Biden’s reference to “illegal” is upsetting some Democratic allies

By | March 9, 2024

WASHINGTON— President Joe Biden received high praise from Democrats for his fiery State of the Union address Thursday night, in which he focused on issues likely to be central to the 2024 election. But one of the moments that left some of his allies at odds was the immigration issue, when Biden called an undocumented immigrant “an illegal.”

The unscripted moment came when Biden brought up Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student who was killed in Georgia. An undocumented immigrant has been charged with her murder. Biden called her “an innocent young woman who was murdered by an illegal alien.”

That term has long been rejected by the Democratic Party and immigration advocates and seen as dehumanizing, so it stood out when the president used it in a very high-profile speech.

“There was a lot of good in President Biden’s speech tonight, but his rhetoric about immigrants was inflammatory and wrong,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, posted on X in the moments after the speech.

Castro’s guest at the annual address was Priscilla Martinez, the widow of Aaron Martinez, the Texas rancher killed by a neighbor in what Castro described as a “hate crime” resulting from anti-Latino hatred.

Those charges were ultimately never filed against the man accused of fatally shooting the 35-year-old, but in inviting Martinez, Castro said he wanted to highlight an increase in violence against Hispanic Americans and immigrants in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency.

“The speech was very powerful overall, but the president must be careful not to add fuel to the right-wing fire that fear-mongers about immigrants and makes them scapegoats for our national challenges,” Castro added in a statement to NBC News.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., who like Castro is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said “the president’s ad lib last night was deeply disappointing.”

He called the comment “the kind of dangerous rhetoric that [Biden] has complained in the past and I expect he will do so again. We cannot tout a strong economy and nation while vilifying immigrants who contribute so much to the strength of both.”

But on Friday, Biden appeared to have no regrets, telling reporters: “You know, technically he’s not supposed to be here.”

An aide to a Democratic lawmaker said they were “stunned” by Biden’s use of the phrase, adding that other staffers on Capitol Hill had the same feeling watching the speech.

“It was just shocking rhetoric to hear from a Democratic president who campaigned against demonizing immigrants,” she added.

Biden’s comments came after he changed course in recent months toward the southern border, where record numbers of migrants have crossed under his administration. Lagging in approval ratings and as political pressure to address the crisis grew, Biden declared in January that he would be willing to accept sharp restrictions on the asylum system and other measures that were once unthinkable to many Democrats.

He even went so far as to say he would “close the border” if Congress passed legislation that would have given his administration the enforcement mechanism to do so. A bipartisan border bill blocked by Republicans was a topic Biden highlighted during his speech Thursday night.

“That bipartisan bill would hire 1,500 additional security officers and officers, and 100 additional immigration judges to address the backlog of 2 million cases. 4,300 more asylum officers and new policies so they can resolve cases in six months instead of six years,” Biden said on the House floor, directing his anger at Republicans. “What are you against?”

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Global Refuge, an immigration organization, said: “Language obviously matters, but so does the intention behind it. While it was an unfortunate choice of words in a heated moment of bickering in the broader context of this speech, President Biden was very clear in drawing a stark contrast to the dehumanizing language and policies of his predecessor.”

“I wouldn’t have used the word illegal,” Rep. Robert Garcia, D-California, said Thursday evening on MSNBC. “But I think the president quickly changed, he quickly started talking about immigrants right after that, and I think as an immigrant, I found it encouraging to talk about the importance of immigrants and to basically challenge Donald Trump and his rhetoric to call out that we are somehow poisoning the blood of this country.”

Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez told reporters Thursday morning that the president’s policies and actions should speak the loudest.

“Our community knows Joe, they know who fights for our community, they know who fights for us,” she said.

But not everyone on the left was upset by Biden’s tone during the speech.

Biden brought up Riley while holding a button with her name that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., presented to him before the speech. Republicans have invoked her death in their push for stricter border policies — and as a way to blame Biden for not doing enough.

Biden “flipped the script” on Republicans by talking about Riley, said a border state Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity, applauding the way the president “neutralized this issue that Republicans gave him the opening because they blocked the bill.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who is running for independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat, said he thought the speech was “a good reset” for Democrats as they head into critical November elections. where the balance of power in Washington will diminish. is at stake.

A recent poll found that Latinos have mixed views on immigration. The Pew Research Center survey found that three-quarters of Latinos agree that the border is in crisis or a problem. However, two-thirds said speeding up asylum decisions with more judges and staff would help, and 58% said creating more legal migration pathways was necessary. Only a third supported increasing deportations of people illegally in the country, and a quarter supported a substantial expansion of the wall.

Despite the criticism, Voto Latino, a progressive group focused on mobilizing young Latinos to vote, planned to formally endorse Biden’s reelection efforts at a rally in Las Vegas that Vice President Harris was set to host on Saturday.

Maria Teresa Kumar, the group’s president and CEO, said that despite Biden’s “forced error” Thursday, Voto Latino supported him because they realize that “young people are struggling with how to participate” in 2024, and they want them that show “their vote will determine the course of our democracy.”

She said those hyper-focused on Biden’s language are missing the point, and applauded his call for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, who arrived in America when they were children.

“I have had the privilege of knowing the president for a long time and his words are not what he has in his heart,” she said, referring to his “illegal” comment.

A Mexican immigrant told NBC News on Friday that they were not offended by Biden’s use of the term “illegal.”

“What is important is that we focus on what they are going to do with migration, and not on the words they use,” said Raúl Morales, who added that he is in the process of obtaining his green card and that he will will not be voting until 2024. election. “Because they can talk with nice words, but if they don’t solve something with migration, there is no point[ful] to me when they use sophisticated or friendly terms.

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