In one of the hottest moments of the Democratic primary debate on Wednesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) turned to face former Vice President Joe Biden and said, “Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways.”
Booker was referring to Biden’s (and President Barack Obama’s) record on immigration: During their two terms, a record number of immigrants were deported, earning Obama the title of “deporter-in-chief” from some immigrants’ rights advocates.
“You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” Booker said during the CNN-hosted debate. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”
For his part, Biden defended Obama, while refusing to say whether he’d done anything to stop deportations. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) repeatedly pressed him on the matter but never got an answer.
“Did you say those deportations were a good idea?” de Blasio asked. “Or did you go to the president and say, ‘This is a mistake. We shouldn’t do it.’ Which one?”
Biden both distanced himself from Obama’s record and refused to answer the question.
“I was vice president. I was not the president,” Biden said. “I keep my recommendation to him private.”
Biden noted repeatedly that Obama enacted pro-immigrant policies — like legal protections for young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — and made a major push for comprehensive immigration reform. That reform push ultimately failed because congressional GOP leaders refused to take it up, in spite of the years of high deportation figures that were intended, in part, to convince Republicans that Democrats weren’t soft on unauthorized immigration. Obama later shifted his policies and his deportation figures dropped.
Now, with President Donald Trump in office, Democrats are unified in support of comprehensive immigration reform and in opposition to the current president’s policies, including separating children from parents.
But the particulars of the immigration policy debate have shifted. So far this cycle, one of the main issues at hand has been whether to repeal the law that makes it a criminal offense to cross the border without authorization. Decriminalizing that type of migration would mean that immigrants could still face deportation or civil penalties for crossing ― but they couldn’t be criminally prosecuted, which is how the Trump administration was able to split up immigrant families last year.
Much like during Tuesday evening’s debate, the candidates were divided into two camps regarding immigration: those who insisted that nothing needs to be done beyond removing Trump and those who wanted to repeal the law.
Biden opposes decriminalizing migration, and said that Trump is the reason the law is being abused. He also pointed out that opponent Julián Castro, the top booster of decriminalization, served in the Obama administration too, as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned from the lessons of the past,” Castro responded, “and one of us hasn’t.”