Vice President Mike Pence defended the Trump administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy on Thursday, countering a public uproar as thousands of children were separated from their parents after illegally crossing the southern U.S. border.
Pence, speaking in an interview aboard Air Force Two while flying across Latin America, also said the U.S. was right to embrace Venezuelan refugees — who say they want to return home after rule of law and freedoms are restored — even as the administration takes a more aggressive stance toward Central American immigrants, who he said are seeking a permanent life in the U.S.
“There is no comparison between life in Venezuela under a brutal dictatorship and life in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras,” Pence said. “Venezuela has imploded into dictatorship and tyranny,” he added. “This is a dictatorship that is tyrannizing its own people.”
Pence is meeting Thursday with leaders from the three Central American nations, which the administration has criticized for not doing enough to stem the flow of their people trying to enter the U.S. illegally. The vice president said he will make clear that the U.S. will continue its zero tolerance approach.
“Our porous borders and the loopholes in our immigration law work a great hardship on vulnerable families” by signaling that it’s worth undertaking a perilous journey with human traffickers to the U.S., Pence said. “When we make it clear that we’re a welcoming nation but we welcome under the law, I think that’s the greatest kindness we can give to families that would otherwise be preyed upon and are preyed upon now.”
Pence declined to elaborate on Trump’s recent threats to reduce aid if he isn’t satisfied that they’re doing enough to stop their citizens from traveling to the U.S. illegally. Pence said he wants to find out what the leaders are prepared to do and how the U.S. can help.
Pence’s long-planned visit to Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala was also aimed at bringing pressure on the Venezuelan regime. The trip, though, has largely been eclipsed by the Trump administration’s policy, now on hold, of separating undocumented parents and children in order to prosecute adults for illegal immigration.
A self-described born-again evangelical, Pence counts his religious faith as a bond with many people of the region. That was on display Wednesday as Pence and his wife Karen toured a new shelter in Manaus, Brazil, for about 120 Venezuelan refugees and hugged, prayed and spoke with displaced families.
He described the experience as deeply moving, recalling two conversations: one in which a father expressed his shame at telling his children he could not provide food for them; another in which a 22-year-old woman who spoke perfect English said she wants to return to Venezuela once freedoms are restored.
Asked whether he thinks Venezuelans fleeing President Nicolas Maduro could have legitimate asylum claims in the U.S., Pence said, “I think many could.”
Pence also has built relationships in other Latin American nations and has been the administration’s point man in an effort to rally pressure against Maduro.
The vice president personally avoids the sort of crude, incendiary rhetoric Trump often employs to describe undocumented immigrants, such as saying immigrants “infest” the U.S. These attributes may make Pence a more effective messenger in the region than his boss.
Pence in the interview rejected criticism that the administration’s zero-tolerance policy is inhumane. “We’re the most welcoming country on Earth; we just are,” he said.