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Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is quietly playing cleanup with dozens of immigration activists and Latino leaders — weeks after upsetting them by using what they considered loaded language to describe his views on immigration policy.
Biden said at the July 31 Democratic debate that undocumented immigrants need to “get in line” and that the country has been right to “cherry-pick” high-skilled immigrants, notably those with advanced degrees.
That language, more commonly used by conservatives, triggered widespread criticism from immigrant rights activists, some of whom said the former vice president was echoing “Republican talking points” on how migrants are admitted to the United States.
The campaign quickly embarked on damage control. Aides assuaged aggrieved activists, and Biden had a closed-door meeting with Latino leaders in San Diego before his speech at the UnidosUS conference last week.
“It is unacceptable for a candidate vying to be the Democratic nominee for POTUS to use language like that used by VP Biden when talking about immigration during the second debate,” said Mayra Macías, executive director of Latino Victory. “We immediately reached out to the campaign and were told it was being addressed.”
Activists view the “get in line” language as a dodge invoked by immigration hard-liners. They argue that it's used to obscure that there really is no practical “line” for many hopeful migrants from Latin America to stand in if they don’t have an employer or family member sponsoring their immigration. And Biden’s line about advanced degrees, they say, deemphasizes family reunification and has a racial component as well.
When Biden uttered the words “get in line,” Macías said, “my phone started blowing up” with messages and calls from other activists about his rhetoric.
On the receiving end of most of the calls and messages to the campaign — more than 100 — was Biden’s senior adviser, Cristóbal Alex, a well-respected operative in the immigrant rights community for his previous work at Latino Victory.
Alex quickly began clarifying Biden's remarks. Immediately after, he briefed Biden about the nuances of the policy and pushed for the roundtable with Latino leaders in San Diego.
Though he acknowledged some people were upset or confused by Biden’s comments, Alex downplayed the extent of the controversy, pointing out that Biden has long been well-respected by Latino leaders and that he has impressed members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“I wouldn’t say we’re putting out fires or dealing with fallout. We are taking in a lot of comments and suggestions from the community,” Alex said.
“It’s hard to convey his true grasp of this issue and it’s hard to convey how much he cares about immigrants in the community in a 15-second retort to someone attacking him,” he added.
Biden's campaign says he supports comprehensive changes to the immigration system that would increase immigration levels, provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who haven't committed crimes and are employed, and legalize the status of immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, known as Dreamers.
Biden has been viewed with suspicion at times by immigration activists. They point to what they call his lack of outreach to Latino communities in the past and his time as vice president under Barack Obama, who was tagged by liberal-leaning activists as the “deporter in chief” because of his administration’s border enforcement policies.
Activists interrupted Biden’s remarks during last month’s debate in Detroit. And in early July, six demonstrators were arrested during a sit-in at Biden’s Philadelphia campaign headquarters.
The tension between Biden’s campaign and the activist community has roots in his overall campaign strategy. He's running as a centrist in a primary in which most of the other top-tier candidates are tilting left. And many liberal activists aren't enthused about an old, white moderate leading the ticket.
“We’re only going to go as far left as we have to,” one top Latino supporter of Biden’s said. “We’re looking at November 2020, but we know we have to deal with the primary. So it’s a tightrope for sure."
The criticism of Biden’s immigration policies, of course, comes as President Donald Trump is stretching the outer limits of U.S. policy and presidential rhetoric on immigrants. Since taking office, Trump’s policies have spanned from separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border to imposing a ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries to denying green cards to immigrants who have accessed welfare programs.
Biden’s camp argues his approach is not only an antidote to Trump’s extreme policies, but one that doesn’t move too far left, and is therefore in line with the majority of primary and general election voters. It also thinks Trump's far-right policies and racist rhetoric will drive Latinos to the polls.
One top Biden surrogate, former Labor secretary and current Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, said his "get in line" remark was just a poor choice of words.
“I think he has to rephrase and pivot,” Solis said. “I know the man is compassionate and, more importantly, he has a record."
She added that Hispanic voters care most about health care and greatly benefit from Obamacare, which Biden has pledged to protect and improve.
The importance of the Hispanic vote will come to bear Feb. 22, when Nevada, where about 15 percent of the Democratic voters are Hispanic, holds the third nominating contest in the nation. Ten days later, California and Texas voters will cast ballots on Super Tuesday, after which 70 percent of the Latino vote will have weighed in. Hispanic voters also will be crucial in swing states Florida and Nevada in November.
Jose Parra, who once advised former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Latino issues, said he wondered how Biden could have made the “get in line” comment if he truly had been involved in the bipartisan immigration reform effort in 2013. Parra also noted that Biden, during the debate, refused to discuss where he differed with Obama on deportations.
“Many just don’t understand why he was onstage spewing Republican talking points,” Parra said.
Biden was on defense throughout the debate. On immigration, he drew the most fire from the only Latino onstage, Julián Castro, who called for decriminalizing border crossings. Biden disagreed, saying immigrants “have to wait in line.”
Moments later, Biden said, “When people cross the border illegally, it is illegal to do it unless they're seeking asylum. People should have to get in line. That's the problem. And the only reason this particular part of the law is being abused is because of Donald Trump. We should defeat Donald Trump and end this practice.”
People with doctorates “should get a green card for seven years," Biden also said. "We should keep them here.”
Cory Booker criticized him for that.
“It really irks me because I heard the vice president say that if you got a Ph.D., you can come right into this country," the New Jersey senator said. "Well that’s playing into what the Republicans want, to pit some immigrants against other immigrants.”
In Iowa last week, Biden cited the 2008 economic meltdown as an explanation for Obama-era deportations, saying the administration was consumed by keeping the country from “going over the cliff” financially and didn’t turn to deportations until after that crisis.
“We were losing 800,000 jobs a month when we started,” Biden said. “By the time we were able to get things moving and focused on this, we did not send anybody back who had in fact not committed a felony.”
Speaking at length before the Asian and Latino Coalition in Des Moines, Iowa, Biden said he would give Dreamers legal status and promised to end Trump's zero tolerance policy that led to widespread family separation at the border.
“If you’re coming here and you're making the case — you should be able to come to the country and have your case adjudicated. So I would flood the zone with officers who can make the initial determination of whether or not you qualify, immediately,” he said. "And you don’t have to lock a single person up."
“There is no rationale whatsoever to separate families — zero rationale,” Biden added to applause. “We did not do that.”
Asked earlier in the day while at the Iowa State Fair if he thought he adequately addressed deportations under Obama, Biden told POLITICO, “Yes, I do.”
For Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Biden’s effort to explain his debate comment was welcome. At the San Diego meeting with the candidate, she spoke her mind and said she appreciated that he listened when she discussed the “fallacy” of immigration lines for Mexican and Central American migrants.
“The big problem is the belief that the system is working for people of color. It is not,” Salas said. “People talk about how this is a ‘broken system’ and that’s not the case. It is designed to be like this and the idea of, ‘Oh, just get in line like everyone else,’ is just a falsehood.”
Astrid Silva, a Nevada immigration activist and Dreamer who arranged a private meeting in May with Biden and undocumented immigrants, said there was a disconnect between the Biden she has engaged with and the one she saw at the debate.
“The way the vice president has come across in the meetings we have had isn’t necessarily coming across on the stage," Silva said. “Can I say I liked his answer onstage? No. I didn’t appreciate it. But I’ve had the opportunity to speak to him and watch him with these families and the way he spoke to them.”