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Biden faces ‘beyond disappointed’ Democrats after calling suspected killer ‘an illegal’

Immigrants’ rights groups and Democratic officials have criticised President Joe Biden’s off-script description of an undocumented immigrant as “an illegal,” drawing comparisons to Donald Trump’s dehumanising language and warning that the administration is bending to Republican pressure on immigration.

Responding to jeers from far-right US Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene in the middle of his State of the Union address on Thursday, the president echoed Ms Greene by calling the Venezuelan immigrant who allegedly killed Laken Riley “an illegal”.

“An innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. That’s right,” Mr Biden said. “But how many thousands of people, being killed by legals? To her parents I say, and my heart goes out to you, having lost children myself, I understand.”

Though he appeared to be referencing Ms Greene’s remarks, Latino members of Congress and members from immigrant backgrounds reminded the president that “no human being is illegal.”

Mr Biden’s own campaign chair Mitch Landrieu agreed that “he probably should’ve used a different word, and I think he would know that.”

“But what you should notice about that is not that he made a small mistake,” he told CNN on Friday. “The big thing that he didn’t write, and this is what this president always does, is express empathy to people, he expressed kindness to people. He understands because, as you know, he lost a number of children in his life.”

Democratic US Rep Chuy Garcia, among Latino members of Congress who criticised Mr Biden’s remarks, said he was “beyond disappointed” to hear the president’s use of the word “illegal” as a noun.

“Beyond this, the president missed an opportunity to unite our country on immigration. He did not lay out a plan that addresses the root causes of what brings people to our border or ensures immigrants are treated with dignity and respect in our communities,” he added.

Progressive members of Congress have urged the White House to step back from Republican pressure to militarise the US-Mexico border as immigration becomes the GOP’s election-year wedge issue, championed by likely nominee Donald Trump.

“Republicans will never be satisfied with this rightward march on immigration, and that should not be our goal,” Mr Garcia said. “They have no interest in serious reform.”

President Joe Biden holds a pin with the name of Laken Riley, a Georgia woman who was allegedly killed by a Venezuelan man. Republicans have used her her death to push for plans to militarize the US-Mexico border (AP)
President Joe Biden holds a pin with the name of Laken Riley, a Georgia woman who was allegedly killed by a Venezuelan man. Republicans have used her her death to push for plans to militarize the US-Mexico border (AP)

US Rep Joaquin Castro of Texas said Mr Biden’s rhetoric is “dangerous” and suggests he is “getting bad advice from his advisers and speech writers.”

“I just don’t get why the president will go down that road,” he told The Texas Tribune. “I don’t think it’s helpful to him or to the Democratic Party.”

A three-sentence response from the National Immigration Law Center to the president’s State of the Union address said Mr Biden “missed an opportunity to truly distinguish himself from his predecessor on immigration.”

“Rather than embracing the policies he articulated on his first day in office, the President instead doubled down on the Senate’s failed border bill and parroted dehumanizing Republican rhetoric about immigrants,” Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center and the NILC Immigrant Justice Fund, said in a statement. “We urge the president to do better.”

On CNN after the president’s remarks, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr Biden should have said “undocumented,” but “it’s not a big thing.”

House Republicans, under Mr Trump’s urging, have largely rejected bipartisan border legislation that largely catered to GOP demands for increased security funding.

“I know you know how to read,” Mr Biden said during his address. “I’m told my predecessor called Republicans in Congress and demanded they block the bill. He feels it would be a political win for me and a political loser for him. It’s not about him, it’s not about me.”

Republicans “owe it to the American people” to “get this bill done,” he said.

“And if my predecessor is watching: instead of playing politics and pressuring members of Congress to block the bill, join me in telling Congress to pass it,” he added.