Migrant advocates, Democrats slam Biden’s use of ‘illegal’ during State of the Union speech

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Immigrant advocates and Democrats are slamming President Joe Biden for using the word “illegal” to refer to an undocumented immigrant in response to audience heckling during his State of the Union Address on Thursday.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene heckled Biden while wearing a shirt with the phrase “say her name,” referring to the death of 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley, who was killed by a Venezuelan migrant in February. Riley’s death has been used as an opportunity by Republicans like Greene to further push anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation this election year.

The exchange happened as Biden urged Congress to pass a bipartisan border bill that advocates said would overhaul the asylum process. The legislation was reportedly “dead on arrival” due to former President Donald Trump’s influence, however.

Greene shouted out Riley’s name, causing Biden to go off script and say she was “an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal – that’s right. But how many of thousands of people are being killed by legals?”

He then added to Riley’s parents, “My heart goes out to you. Having lost children myself, I understand.”

Biden’s use of the word “illegal” — an outdated and offensive term to refer to people residing in this country without authorized documentation — drew ire from the immigrant community, advocates and fellow Democrats.

“President Biden embraced the toughest set of border security reforms we’ve ever seen in this country, formally adopting a more radical anti-immigrant position,” Faisal Al-Juburi, the chief external affairs officer at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services in Texas, said in a statement. “He succumbed to the pressures of a political climate that is increasingly hostile towards immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking people and families.”

Rep. Delia Ramirez, who was in the audience Thursday, posted on the social media platform X, “No human being is illegal.” Congresswoman Ilhan Omar posted similar sentiments.

The National Immigration Center on X said Biden “missed an opportunity to distinguish himself from his predecessor on immigration” and urged the president to do better.

Biden-Harris 2024 campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu said Friday during a press briefing that Biden should not have used the word “illegal” to refer to a person and called it a “small mistake” that should not distract from the broader context of his message.

Riley’s death gained national attention and reinvigorated anti-immigrant sentiments already fueled by former President Donald Trump’s election campaign this year. Jose Ibarra, 26, who is charged in the killing, is believed to have crossed into the U.S. unlawfully in 2022.

Recent polls show that immigration is a top issue for Americans, and a third believe migrants are more prone to violence, despite evidence to the contrary.

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