During the second night of his party's second presidential debate in Detroit, former Vice President Joe Biden faced sharp criticism from his fellow Democrats — as well as members of the audience — over deportations that occurred during the Obama administration.
Pressed by CNN's Don Lemon on Wednesday about the fact that more immigrants were removed from the country during the first two years of President Obama's tenure than in President Trump's first two years, Biden said he would not ramp up deportations if elected president.
But the former vice president was quickly interrupted by a small group of activists who shouted "3 million deportations!" — a reference to the estimated number of removals by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during Mr. Obama's eight years in office.
After the jeers, Biden touted his efforts as vice president to tackle the factors that have prompted hundreds of thousands of Central Americans to journey north in recent years, saying long-term investment is essential to strengthen the region's institutions and quell the widespread poverty and violence prevalent in many communities.
But Biden said the government should be able to deport migrants who cross the border illegally, alluding to pledges by former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and other progressives to decriminalize "improper" border crossings — a federal misdemeanor crime under current law.
Castro quickly pushed back. "It seems like one of us have learned from the lessons of the past and one of us hasn't," he said, referring to Biden.
After a few of the other candidates on stage were asked about the different facets of their immigration agendas, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio returned to the matter of deportations and directly targeted Biden. "I didn't hear your response on the deportations — was it a good idea?" de Blasio said, asking the former vice president if he told Obama that he disagreed with the number of removals during their time in the White House.
Biden largely demurred, saying he would not disclose private conversations with Obama.
That's when New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker jumped in, accusing Biden of being inconsistent about his embrace of Obama's presidency.
"You can't have it both ways," Booker said. "You invoke President Obama more than anyone in this campaign; you can't do it when it's convenient and then dodge it when it's not."
Booker also faulted Biden for suggesting earlier in the debate that immigrants with Ph.Ds should be given priority in the system.
"This really irks me because I heard the vice president say that: 'If you've got a Ph.D, you can come right into this country.' Well, that's playing into what the Republicans want: to pit some immigrants against other immigrants. Some are from 'sh--hole countries' and some are from worthy countries," Booker said.
Although he supported comprehensive immigration reform and instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for young undocumented immigrants though executive action, Obama faced ample criticism from immigration advocates, who labeled him "deporter-in-chief" because of the relatively high number of deportations under his watch. They also denounced his handling of the 2014 surge of unaccompanied migrants minors at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The total removals by ICE during Obama's presidency surpassed more than 3 million, with the highest number of yearly deportations coming in 2012, when the agency removed more than 400,000 undocumented immigrants, according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) figures. Most removals, however, involved immigrants who had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors or migrants recently apprehended near the border.
Last year, ICE removed more than 250,000 people, and many were also recently apprehended migrants.