MILWAUKEE — Joe Biden has had a two-word retort to recent questions about his record on civil rights and race: Barack Obama.
But when it comes to Latinos and immigration, Biden is learning that the Obama defense doesn’t do the trick: The former Democratic administration’s mass deportations of 3 million people provoked fear and fury in the community at the time, and the bad taste has lingered even with Donald Trump in the White House.
“Biden needs to be accountable,” said Joe Enriquez Henry, vice president of the Midwestern region of League of United Latin American Citizens, which is meeting for its annual convention in Milwaukee this week. “Biden needs to make it clear, if he wants to be president, that he has compassion and understanding and he needs to ask for forgiveness.”
Enriquez Henry, who is mobilizing Latinos to influence the Iowa caucuses, called the “major deportations” during Obama’s presidency a “terrible time” for Latinos and said Biden “needs to do his penance.”
How Biden navigates the policies that Obama — and he, as vice president — pursued during their two terms could go a long way in determining his performance among Latinos and potentially his ability to win the nomination. Latino voters hold major sway in the Nevada caucuses, the third contest of the primary season, as well as in the delegate-rich states of California and Texas. And there are signs the population is more motivated to turn out than it has been in the past: New data from Univision and L2 showed Latino turnout in the 2018 midterms jumped by at least 40 percent across seven battleground states including Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
So far, Biden has pursued an overall strategy of latching himself to Obama. Asked about the deportations of more than 3 million people at last month’s debate, Biden said: “President Obama, I think, did a heck of a job,” before contrasting the former president with Trump.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, took issue with that critique. “The Obama and Biden administration were terrible in their first term,” he said. “His title of deporter in chief was earned.”
Garcia gave the Obama administration credit for implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2014. But he said Biden “needs to explain” why they didn’t pass immigration reform within their first 100 days in office. (During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to push for an immigration reform bill in his first year, but did not do so.)
Julián Castro, Biden’s 2020 opponent who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, told reporters on the sidelines of the Latino citizens group’s convention Thursday that the Obama administration went too far on immigration.
“I have learned the lessons of the past. It seems like Vice President Biden hasn’t,” Castro said.
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Asked whether Biden would have to more fully explain the Obama deportations, Castro said: “That’s inevitable.”
Castro became HUD secretary during Obama’s second term.
Some Latino leaders came to Biden’s defense, confident that he and the mainstream of the party have evolved on immigration and deportation as they’ve watched Trump carry out his hard-line policies.
“Let’s not rehash the past,“ said Martha Fowler, a member of the league from Florida.
Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), who has endorsed Biden, said it would be helpful for the candidate to explain publicly why the Obama administration failed to deliver immigration reform and to lay out what he would do differently if elected. Vela believes Biden has good answers to both concerns, saying he made a strong impression during a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus this week.
“If the public at large, and specifically the Hispanic community, got to hear what we did yesterday,” Vela said Thursday, “I think they would be very confident that we would be well represented with a Biden presidency.”
Still, Biden got a taste of the difficulty he’s in for this week when dozens of activists with the group Movimiento Cosecha protested in the lobby of his recently opened campaign headquarters in Philadelphia. The group brought several family members of people who had been deported during the Obama administration.
Six protesters sat in front of the turnstiles to the elevators to block anyone from entering. After a warning, they were arrested. Outside, on the sidewalk, two activists held a large banner with the Biden campaign logo that read, “We haven’t forgotten 3 million deportations.”
“While Trump is responsible for the current immigration crisis, we can’t ignore that Democrats have a choice to embrace the Obama legacy or choose to address the immigration issue in a humane way,” said Carlos Rojas, one of the protest organizers, who said the organization was demanding an apology from Biden. The group also released a statement: “We can’t go back to a status quo of silent mass deportations or kids in slightly better cages.”
The demonstration struck a nerve in the Biden camp. Senior adviser Cristóbal Alex, the former president of Latino Victory, tweeted: “Brilliant! Storm campaign office not called Trump HQ to protest detention policies! Meanwhile VP Biden was 140 miles away with the Hispanic Caucus working to reunite families, end child detention & deal with root cause of the problem.”
The deportations under Obama and the lack of action on immigration reform early in the former president’s term came up during Biden’s Wednesday meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Members “expressed frustration” with the Obama administration’s early immigration policy, Vela said. Biden responded that from Day One the president was deluged by crises caused by the economic crash — “Obama had everything short of locusts showing up on his desk,” Biden said, according to a source in the room — preventing him from giving the attention to immigration reform that it deserved.
Biden assured the group that he “absolutely” would spend political capital to pass immigration reform immediately after taking office, if he were elected. He said that within 24 hours of his inauguration he would issue executive orders rescinding several of Trump’s actions, including one that makes it harder for those suffering from domestic violence to seek asylum. He said he would also ordain that children not be held in detention facilities.
And he told Hispanic Caucus members that if he wins he would seek their input on his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
Biden was the first 2020 Democratic candidate to request a meeting with the Hispanic Caucus and to sit down with the group. He is planning several summer visits to California to highlight and engage the Latino community.
The controversy swirling around Biden’s candidacy offers a window into a broader debate on the left surrounding immigration and a reckoning over the Obama years. The discussion had remained mostly below the surface as Democrats united in opposition to Trump. But it burst into the open over the past month amid reports of squalid conditions at border detention facilities and as the presidential debates brought the issue to the forefront.
Many 2020 presidential candidates are advocating policies that are far more liberal than what the Obama administration supported, such as decriminalizing border crossings and allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for government health care plans.
Several veterans of the Obama administration, meanwhile, have been publicly defending their legacy and criticizing Democrats for going too far.
We "cannot, as some Democratic candidates for president now propose, publicly embrace a policy to not deport those who enter or remain in this country illegally unless they commit a crime,” Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “This is tantamount to a public declaration (repeated and amplified by smugglers in Central America) that our borders are effectively open to all.”
Cecilia Muñoz, the former director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, tweeted that the debate over decriminalizing border crossings was a distraction and a mistake.
“This won’t be popular with some of our friends, but I agree that Dems need an affirmative agenda to persuade the country that we can handle migration more effectively and humanely than this lot,” she wrote of the Democratic candidates calling for decriminalizing border crossings.
Biden agrees. Asked by CNN last week whether he supports such decriminalization, he said: “No, I don’t. I think people should have to get in line,” adding that asylum cases are different.
Some Obama administration officials have said there’s nothing wrong with reassessing the immigration policies of those years — what was done wrong and how to do better.
"I think it is important to recognize that our approach to immigration enforcement did not always align with our values,” said Andrea Flores, a regional policy director for Hillary Clinton in 2016 who also served under Muñoz as a policy assistant on immigration. But now, Democratic candidates need to put forward “an affirmative plan that focuses on enforcing our laws without tearing families apart."