Updated: May 20, 7:08 p.m.
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence is receiving a leadership achievement award for his contributions to the Hispanic community, but nobody — including Pence — can seem to figure out why.
The Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute is bestowing its 2010 public service award to Pence in a Thursday night ceremony because of "his extraordinary sensitivity toward and friendship with the U.S. Hispanic community," according to a statement by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who is board chairman for the nonprofit.
But GOP and Democratic lawmakers who have played a hand in advancing priorities to the Hispanic community, including comprehensive immigration reform, said they were puzzled by the honor. Even Pence was unsure of why he was being given the award.
"I'll know better tonight after they say why they gave it to me," the Indiana Republican said. He laughed when asked if he was waiting to see what he was being recognized for, adding that he hoped he was being honored because he has "heart for the Hispanic American community, their principles and their values."
CHLI executive director Octavio Hinojosa said Pence is being recognized for his "collective leadership" and his "willingness to work on comprehensive immigration reform." Pence is also being honored for talking with Republican lawmakers "about the need to engage folks on the other side of the aisle" on issues of importance to Hispanics, according to Hinojosa.
But when asked if he has been reaching out to Democrats to craft a bipartisan immigration reform plan, Pence said, "I haven't been."
Asked what he has done specifically for Hispanics, Pence said that under his leadership as Conference Chairman, Republicans provided the first-ever Spanish-language GOP response to the State of the Union. He said he has also organized meetings between Republican lawmakers and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
A Pence aide later highlighted that the Indiana Republican instituted a biweekly GOP address in Spanish and hired a minority outreach staffer when he was elected to GOP leadership.
Regardless of why he is getting the award, Pence said he was "deeply humbled" when Diaz-Balart informed him that he had been chosen. "I think maybe the recognition is because I've always believed there is an intersection between compassion and the rule of law," he said.
On the issue of immigration reform, Pence said he supports beefing up border security but doesn't support creating a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants currently in the country, a key component of immigration reform for Democrats and President Barack Obama.
"On that issue, there may be some irreconcilable differences between Republicans and some members of the Hispanic population. The ultimate objective is creating jobs," he said.
One Republican lawmaker who has played a hand in past efforts to advance immigration reform laughed and declined comment when told that Pence was receiving the award. Leading voices in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which continues to press for comprehensive immigration reform, balked when they heard that Pence was being honored for his contributions to Latinos.
"It goes to show that it's possible to do nothing and be acknowledged for a lifetime of work," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Grijalva said Pence has "never voted for anything with the Hispanics" and shot down his 2006 proposal with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to make illegal immigrants return to their home country, go to a processing center and then re-enter the U.S. legally. At the time, Pence took heat from conservatives in his own party for the proposal, known as the "touchback" provision.
That approach to resolving illegal immigration was also "discredited and opposed by Hispanics," said the Arizona Democrat.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who chairs the CHC's Immigration Task Force, said he couldn't think of anything Pence had done to help the Hispanic community. "He wouldn't be, like, my first pick" for winning the award, he said.