Former Vice President Joe Biden defended former President Barack Obama’s immigration record on Saturday, even as he conceded that they both learned from the failure of their tough approach early on in which they tried to win over Republican lawmakers.
Biden was one of 19 Democratic presidential candidates to speak at a candidate forum hosted by the public-sector labor union AFSCME in Las Vegas on Saturday. Jon Ralston of The Nevada Independent, who moderated the discussion alongside HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel, asked Biden to elaborate on how he feels about the Obama administration’s record volume of deportations of undocumented immigrants in its first term.
“We learned a lot in the process,” Biden said. “When the president got elected, everything landed on his desk but locusts. We were about to go into a depression.”
He went on to imply that the Obama administration employed a tough approach to border enforcement and unauthorized immigration partly in the misplaced hope that it would lay the groundwork for a bipartisan immigration reform bill.
“We thought at the beginning we might be able to get a more rational approach to the way we dealt with, for example, immigration,” Biden said. “By the middle of the term, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen and things changed.”
The changes the administration implemented included executive orders aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants who arrived as children ― those known as Dreamers ― and their parents, the former vice president noted.
Ralston pressed Biden to reveal any details about how he might have advocated against the deportations behind closed doors during Obama’s first term. But Biden reiterated what he said during the presidential debate on Wednesday night ― that he does not reveal his discussions with Obama behind closed doors.
“The focus was on deporting felons,” Biden said, adding, “Comparing what he did to what Trump did is just absolutely off the wall ― it’s just not true.” (No Democratic candidate has actually compared Obama’s policies to those of President Donald Trump.)
In a subsequent exchange with Terkel, Biden confirmed that he does not support changing unauthorized border crossing from a crime to a civil penalty.
Doing so “will be an invitation” for more undocumented immigrants to take their chances by just showing up at the border, he argued. “One of the things we’re trying to do is keep parents in difficult circumstances from giving their children to a coyote” to transport them to the border.
Since the candidate forum was hosted by AFSCME, which is celebrating the passage of a Nevada law granting state workers collective bargaining rights, much of Saturday’s discussion focused on the priorities of union workers.
Terkel asked Biden how he responded to criticism of the Obama administration for not pushing harder to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would have made it easier for workers to unionize by ratifying their majority through card check and thereby avoiding employer intimidation.
“We pressed and pressed,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is, there were other things happening as well.”
He went on to attribute it to the Republican takeover of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, even though most of the criticism faults the Obama administration for failing to pass it in its first two years in power, when Democrats controlled both branches of government.
“We did not have a Democratic Congress to be able to get it done,” he said. “But I would.”