It was perhaps one of the last things town hall attendees in Greenwood, South Carolina, expected to hear from a Democratic presidential candidate on Thursday (November 22): “You should vote for Trump.” Yet Joe Biden, the former Vice President currently vying for the Democratic nomination said it twice.
He directed those words at Carlos Rojas, an activist with Moviemento Cosecha, an advocacy group dedicated to serving and protecting the estimated 11 million people in the United States who are undocumented. At the town hall at Lander University, Rojas served as a translator for an activist named Silvia, who leads the group Dignidad Inmigrante and expressed to Biden that it was difficult for her to trust the former Vice President given his connection to the Obama administration, whose deportation policies affected over three million people directly over the course of eight years.
Biden told the woman that he would not promise to halt all deportations on day one in office; instead, he said he would prioritize deportations “of people who have committed a felony or serious crime.”
At a later point in the night, Rojas began speaking without the mic, and explained to both Biden and the crowd that he volunteered for the Obama campaign prior to the 2008 election, citing that he believed in the campaign message of “hope.” But when he expressed that he became disillusioned when he saw that families were being separated as a result of the deportation process, the candidate cut in: “You should vote for Trump.” He said it twice.
“The first time that he said it, I thought I heard it right, but in my mind I was like, ‘That really can't be his answer,’” Rojas told MTV News about the interaction. “When he said it again, I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, he's really telling us to vote for Trump.’ To me, that message just speaks to a candidate out of touch with the needs of the immigrant community.”
Representatives for Biden declined to comment for this story.
This isn’t the first time Biden has come under fire for the way he responds to protestors and people questioning his record as a vice president or senator. In October, he told a climate activist, “Look at my record, child,” when she asked him about taking money from industries that have profited off of environmental destruction.
The former vice president does not currently have a plan dedicated to immigrant rights, and the issue of Obama’s legacy has been a point of contention for the candidate in recent months especially. At the Democratic primary debate in July, moderator Don Lemon asked him about the track record and if the high number of deportations would resume in his administration, to which Biden replied that they would not. Soon after, protestors began chanting “three million deportations;” then-candidate Bill de Blasio later asked if he ever intervened and tried to influence Obama on deportation policies. Biden instead focused on Obama’s implementation of DACA and advocacy of the DREAM Act.
At the September Democratic primary debates, moderator Jorge Ramos asked Biden directly if he “did anything to prevent” the three million deportations; Biden replied that the administration “did what needed to be done,” then tried to distance those decisions from the Trump administration by claiming that at least the Obama administration “didn’t put people in cages” and “didn’t separate families.”
It would be a lesser-of-two-evils if it were true; activists have since pointed out that such tactics have long preceded the Trump administration, even if their current iterations have reached staggering new levels of cruelty.
Rojas said it was “really concerning to see Biden as a Democratic candidate debate immigration on the terms set up by the Trump administration” and pointed to Biden’s hypothetical of prioritizing the deportation of criminals. Multiple reports have shown that documented and undocumented immigrants alike are far less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born citizens. Entering the U.S. without proper documentation is a criminal offense under Section 1325 of immigration law, which presidential candidate Julián Castro wants to repeal; the Trump administration has since used that provision as the basis to enact the “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in the forced separation of thousands of migrant families.
“[For Biden] to say that he’s only going to focus on criminals, when we have a system that already criminalizes our community every day because of our skin color, it is outrageous,” Rojas added. “I believe that a Democratic frontrunner like Biden should stay away from language that scapegoats the immigrant community.”
As part of their work, Moviemento Cosecha is asking prospective voters to hold candidates accountable on immigration, specifically on whether they would implement a moratorium on deportation on their first day in office. So far, only Senator Bernie Sanders has said he would; Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she would consider such a measure. And the issue is at an all-time paramount, given that the Supreme Court is currently deliberating whether the Trump administration improperly rescinded Obama-era DACA protections to new recipients.
“Very similar to how Obama provided relief from deportation for undocumented youth, any president could use their executive power to provide relief for all undocumented immigrants,” Rojas said. “I think that once that's in place, we can actually have a real conversation about a permanent solution, which includes Congress voting on a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants.”
Undocumented immigrants are not able to vote in elections, but Rojas cautions any candidate who underestimates the power of those immigrants’ families or their allies. “The issue of immigration really affects not just those who have family members who are undocumented and not just those who are undocumented themselves, but full communities,” he says, citing the mass raids that have resulted in the detainment or deportation of hundreds of workers, as well as the threatened raids that have put swaths of the nation on edge.
“Over the last two years, we have seen people stand up for the immigrant community in levels that we haven't seen before. People are outraged because of the family separation process, because of the deaths at the border. This crisis has reached the American public in a real way,” Rojas adds. “We have been waiting on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill for nearly two decades. We are waiting on presidents to take bold action on immigration.” He believes the country needs “courageous” leaders who will move on immigration reform immediately, in a way that affirms the lives of the migrants who call the country home.