Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden blasted fellow Democrats who want decriminalize illegally crossing the border, saying Wednesday it would be an invitation to a new surge of illegal immigration from across the world.
Mr. Biden distanced himself from the Obama years, when the administration set records for deportation, saying he would not go back to years of 400,000 removals a year.
“Absolutely not,” he said at Democrats’ presidential debate in Detroit.
But he said proposals to end the criminal penalty against jumping the border would be a bad idea.
“What do you say to all those people around the border who want the same thing?” he said. “If you cross the border illegally you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.”
The debate over decriminalizing illegal immigration has exposed a deep division within the Democratic presidential primary field.
Julian Castro, a former Cabinet official for President Barack Obama, drove the issue at the first debate last month, saying the law making illegal immigration a misdemeanor was part of the source of last year’s family separations at the border.
On Wednesday he bristled at criticism from former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson — who served on the Obama Cabinet with him — and who said decriminalizing illegal border crossings was part of an invitation to more illegal immigration.
“Open borders is a right-wing talking point and frankly I’m disappointed,” Mr. Castro said.
Mr. Castro said the country needed a president with “guts” to stand up to the GOP on immigration.
A steely-eyed Mr. Biden fired back at Mr. Castro: “I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense.”
Sen. Cory A. Booker jumped in, accusing Mr. Biden of adopting GOP policies by saying he wanted to reward high-skilled foreigners who get higher degrees from U.S. universities.
He said that pitted migrants against each other.
“Some are from s—-hole countries, and some are from working countries,” he said, using an expletive that Mr. Trump reportedly used to describe some less-well off countries sending migrants to the U.S.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly demanded Mr. Biden answer for the Obama administration record on illegal immigration.
Mr. Biden said he wouldn’t divulge his own advice to Mr. Obama, but said the former president’s record on immigration was stellar, including creating the DACA deportation amnesty, announced by executive action, that protected hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant “Dreamers.”
Activists disagree. At one point as Mr. Biden was speaking, a group of activists in the audience interrupted him, chanting “Three million deportations” and “Stop all deportations on day one.”
They disrupted the debate for a few moments.
Earlier in the day activists blocked traffic at a tunnel between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, to draw attention to their issue.
Activists generally side with the more liberal Democratic presidential candidates who are calling for an end to the criminal penalties for illegal immigration.
Section 1325 of the immigration law makes crossing the border illegally a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Illegal reentry after a previous deportation — Section 1326 of the immigration law — is a felony punishable by up to two years.
It was those sections of law that the Trump administration cited as the reason for separations during last year’s zero tolerance policy, which saw several thousand children separated. But separations have continued even after zero tolerance ended.
Before zero tolerance, only about one in five illegal immigrants was prosecuted for illegal entry, a misdemeanor, or illegal reentry, a felony — and almost all of them were single adults. As the surge of illegal immigrant families grew last year, the administration announced parents with children would no longer be exempt, and prosecutions rose to about half of illegal entrants, according to Homeland Security.
But because the criminal justice system doesn’t have jails or prisons for families, children were separated from their parents.
The zero tolerance policy was ended in June 2018 after a massive public outcry.
Still, in the year since, another 900 children have been separated for other reasons beyond criminal prosecution for illegal immigration, according to a new court filing this week. Those reasons include parents’ health issues or perceived danger to their children.