By BILL BARROW, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Going further than he ever has in expressing regret over Obama administration immigration policy, presidential candidate Joe Biden called it a “big mistake” to have deported hundreds of thousands of people without criminal records.
“We took far too long to get it right,” Biden said in a wide-ranging, sometimes contentious interview with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. The former vice president later added: “I think it was a big mistake. Took too long to get it right.”
In written statements included as part of Biden’s proposed immigration overhaul, the campaign already had acknowledged “pain” surrounding deportations that occurred when he served as President Barack Obama’s vice president. But the candidate himself had not so clearly stated his personal regrets.
The 20-minute interview was posted to Ramos’ Facebook page, and Biden aides said portions would be broadcast in coming days on Univision as Biden and his Democratic presidential rivals campaigned in Nevada ahead of the February 22 caucuses, the third nominating contest and the first with a significant Latino population.
Biden emphasized to Ramos his proposals to expand legal immigration, bolster the asylum process and end construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. The project has been President Donald Trump’s hallmark anti-immigration effort.
“This is a big country,” Biden told Ramos, dismissing “the idea we can’t accommodate more people in the interest of the United States.” He called “legal as well as undocumented immigrants” key contributors to the U.S. economy and society.
“We stand up and act like it’s a burden,” he said. “It is not a burden. It’s a gift.”
Ramos and Biden had a testy exchange during Democrats’ September primary debate when the high-profile Latino journalist noted Obama’s deportation record and asked Biden, “Why should Latinos trust you?” Just as he did in September, Biden rejected any suggestion that Obama’s record on immigration is commensurate to Trump’s.
When Ramos queried Biden this time on 3 million deportations, including an estimated 1.7 million people who had no criminal record, Biden initially pushed back by asserting that previous administrations had “deported twice as many people,” a claim he could not support with federal data. Pressed again, Biden relented.
“It was painful,” Biden said. “It took too long. But we began to get it right with the DACA program,” he continued, referring to Obama’s executive order that granted legal status to immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
Biden stuck to his defense that the Obama administration did not “put kids in cages,” as Trump has done. Ramos showed Biden a photo of an unaccompanied minor who was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and detained during Obama’s second term. Biden argued that handling a wave of minors who came alone was different than the Trump administration’s decision to separate families at the border. Biden said any children held under the Obama administration were quickly moved out of detention facilities.
The Obama administration, Biden noted, increased development aid to Central American countries to encourage migrants to stay by improving their conditions at home. Trump abandoned that approach.
“You know you’re not telling the truth here about the comparison of the two things,” a visibly frustrated Biden told Ramos.
Biden mustered a similar retort when Ramos reminded him that, as a senator, Biden supported appropriations for physical border barriers. Biden insisted he supported construction of facilities at “legal points of entry,” where he said most drugs and terrorist activity enters. “Making sure we modernize crossings,” Biden argued, is different than “a wall that [Trump] wants from sea to shining sea.”
Biden’s immigration priorities include ending family separations at the border, rolling back Trump’s travel limits on citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries and providing a citizenship path for about 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, including immediately shielding from deportation the immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
The former vice president also has pledged to enforce existing asylum law by reversing the Trump administration’s moves that have made claiming asylum extremely difficult, while ending the national emergency that Trump has declared to divert Pentagon appropriations to the construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As a counter to Trump’s wall and asylum limits, Biden calls for increasing the annual cap on refugees from 18,000 to 125,000. And he emphasized a proposal to spend $4 billion in four years aimed at stabilizing Central American governments and economies. The idea, Biden explained in Nevada, is to address the root causes of mass migration and relieve pressure at the U.S. border, where the scene of migrant detention facilities has drawn international attention.