Biden attacked by rivals over deportations under Obama

Joe Biden’s rivals in the Democratic presidential race went right at his strength at several points in Wednesday night’s Democratic debate: his record as Barack Obama’s vice president.

Without directly attacking the popular former president, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio implied that Biden was complicit in the mass deportations of undocumented immigrants under Obama’s administration.

“One of us,” Castro said pointedly to Biden, “has learned the lessons of the past.”

Asked about the record-high 800,000 deportations during Obama’s first two years in office, Biden said, if elected, he would not continue Obama-era immigration policies. He also said it was “absolutely bizarre” to compare Obama-era policies to those of the Trump administration.

In a separate exchange, de Blasio accused Biden of dodging the issue. “You were vice president of the United States. I didn’t hear whether you tried to stop them or not using your power, your influence in the White House. Did you think it was a good idea?”

Biden responded by praising Obama for deferring the deportation of so-called Dreamers (undocumented immigrants brought across the border as children and raised in the U.S.) and for proposing a “comprehensive plan for a pathway to citizenship.”

Co-moderator Don Lemon of CNN turned to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to ask about support for free college for undocumented immigrants. But the candidates were not finished with Biden’s previous actions on immigration.

“I don’t hear an answer from the vice president,” de Blasio said. “I asked the vice president point blank if he used his power to stop those deportations. He went right around the question. Mr. Vice President: Did you say those deportations were a good idea, or did you go to the president and say this is a mistake, we shouldn’t do it? Which one?”

Julian Castro and Joe Biden
Julián Castro and Joe Biden (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Lucas Jackson/Reuters, Paul Sancya/AP)

“I was vice president, I was not the president,” Biden bristled. “I keep my recommendations in private, unlike you.”

Castro, who wants to decriminalize crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border, also traded barbs with Biden over the issue.

Biden — who, unlike his more progressive rivals, wants to keep the law against entering the United States without documents (apart from asylum seekers) — said he never heard Castro talk about immigration issues during Cabinet meetings.

Asked to respond to Biden’s attack, Castro said, “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t.”

Castro argued that the only way to end the separations of migrant children from their parents at the border is to repeal the provision in federal law that makes such crossing illegal. Instead, he proposed that the federal government view illegal crossings as a civil, rather than criminal, offense.

“The only way that we’re going to guarantee that these kinds of family separations don’t happen in the future is if we repeal this part of the law,” Castro said.

After Castro remarked that the country needs politicians with guts, Biden said, “I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense.” Biden doubled down on his position that illegal border crossings should result in deportation, but quickly pivoted to President Trump.

“The only reason this particular part of the law is being abused is because of Donald Trump,” said Biden, referring to family separation. “We should defeat Donald Trump and end this practice.”

Biden made the case for more legal immigration, saying it enables the United States to “cherry-pick from the best of every culture.” The former vice president said he agreed with Castro that the federal government needs more employees to process asylum cases quickly.

Biden’s response to a question about immigration policy was interrupted by protesters in the Detroit audience who shouted, “Three million deportations!” — apparently referring to deportations under the Obama administration. The group Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant-led organization that opposes deportation, claimed on Twitter that it had organized the protests.

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