How A Top Immigration Activist And A Founding Tea Partier Became Best Buds

Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas and Mark Meckler aren’t two guys you’d expect to share a beer together. The former is the most famous undocumented worker in the country and a prominent activist for immigration reform. The latter co-founded the Tea Party Patriots, the vast grassroots network that anchored the conservative backlash against President Obama’s agenda.

Yet somehow the two struck up a warm relationship in recent months. Vargas has come to appreciate Meckler as a sounding board for how to sell the right on immigration while Meckler admires Vargas for his underdog story.

“I think he has a unique and important perspective,” Meckler told TPM over the phone. “When you look at a guy like Jose who graduated from high school, from college, who’s a taxpayer who loves this country as much as anybody, those aren’t the kind of people anyone wants to get rid of. They’re the kind of people we want in America.”

Lately Vargas has taken to wearing a cowboy hat that Meckler gave him as a gift. He posted apicture of it to his Facebook page in March as one of the items he takes with him whenever he travels.

“For Mark to sit in the same room and call me a fellow American, I consider that the sincerest compliment and I’m humbled by it,” Vargas said in an interview. “He and I are not going to agree on everything, of course, it’s only natural. But we talk to each other and engage each other with the kind of civility and honesty that’s really needed.”

The two met up last year while participating in Civic Collaboratory, an annual gathering of thought leaders from various political circles designed to plot new ways to engage citizens in the democratic process. Since then they’ve kept in touch and teamed up for a panel discussion on civics last June in California. They’re currently talking about putting on another public event focused on immigration.

While a number of Republicans are helping lead the latest immigration reform push, Meckler is still working out his own position. For Vargas, whose non-profit Define American advocates for immigrant causes, this makes him a valuable sparring partner in identifying what obstacles conservatives need to talk themselves through to get behind a bill. The plan is to be prepared if the rumblings of unease Meckler hears at tea party rallies turn into a political earthquake at town hall meetings in the run-up to a vote in Congress.

So far most of their conversations have centered around border security, an issue where the two are likely farthest apart. Vargas, like many immigration activists, sees record high deportations of undocumented immigrants and record low apprehensions of illegal border crossers under President Obama and concludes the border is plenty secure already. Meckler has made clear that this is a make or break issue for his friends on the right, who might be willing to stomach comprehensive reform if they feel the enforcement component is strong.

“If there is a consensus position, the one thing I hear consistently from virtually ever tea partier I talk to is ‘secure the border,'” Meckler said. “It’s impossible to have a rational debate without it. We can put a man on the moon 40 years ago and we can’t fence the border now?”

It can be hard for Vargas to hear. In the past, Republican lawmakers often shut down talk of comprehensive reform by demanding unworkably vague improvements along the border first via separate legislation. But Meckler isn’t alone: top conservatives actively supporting bipartisan negotiations on immigration like Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have demanded the bill include new security mechanisms that take effect before undocumented immigrants can apply for green cards and citizenship.

“When I hear Mark talk about this, to me he’s as straight a shooter as it gets,” Vargas said. “He looked me in the eye and said you got to talk border security. The moment he said that, I told myself, ‘Jose, you need to do more tea party events. You need to actually have a conversation with people about this and listen to what people have to say.'”

As part of his plan, Vargas is hosting an open Q&A on his Facebook page this Tuesday afternoon in the hopes of drawing out more conservative concerns from Americans genuinely struggling with the issue.

Meckler, for his part, has been learning from Vargas as well. He told TPM he’s grown more sympathetic with migrant laborers who endure “horrifying” conditions crossing the border to take low-wage jobs American businesses are all too happy to provide, and he favours expanding legal avenues to bring more foreign workers into the country.

Vargas is also a handy contact on the left, where Meckler has increasingly been searching for allies. While still very much active in tea party circles, he’s also been meeting with people like founder Joan Blades to try and work out a joint grassroots campaign against “crony capitalism” in DC. In a separate campaign, he’s working with liberal academics to reform the criminal justice system and end the war on drugs. He left his position at the Tea Party Patriots last year over complaints they had become too close to the GOP. Instead, he helped run non-partisan super PACs during the 2012 cycle like Campaign for Primary Accountability that target entrenched incumbents from either party.

“It’s not a fight between Democrats and Republicans,” Meckler said. “It’s between the ruling elite in the capitol city and the rest of us out here.”

This story was originally published by Talking Points Memo.

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