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Democratic debate: Joe Biden comes under attack on immigration

Border Patrol
A U.S. Border Patrol agent near the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Santa Teresa, N.M.
(Russell Contreras / Associated Press)

Former Vice President Joe Biden came under intense fire from rivals over immigration in the Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday as he was pressured to answer for deportations under the Obama administration.

“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?” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked Biden after the former vice president twice sidestepped questions on the matter.

“I was vice president,” Biden responded. “I am not the president. I keep my recommendation in private, unlike you. I expect you would go ahead and say whatever was said privately with him. That’s not what I do.”

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey pounced.

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“Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”

Booker went on to criticize Biden for saying that immigrants with a PhD degree should automatically get green cards letting them stay in the United States for seven years.

“Well that’s playing into what the Republicans want — to pit some immigrants against other immigrants,” Booker said. Borrowing President Trump’s vulgar description of African nations, he added: “Some are from ‘shithole’ countries and some are from worthy countries.”

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During Obama’s eight years in the White House, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported roughly 2.8 million people, according to the agency’s statistics. Trump’s deportations, although ramping up, have not kept such an aggressive pace.

Biden also found himself at odds with four rivals who say it should no longer be a crime to enter the United States without permission.

Apart from those seeking asylum, Biden stated, “It’s a crime.”

“People should have to get in line,” he said.

Booker, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, and Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York each said border crossings without legal papers should be a civil rather than criminal violation.

The law making such crossings a crime is what has enabled Trump to lock up thousands of migrants and separate children from their parents, they said. Under the Obama administration, such crossings were primarily treated as civil, rather than criminal, violations.

“I don’t think we should have a law on the books that can be so misused,” Gillibrand said.

Harris recalled her visit last month to a privately operated federal detention center for children of migrants in Homestead, Fla.

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“These children have not committed crimes and should not be treated like criminals,” she said.

Times staff writer Molly O’Toole contributed to this report.


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