LIMA, Peru — As Vice President Pence addressed fellow world leaders at the Summit of the Americas this weekend, he told the story of a grandmother he met in Colombia who fled her home in Venezuela with her five grandchildren.
“She told me, with tears in her eyes, how the poverty had become so acute, her grandchildren had to stand in line at 5 in the morning to get a ticket to buy a piece of bread at 5 in the afternoon,” Pence said in a speech. “And that was the sum total of sustenance that was available to their family.”
In closing, Pence told his fellow leaders: “Remember to pray for people that are struggling under the weight of tyranny.”
Throughout Pence’s whirlwind 26-hour visit to Lima over the weekend, he repeatedly struck a compassionate tone as he described the suffering of people around the world, especially in Venezuela and Syria, and he talked about the United States’ moral obligation to help others. It’s a tone that’s starkly different from that of President Trump, who rarely expresses sympathy for people fleeing violence, poverty or oppression in their homelands. His policies in this area have been tougher than many of his predecessors as well.
The United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Venezuelans requesting asylum, a designation that Trump has said should be much more difficult to obtain. And the Trump administration capped the number of refugees who will be allowed to resettle in the United States this fiscal year at 45,000 — the lowest cap ever set by a president since the practice began in 1980 and significantly less than the limit of 110,000 set by President Barack Obama.
Advocates say it’s likely that the United States will accept far fewer than 45,000 refugees because of new restrictions that have made resettlement increasingly difficult. During the first six months of this fiscal year, 10,548 refugees were resettled, according to Refugee Council USA, a coalition that has been tracking the numbers.
Danielle Grigsby, the council’s associate director, said she has seen a series of disparities between administration officials saying they want to help refugees — especially those fleeing religious persecution — and policies that make such assistance difficult. Pence’s comments this weekend are simply the latest example, she said.
“It really is just something that we’re just confused about,” she said.
Since October 2017, only 44 Syrian refugees have come to the United States, according to State Department data. That’s a dramatic decline from previous fiscal years: There were 6,557 Syrian refugees admitted in 2017 and 12,587 in 2016, toward the end of Obama’s presidency. During Pence’s time as the governor of Indiana, he tried to block Syrian refugees from settling in his state for fear that some could be terrorists, a warning that Trump repeated on the campaign trail.
Trump has also described undocumented immigrants from Mexico as dangerous criminals and rapists, tried to ban most visitors from several predominantly Muslim countries, used sinister terms to describe a caravan of Honduran migrants seeking asylum, threatened to cut off humanitarian aid to poor countries, questioned the patriotism of Americans born elsewhere and asked why the United States gets so many immigrants from “shithole” countries.
Administration officials have argued that the United States can compassionately help suffering people in ways other than allowing more refugees, migrants and asylum seekers into the country, which they have said can pose a security risk to Americans. They have said that refugees should be settled as close to their home countries as possible. That way it’s easier for them to return.
The president has imposed heavy economic sanctions on Venezuela to protest the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, and Pence announced Friday that the administration will spend another $16 million helping Venezuelan refugees living in Brazil and Colombia. The United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Jordan and Turkey, where many Syrian refugees are now living, and Trump authorized the bombing of Syrian chemical weapons facilities on Friday evening.
“This was the morally right act to take,” Pence told reporters Saturday afternoon.
Pence attended the Summit of the Americas in Trump’s place, as the president canceled at the last minute so that he could focus on formulating a response to the suspected chemical attack in Syria. Although Pence often travels on the president’s behalf, this was the first time the vice president had to take over an already planned trip, assuming the president’s jam-packed agenda instead of being able to set his own. But within those confines, Pence set his own tone .
The president’s attendance at the summit was expected to prompt protests and tense interactions with leaders of countries he had disparaged. Pence did not face such blowback, and fellow leaders limited their public criticism of the United States. Pence was even able to arrange a sit-down meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has publicly feuded with Trump over his plans to construct a wall on the southern border and force Mexico to pay for it — a topic that Pence said they did not touch in their private meeting.
Soon after arriving in Lima on Friday afternoon, Pence met with four Venezuelans helping to lead opposition to Maduro’s regime. Pence noted that thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing their country each day, and he pledged to “continue to do everything in our power to provide sustenance and support to those who have fled this tyranny.”
At the meeting, Mark Green, Trump’s administrator of USAID, explained how the United States plans to spend an additional $16 million helping refugees.
“This aid is based upon need, and need alone, because America will always stand with the hungry and the displaced,” Green said. “That’s simply who we are as Americans.”
Francisco “Paco” Palmieri, the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere, added that “the United States is impressed by the generosity and compassion of those countries throughout the hemisphere who lead by example, hosting and providing humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans.” Pence nodded his head in agreement.
That night, Pence rushed out of an opening ceremony at the summit so that he could make secure phone calls to congressional leaders, letting them know that the president had decided to bomb Syria. Although it was late in the evening when he was done, he made sure to still stop by a dinner organized by the Peruvian president.
The next day, Pence addressed the attack at meetings with fellow leaders, during a news conference with reporters and in a speech. While Trump focused on the successful use of force in tweets that morning, even declaring that this was “Mission Accomplished,” Pence focused heavily on the suffering of the Syrian people under the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“We acted in response to Assad’s horrific use of chemical weapons on his own citizens one week ago — an attack that horrified and shocked the conscience of the world,” Pence said. “Even now, Russia is deliberately spreading disinformation about Assad’s heinous actions . . . but the horrific pictures of dead children, the videos of suffering people prove what happened.”
And he again spoke passionately about Venezuela, noting that “nearly 9 out of 10 Venezuelans live in grinding poverty” and that basic necessities like food and medicine are nearly impossible to find.
“And every day, some 5,000 Venezuelans flee the land of their birth, in the largest cross-border mass exodus in the history of our hemisphere,” Pence said. “Under the Maduro regime, Venezuela is essentially a failed state. Failed states know no borders.”