Biden’s reference to ‘an illegal’ rankles some Democrats who argue he’s still preferable to Trump

MIAMI– President Joe Biden faced disappointment and anger from some allies on Friday after calling the suspect in the killing of a nursing student in Georgia an “illegal” during his State of the Union address. Other Democrats backed him as better on immigration issues than former President Donald Trump, his likely rival in the November election.

The moment came during an exchange in which Biden urged Republicans to approve a bipartisan border security deal, which fell apart after Trump opposed it. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a close Trump ally, then yelled at the president to say the name of Laken Riley, the Georgia woman killed last month, adding that she was “by an illegal” murdered.

“By an illegal, that’s right,” Biden immediately responded, before appearing to ask how many people are being killed by “legals.”

Referring to people who arrived or live in the U.S. illegally as “illegals” was once common, but is much less so today, especially among Democrats who more fully embraced immigrant rights issues during Trump’s presidency.

Biden campaigned four years ago against many of Trump’s immigration policies and against changing official guidance to stop using the term “illegal aliens,” but he is now pushing for new border restrictions in the wake of record numbers of people crossing the border between the US and Mexico, putting pressure on the border. federal authorities and Democratic-led cities were forced to open emergency shelters. Biden has adopted some of Trump’s own language, saying he would “close the border” if given power, which he also brought up again in Thursday’s speech.

His campaign argued Friday that the incident would not impact his efforts to reach Latino voters and other communities of color that are part of the Democratic base. Several allies on Capitol Hill defended him even as they criticized his use of the term.

“It was an unfortunate choice of words, but I think he could easily correct it,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think the inclusive vision he painted on immigration was exactly what I was looking for.”

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, chair of civil rights and civil liberties at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said Biden’s use of the term was an “off-the-cuff moment” but also reflective of both his long time in public office and also his recent shift on immigration.

“I think it’s very revealing from the president, who has really honed his knowledge of politics in an era when that kind of language was routine, and it reflects the fact that his administration’s immigration policies have moved increasingly to the right, in an attempt to Outsmart the Republicans and use the language that the Republicans continue to try to use,” said García Hernández.

Some progressive Democratic lawmakers said they were disappointed to hear Biden’s term.

“Just as we should not implement Republican policies, we should not repeat Republican rhetoric,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who added that she had never heard the president use that word before.

“The rhetoric President Biden used tonight was dangerously close to the language of Donald Trump, who is putting a target on the backs of Latinos everywhere,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Castro acknowledged that there was “a lot of good” in Biden’s speech, but called his rhetoric about immigrants “inflammatory and wrong.”

Others were willing to give Biden a chance to use the term.

“This is what happens when you go with the idiots,” said Rep. Nanette Barragán of California, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Republicans celebrated the moment while Greene said Democrats were “melting down.”

As he left for a campaign trip to Philadelphia, Biden was asked by a journalist if he regretted using the term “illegal.”

He hesitated at first to say “well, probably,” before pausing and saying “I don’t” and appearing to say the word “regret.” Then he stopped again and said, “Technically, this shouldn’t be here.”

During a call with reporters on Friday, Biden campaign officials were asked whether his use of the word could impact his efforts to reach Latino voters.

“Our community knows Joe. They know who is fighting for our community. They know who is fighting for us,” said Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s re-election campaign manager. “His values ​​are of faith, of family, of hard work. These are all so consistent with what our community stands for.”

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in January found that three-quarters of U.S. Hispanics describe the high number of migrants trying to enter the U.S. through the border with Mexico as a major problem or crisis. A similar number said the U.S. government is doing a poor job handling the influx. Non-Hispanic people were more likely than Hispanic people to describe the situation as a crisis, or to say that the migrant situation is leading to more crime in the US.

Campaign spokesman Michael Tyler argued that Trump and top Republicans are “using immigrants as their primary political punching bag.”

Tyler said Biden’s campaign “wants to treat the people here with the dignity and respect that they deserve, and we’re going to contrast that with Donald Trump and his hate-fueled rhetoric and his hateful extremism when it comes to the substance of the issue .”

The term was common in the past before some began to argue against its use. In 1972, the same year Biden was first elected to the US Senate, Latino labor activist Cesar Chavez – the grandfather of Julie Chavez Rodriguez – used the terms “wetbacks” and “illegals” in a TV interview to describe migrant workers. Mexico that had been brought into to break a strike.

After Biden’s speech, some quoted Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as saying that “no human being is illegal,” a phrase used by immigrant rights advocates to push people away ​​to see the use of “illegal” and “illegal immigrants”. first used by the British against Jewish refugees who entered what was then Mandatory Palestine without permission.

In 2013, The Associated Press made the change to no longer use “illegal immigrant” to describe a person, but only an action involving living in or immigrating to the country illegally.


Associated Press writers Will Weissert, Stephen Groves, Josh Boak and Farnoush Amiri in Washington, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.