Biden’s Use Of ‘Illegal’ To Describe Migrants Raises Red Flags For Democrats

Biden went off-text in State of the Union and entered the language thicket of the immigration debate.

President Joe Biden, briefly responding from the podium to jeering from Republicans during his State of the Union speech called a migrant “an illegal,” prompting criticism from his party’s progressive wing.

“No human being is illegal,” said Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Ill.) in a social media post soon afterward.

In the section of his speech Thursday dealing with immigration policy and the recent failure of a bipartisan bill aiming to secure the border, Biden’s criticism of Republicans for killing the bill drew sharp jeers and boos from the GOP side of the chamber.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) shouted, “It’s about Laken Riley!” loudly enough to be heard throughout the chamber — including, apparently, from the podium.

Riley was a Georgia college student found dead near the University of Georgia campus in late February. A Venezuelan migrant who had previously been picked up and released by authorities has been charged with murder in connection with her death, which has become a cause célèbre for Republican immigration hawks.

“Lincoln Riley,” Biden said, deviating from his prepared remarks and mispronouncing the dead woman’s name. “An innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. That’s right.”

“But how many thousands of people, being killed by legals?” Biden went on, before saying the dynamic of the border needed to be changed and that his heart went out to her parents.

The tone change was abrupt, and Biden’s use of “illegal” to describe migrants who cross borders without formal permission grated on some Democrats. While Democrats and progressives often use “undocumented” to describe such migrants, Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, often use “illegal” instead.

Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.) posted, “As a proud immigrant, I’m extremely disappointed to hear President Biden use the word ‘illegal.’”

And Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) also posted her disapproval, saying, “Let me be clear: No human being is illegal.”

Immigrant advocacy organizations — many of whom were critical of the bipartisan border deal Biden endorsed because of its restrictions on the ability of migrants to claim asylum — also took issue with Biden’s language.

“President Biden missed an opportunity to truly distinguish himself from his predecessor on immigration. Rather than embracing the policies he articulated on his first day in office, the President instead doubled down on the Senate’s failed border bill and parroted dehumanizing Republican rhetoric about immigrants,” said Kica Matos, the president of the National Immigration Law Center. “We urge the President to do better.”

But former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hit a more conciliatory tone.

“He should have said ‘undocumented,’ but it’s not a big thing, OK?” Pelosi said in an interview after the speech on CNN.

She said Biden’s focus in the moment was on sympathy for the family.

Given two opportunities Friday morning to express an opinion on Biden’s word choice, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) sidestepped twice.

“President Biden laid out a comprehensive vision for fixing our broken immigration system and addressing the challenges at the border,” Jeffries said when asked if he had issues with the phrasing. “He also acknowledged the horrific nature of the murder and of course emphasized the need more generally to keep our community safe.”

Asked about criticism from his caucus members about the term “illegal,” Jeffries said simply, “Joe Biden delivered an incredible speech that was very well received by the American people — beginning, middle and end.”

A White House spokesperson declined to comment on Biden’s use of the term.

Riley’s case is not the first time Republicans have tried to use a young woman’s death to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. In 2017, a Mexican citizen was acquitted in the shooting death of a woman named Kate Steinle in San Francisco.

As in the Riley case, the man suspected of Steinle’s killing had been deported before, and Republicans pointed to the case as proof of the need to build a border wall. While prosecutors argued he had shot Steinle intentionally, the defense argued it was accidental and the bullet had ricocheted before hitting her.

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