‘Incendiary and wrong’: Biden spurs anger for calling migrant ‘an illegal’

Biden used the divisive term in his 2024 State of the Union address, responding to Republican pressure in the audience.

During his State of the Union speech, US President Joe Biden also urged Congress to pass a pending bill that would impose strict asylum restrictions at the US-Mexico border [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Rights advocates have slammed United States President Joe Biden for referring to an undocumented immigrant as “an illegal” during his State of the Union address, accusing him of echoing the dehumanising rhetoric of his predecessor Donald Trump.

During Thursday’s speech at the US Capitol, Biden was heckled by Republicans over the killing of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old woman who was allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant.

Riley’s death has become a rallying cry for conservatives. “[Laken] Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. That’s right — but how many thousands of people are being killed by ‘legals’? To her parents I say, my heart goes out to you,” Biden said.

Rights advocates and progressive lawmakers have long condemned the use of the term “illegal” to refer to human beings who do not have immigration status in the US or who cross the border without permits in search of asylum.

“We remind President Biden that no human being is illegal –– and dangerous rhetoric inevitably leads to more violence against our community,” said Faisal Al-Juburi, chief external affairs officer at RAICES, an immigrant support and advocacy group in Texas.

Members from Biden’s own Democratic Party also condemned the president’s comment.

“Let me be clear: No human being is illegal,” Congresswoman Ilhan Omar wrote in a widely shared post on the social media platform X.

Joaquin Castro, a Democratic congressman from Texas, said that, while Biden’s address had “a lot of good” in it, “his rhetoric about immigrants was incendiary and wrong”.

“The rhetoric President Biden used tonight was dangerously close to language from Donald Trump that puts a target on the backs of Latinos everywhere,” Castro wrote on social media.

“Democrats shouldn’t be taking our cues from MAGA extremism,” he added, referring to Trump’s Make America Great Again movement.

The former Republican president — and presumed 2024 GOP nominee — pursued staunch anti-immigration policies during his term in the White House, including restrictions on the ability of asylum seekers to seek protection in the US.

Trump also continues to regularly use anti-immigrant rhetoric as he campaigns for a second term in the White House. He is widely expected to once again face off against Biden in November’s general election.

In a video posted on his Truth Social platform before the State of the Union, Trump attacked migrants and asylum seekers seeking protection in the US as “illegal alien criminals” and promised to oversee “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” if he is re-elected.

Last year saw new records for irregular border crossings into the US. In the 2023 fiscal year, for example, US Customs and Border Protection documented 1,475,669 “encounters” with migrants and asylum seekers arriving irregularly across the southern border with Mexico. In December alone, there were 301,983 “encounters”.

That, in turn, has increased political pressure on the Biden administration to act, with Republicans and some Democrats criticising the president for failing to lower the numbers. Observers have said Trump and his allies are trying to make the situation into a winning election issue for the Republican Party.

Against that backdrop, Biden himself has pushed for Congress to pass a spending bill that would tighten border security and create new restrictions on asylum claims. Democrats have accused Republicans of stalling the legislation in a bid to help Trump with his re-election campaign.

During his State of the Union speech on Thursday night, Biden said the bill would allow Washington to hire more border officers and grant him the authority “to temporarily shut down the border when the number of migrants at the border is overwhelming”.

“My Republican friends, you owe it to the American people to get this bill done. We need to act,” he said. “We can fight about the border, or we can fix it. I’m ready to fix it. Send me the border bill now!”

Al-Juburi at RAICES, the immigrant rights group in Texas, said in a statement that Biden “embraced the toughest set of border security reforms we’ve ever seen in this country, formally adopting a more radical anti-immigrant position” in his speech.

“He succumbed to the pressures of a political climate that is increasingly hostile towards immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking people and families.”

The National Immigration Law Center also said Biden “missed an opportunity to distinguish himself” from Trump on immigration.

“Instead, he doubled down on the Senate’s failed border bill & parroted dehumanizing Republican rhetoric about immigrants,” the group said on social media, referring to the State of the Union. “We urge the President to do better.”

Source: Al Jazeera