WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was stumping for votes at a Nevada high school packed with Latino labor organizers, teachers, and legislators this month when the moderator turned to a subject that weighed heavily on many in the room: the huge spike in deportations under the Obama administration.
What could people expect from Obama’s vice president on an issue that had devastated so many Latino families? asked Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director of the civic engagement organization “Mi Familia Vota.” In an exchange that surprised Sanchez and others, Biden appeared to distance himself from Obama for the first time on the issue.
“You probably know where I was on that, but I am not going to give you that,” Biden said before diving into his immigration priorities. “I was vice president.”
As he seeks the Democratic nomination, Biden has tried to straddle a fine line — invoking Obama’s legacy when closely associating with the popular president’s historic gains on health care and his rebuilding of the economy while separating himself from the controversies. Perhaps, no issue has been thornier for Biden than the Obama administration’s record for removing people illegally in the country, for which Obama picked up the nickname, “deporter in chief.”
Two main questions have followed Biden since he launched his presidential campaign: What was his position when deportations started to climb? And did he do anything to try to stop them?
The answers are complicated, yet they could contribute significantly into whether Biden becomes the party’s nominee — and ultimately wins the presidency.
Biden is struggling to win support from Latinos, as Bernie Sanders has made gains with the voter bloc, which the Vermont senator’s campaign sees as crucial to winning key early states, including Iowa and delegate-rich California and Texas.
Democrats have moved further to the left on immigration amid public outrage over President Trump’s policies. The issue was a top concern among voters in the 2018 midterm elections, energizing Latinos, immigrants, and women.
But while Biden must consider Sanders to his left, he also must weigh Trump to his right.
The Trump administration has separated families at the southwestern border, detained migrants in what the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general called overcrowded and squalid conditions, and forced asylum-seekers fleeing violence to wait in Mexico. Trump has spent $2.9 million on immigration ads on Facebook over the past nine months, according to the communications agency Bully Pulpit Interactive. And he is already attacking Democrats on the issue.
Stephanie Valencia, who served as special assistant to Obama, said people want to hear more from Biden on the issue and the lessons he learned from the Obama administration.
“It’s not to say that we should eliminate all kinds of enforcement or abolish all enforcement, but we have to show we learned lessons from the past,” she said.
Senior Biden adviser Cristóbal Alex, the former president of Latino Victory, said he and other immigration advocacy leaders saw Biden as a “trusted voice and someone they could count on.” The approach Biden aims to take if elected centers on family reunification, he said.
“For him, it’s really understanding what loss is to a community and a family," he said.
Sanchez, who as head of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda aggressively clashed with the Obama administration on deportations, said he was shocked to hear Biden at the Nevada event publicly acknowledge reservations that Biden had only privately expressed to him and at least one other advocate in the past.
But was Biden a rebel on the issue within in the White House? Likely not.
Obama-era officials and former House members who worked with Biden on immigration legislation said they did not personally hear him push back against deportation policies. They contend that was because there was nothing to push back against: There was no concerted effort within the White House to specifically increase deportations, they said. There were no immigration hawks working to drastically limit who crossed the nation’s borders.
Instead, they said, the friction on immigration policy and enforcement tended to stem from a White House that sought to target criminals and terrorists for removal from the country and federal immigration agencies often at odds with just how those priorities should be carried out. The high levels of deportations — roughly 2.5 million over his time in office — came after the administration put in place a system to officially deport people, rather than to informally turn them away, officials said.
“The Obama White House wanted a very focused approach on immigration enforcement,” said John Sandweg, Obama’s former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “I don’t think it’s fair to suggest the White House in any way, shape, or form promoted policies to increase deportations.”
For Biden, the struggle will be making a distinction between the enforcement approach to immigration under Obama and the even more aggressive actions by the Trump administration.
When Obama took office in the midst of an economic crisis, Democrats couldn’t gain the momentum needed to reform the nation’s immigration laws, even among members of their own party. Former White House officials said Biden was focused on shepherding a massive stimulus package through Congress.
Biden didn’t seem closely engaged in the administration’s immigration enforcement priorities or in their day-to-day implementation, officials said. Instead, Biden served as a key negotiator in Congress and abroad. When the Obama administration was grappling with a wave of young children crossing illegally and unaccompanied into the United States in 2014, Biden met with leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and secured humanitarian aid to address the poverty and violence in those countries that people were fleeing.
“It wouldn’t have happened without him,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the White House’s former domestic policy director and Obama’s point person on immigration for eight years.
Biden also helped negotiate the “Dream Act,” which sought a pathway to citizenship for people brought into the country illegally as children, when it came closest to passing Congress in 2010. Three years later, he worked with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to push comprehensive immigration reform legislation through the Senate.
But both of those legislative efforts ultimately stalled.
The immigration problem has since shifted. The biggest concern is no longer men crossing into the country alone in search of employment, but more often women and children. Under Trump’s family separation policy, the federal government held a record 69,550 migrant children last year, including infants, toddlers and teens, according to government statistics.
Biden’s campaign immigration plan calls for the reversal of Trump’s policies and greater accountability for federal immigration agents. Biden recently called for an end to for-profit private detention centers and pledged to tackle comprehensive immigration reform legislation within his first 100 days in office.
Supporters such as California Representative Tony Cárdenas argue no other candidate but Biden has the foreign policy and domestic credentials to beat Trump on the issue.
“Vice President Biden has his heart in the right place and he has the experience to be a great president,” said Cárdenas, who has thrown his weight behind Biden as chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
But if Biden continues to remain mum about his involvement in Obama’s enforcement efforts, some immigrants say, they at least want him to speak out more on the issue.
Elsa Osorio, 45, with the immigrant rights organization United We Dream Action, stood outside the Jan. 14 presidential debate in Des Moines with more than a dozen other activists to demand Biden commit to a moratorium on deportations. Her husband had lived in Arizona for 20 years before he was deported in 2011 after he was stopped in a police roadblock in Colorado.
“They separated my children from their father,” said Osorio, a housekeeper and mother of three from Glendale, Ariz. “We want an immigration system that keeps families together, that excludes no one.”