Joe Biden acknowledges 'pain' caused by Obama deportations as he unveils immigration plan

Key Points
  • Joe Biden unveils an immigration reform plan, acknowledging the "pain" created by deportations during the Obama administration.
  • The former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential contender wants to reverse several of President Trump's immigration policies and make reforms, including a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
  • Biden's plan does not go as far as the proposals put out by some of his rivals, such as former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Las Vegas, Nevada, October 2, 2019.
Steve Marcus | Reuters

Joe Biden unveiled a plan Wednesday to reform the U.S. immigration system and reverse President Donald Trump's policies as Democratic White House hopefuls pressure the president over some of his most criticized tactics.

In introducing the broad proposal, the 2020 presidential candidate's campaign also acknowledged the backlash he has faced over the deportation practices of the Obama White House when he served as vice president.

His campaign wrote that "Joe Biden understands the pain felt by every family across the U.S. that has had a loved one removed from the country, including under the Obama-Biden Administration, and he believes we must do better to uphold our laws humanely and preserve the dignity of immigrant families, refugees, and asylum-seekers."

Biden wants to stop the Trump administration's separation of migrant children from parents, end extended detention and reverse restrictions on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, according to his campaign. At the same time, Biden wants to create a pathway to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., expand access to work visas in areas of economic need and boost the annual U.S. refugee admissions cap to 125,000 from the current 18,000, among other provisions in the plan.

Biden also aims to invest $4 billion in Central America to stem violence, spur economic development and target corruption in order to slow a wave of migration to the U.S.

"Trump has waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants," the Biden campaign wrote in its plan. "It's wrong, and it stops when Joe Biden is elected president."

Trump entered the White House in 2017 promising to crack down on illegal immigration, portraying many migrants as violent or likely to take jobs from American citizens. A few of his administration's measures to deter immigration, most notably family separation, have sparked furor and charges of cruelty from Democrats and some Republicans.

The full interview with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden

The president leaned into his 2016 rhetoric during a reelection rally in the key swing state of Pennsylvania on Tuesday night. He shared graphic stories of murders and sexual assaults he said were committed by undocumented immigrants.

While the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential field has widely called Trump's immigration policies inhumane, candidates have differed in how they want to fix the system. A handful of Biden's rivals, first former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and then Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have called for decriminalizing border crossings.

Biden does not want to do so. Some Democrats have worried about alienating parts of the general electorate next November by loosening immigration rules too much.

While the former vice president wants to boost protections for undocumented immigrants who report labor violations, his proposal does not go as far as Sanders' plan in pushing to boost bargaining power for undocumented workers.

Biden, who has consistently led in averages of national Democratic primary polls, has faced heat over the Obama administration's immigration policies. While he has tied himself closely to his largely popular boss, Biden has endured scrutiny over the Obama administration's deportation record.

The former vice president was asked again about Obama-era deportations Wednesday during a Las Vegas town hall hosted by UNITE HERE, a union that represents about 300,000 people. He was asked what he would do differently. 

"A lot. Number one, we understand the incredible pain of a family being separated," Biden answered, without directly highlighting the Obama administration's practices in the way his campaign did. He added that "the idea that anyone will be deported without actually having committed a felony or serious crime is going to end in my administration."

At a debate in September, moderator Jorge Ramos pointed out that the Obama White House "deported 3 million people, the most ever in U.S. history." He prodded Biden about what he did to prevent the deportations, and asked, "Why should Latinos trust you?"

Biden did not directly address whether the administration made a mistake with the deportations, but instead contrasted Obama with Trump.

"What Latinos should look at is — comparing this president to the president we have is outrageous, number one. We didn't lock people up in cages. We didn't separate families. We didn't do all of those things, number one," he said, before pointing to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program implemented by Obama.

Pressed repeatedly by Ramos, Biden said, "The president did the best thing that was able to be done at the time."

A representative for Obama did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Biden acknowledging the criticism of his administration's immigration policies.

A September Univision poll found Biden led the Democratic field among Hispanic voters, with 22% of support. Sanders followed him closely with 20%, followed by Castro at 12% and Warren at 11%.

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