Opinion: Joe Biden flubbed yet another Democratic debate question about deportations

Former Vice President Joe Biden. He was challenged again in Thursday's debate about President Obama's deportation policies.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s bungled answer to a question about the Obama administration’s deportation policy may not have been the highlight of Thursday’s spirited Democratic presidential debate. But it pointed to something significant — and I don’t mean any age-related cognitive lapses on Biden’s part.

Univision anchor Jorge Ramos challenged Biden by saying, “You served as vice president in an administration that deported 3 million people, the most ever in U.S. history. Did you do anything to prevent those deportations? I mean, you’ve been asked this question before and refused to answer, so let me try once again. Are you prepared to say tonight that you and President Obama made a mistake about deportations? Why should Latinos trust you?”

As Ramos acknowledged, this was a recycled question from the July 31 debate. In that encounter, Biden indeed seemed befuddled by the question. While he did say in his answer that someone who commits a major crime should be deported, he didn’t emphasize that “we’re deporting criminals” was the Obama administration’s defense to the charge that it was on a deportation binge.


It’s a defense with some justification. In a January 2017 study, the Migration Policy Institute said that “Obama-era policies represented the culmination of a gradual but consistent effort to narrow its enforcement focus to two key groups: The deportation of criminals and recent unauthorized border crossers.”

Biden could have offered that answer in the earlier debate, but he didn’t. And he missed the opportunity again on Thursday night. This was his weak response: “The president did the best thing that could be done at the time.” He added: “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent.” Um, thanks, Joe.

But why didn’t Biden hammer home the obvious defense of Obama’s deportation record? Perhaps for the same reason other Democratic candidates have been reluctant to give their view on when deportation might be appropriate.

At least during the primary season, it’s not advantageous for a Democratic candidate to emphasize who shouldn’t be allowed into the country (or returned after they cross the border or overstay their visas).

That’s not just a matter of pandering to Democratic primary voters — not only Latinos — for whom generosity to migrants is a key issue. President Trump’s scorched-earth approach to migrants in the country illegally has been so cruel and so freighted with bigotry and xenophobia that it’s understandable that Democrats wouldn’t want to talk about how they would restrict immigration.

As the New York Times reported in a story published the day before the debate: “An examination of the candidates’ immigration policies and stances shows they have spent most of their efforts on dismantling the Trump administration’s policies, without really laying out how, if elected, they would handle illegal border crossings, eliminate a growing immigration court backlog, direct immigration enforcement or address the root causes of migration from Central America.”

So Biden’s failure — twice — to offer a robust defense of Obama’s deportation policy was probably not an example of age-related amnesia. More likely, it reflects Biden’s recognition of the fact that deportation for any reason is a difficult policy to defend in a Democratic primary.


But that diffidence could come back to haunt Biden — or some other Democratic nominee — in a general election contest with Trump, who already has accused Democrats of supporting “open borders.”