Pence can come in unsullied, so it's smart to put him front and center at those events."
Hector Barreto, chairman of the Latino Coalition and former administrator of the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush, said he believes Pence is a “calming force” in the administration. The two have known each other for eight years — so when Trump won the election, approaching Pence was very natural, Barreto said.
Jose Fuentes, Puerto Rico's former attorney general who moved from supporting Marco Rubio to backing Trump in the presidential campaign, and who was part of Trump's Hispanic Advisory Council, said Pence has long been active with Hispanic groups. Fuentes fondly remembers a strong statement Pence made as a congressman years ago in support of Puerto Rico finally resolving its status.
Fuentes met with Pence, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, US Treasurer Jovita Carranza, and others as part of the Cinco de Mayo event schedule in May, during which the vice president mostly listened as attendees argued that regulations and Obamacare were hurting Hispanic small businesses.
Latino conservatives say they’re already seeing gains from the Trump administration, with many pointing to the White House’s efforts to slash regulations.
Alfonso Aguilar, a former George W. Bush administration official and executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, which promotes conservatism to Hispanics, said Latino Republican leaders see Pence as an ally, but that he can’t solve everything alone.
"I would be careful in overplaying his role," Aguilar said. "He plays his role differently, trying to avoid the drama and turf battles within the White House. The president respects him — it's not that if Pence agrees with you you're guaranteed anything, but I think he's a good spokesperson to have on your side."
Pence's team told BuzzFeed News that Hispanics, "including some organizations the vice president has worked with during his time as Indiana governor and as a member of Congress," have been invited to the White House to confer on policy discussions, like access to capital, tax reform, health care, religious freedom, "and other issues of critical importance to Hispanic families." His team stressed that Pence is echoing the president on these matters, and that the White House’s Jennifer Korn, who takes the lead on Hispanic issues, meets with many groups as well.
But one veteran Latino Republican leader said the meetings and keynote speeches by Pence and the administration have thus far been "all for show."
"It's, 'hey, we’re going to serve some hors d'oeuvres at Cinco de Mayo and we’re going to speak at events,'" the Republican said. "But it's all a smokescreen."
Democrats say Pence and the administration shouldn't get credit for meetings that lack follow-through on policy prescriptions they believe would help the Hispanic community.
"Donald Trump and Mike Pence have continually turned their backs on the Latino community and we’re seeing further evidence of this as they attempt to strip Latino families of their health care by cutting Medicaid and repealing the Affordable Care Act," said Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez. "Don’t be fooled, Pence is no different from Trump."
(Pence's office said discussions with Hispanic groups concerned with health care centered mostly on the House bill, where they provided recommendations and ideas on what could be added to the legislation, but not as much on the Senate bill.)
Cristóbal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, which works to elect Democrats, said Pence has changed his tune since his days advocating compromise, quoting Pence’s comments that Americans don't want "comprehensive immigration reform."
"Pence is not a friend of our community," Alex said.
But Latino Republicans say Pence's smaller, low-key team allows them to get their voices heard. That alone has been a major concern, with the White House slow to hire Hispanics in the administration — an issue even the president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has noted. These conservatives repeatedly point to longtime Pence aide Andeliz Castillo, who previously spent time at the Koch brothers-backed LIBRE Initiative, as a key go-between in these discussions, which have included immigration and health care.
Pence’s strategy has earned plaudits outside partisan politics. The nonpartisan League of United Latin American Citizens told BuzzFeed News it has made progress with Pence's staff on the issue of deported veterans — a topic the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has championed, and which has been brought to Trump's attention by Democrats.
"We're in the preliminary stages of coordinating a face-to-face with actual green card vets and Pence for a roundtable discussion," said LULAC president Roger Rocha, who pointed to National Hispanic Heritage Month beginning in mid-September as a timetable his organization is eyeing for the meeting.
While it would be difficult to have Pence meet with actual deported veterans, the hope is to have him meet with veterans in deportation proceedings as well as service members who are lawful permanent residents but not yet citizens.
Rocha had earlier stood out as one of the few speakers at a national press conference held by despondent national Latino leaders after Trump’s surprise election win last year who said he would look for areas of agreement with the new administration. Rocha said he’s been reading Trump’s books, and that he’s not worried about criticism from fellow Latino advocates.
"The reality is they’re there for four years, you have to do it," he said. "If you don’t, you’re doing a disservice to your organization and the people you represent. And reaching out to the VP is just as important as reaching out to the president’s office."
In Trump’s 2015 book "Crippled America," Rocha said Trump lays out his priorities: Health care, taxes, infrastructure, and immigration. Latino Republicans hold out hope that immigration really could be tackled in a meaningful way before the midterm elections because of the clout Trump has developed among his base on the issue. And they think Pence could help. But the source close to the administration said not to count on it.
"Health care and tax cuts are two gorillas monopolizing the agenda — those two issues are so front and center, and so pivotal for the administration, not much else substantive gets done," the source said. "You can’t rush immigration. We'll only have the right once we’ve proven we mean it on controlling the southern border and deporting dangerous illegals."
That could mean Latino groups get caught in a game of constant frustration and only incremental progress on issues they care about, which LULAC's Rocha said he is willing to accept. The administration needs Latino civil rights groups to engage with it eventually, Rocha believes, and he told staffers he is happy to be that conduit and publicly appear with Pence or any other White House officials at the right time.
"When there is something we agree on, I will stand right next to you," he said.