President Biden’s On-Again, Off-Again Relationship with the Word “Illegal”

By Andrew R. Arthur on March 12, 2024

President Biden delivered the annual State of the Union address on March 7, and when it comes to immigration, only two parts of that speech really stand out: his attempt to make political hay by blaming his Republican opponent, Donald Trump, for the failure of the Senate border bill; and his reference to the migrant charged with the brutal murder of 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley as an “illegal”. He apologized a couple of days later for his use of the term on MSNBC, and that became news in itself, which simply underscores how ridiculous the debate over the disaster that is the Southwest border has become.

“Lincoln Riley”. In his defense, Biden was goaded into even mentioning Riley and her alleged killer by congressional Republicans (many of whom wore buttons that read “Say Her Name, Laken Riley”), and in particular by Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who handed one of the buttons to the president on his way to the dais in the House chamber and chided him from the floor.

That said, Biden shouldn’t have had to have been prompted to talk about that high-profile murder at all, but here’s how it appears in the official White House transcript of the address, starting with reference to the Senate bill:

THE PRESIDENT: But unfortunately, politics have derailed this bill so far.

I’m told my predecessor called members of Congress in the Senate to demand they block the bill. He feels political win — he viewed it as a — it would be a political win for me and a political loser for him. It’s not about him. It’s not about me. I’d be a winner — not really. I —

REPRESENTATIVE GREENE: What about Laken Riley?




THE PRESIDENT: (The President holds up a pin reading “Say Her Name, Laken Riley.”) Lanken Lanken [Laken] Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed.


THE PRESIDENT: By an illegal. That’s right. But how many of thousands of people are being killed by legals?

Most people who heard the address actually heard not “Laken” or “Lanken” Riley, but instead, as the New York Times and CNN both printed their transcriptions, “Lincoln Riley”. Lincoln Riley is a real public figure (he’s the head coach of the University of Southern California’s football team), and the president’s reference to Coach Riley confused and perturbed ESPN sports analyst Pat McAfee.

The flub also didn’t sit well with Riley’s mother, Allyson Phillips, who took to Facebook to comment: “Biden does not even KNOW my child’s name — it[‘s] pathetic! ... If you are going to say her name (even when forced to do so) at least say the right name!”

“Shocked” and “Extremely Disappointed”. In any event, Biden was quickly criticized by his allies and fellow Democrats for referring to the alleged killer as “an illegal”.

As ABC News reported: “The National Immigration Center said it was ‘shocked’ to hear Biden use that term. Rep. Chuy García, D-Ill., said as an immigrant he was ‘extremely disappointed’ to hear it, a sentiment echoed by some other Democratic lawmakers.”

Politico weighed in on the brouhaha as well, noting:

Democrats and immigration advocates have long rejected the word “illegal,” arguing that it’s dehumanizing towards immigrants. There was swift pushback to Biden’s use of the term, particularly since he ordered his immigration agencies in 2021 to no longer use “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants.

The paper linked to two tweets in this vein issued shortly after the speech, one from Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas):

And the other from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.):

At first, Biden was unrepentant. During remarks at Joint Base Andrews before boarding Air Force One the day after the speech, the president was asked: “Do you regret using the word ‘illegal’ to describe immigrants last night, sir?”, to which Biden shot back: “Well, I probably — I don’t re- — technically not supposed to be here”.

“I Shouldn't Have Used 'Illegal.' It's Undocumented.’” That defiance didn’t last. On March 9, the president appeared on MSNBC for an “exclusive interview” with Jonathan Capehart, to correct his characterization of Riley’s alleged killer as an “illegal”.

Capehart set the stage for the exchange between Greene and Biden and then asked: “But during your response to her heckling of you, you used the word ‘illegal’ when talking about the man who allegedly killed Laken Riley.”

Biden cut in:

Undocumented, an undocumented person. And I shouldn’t have used the word ‘illegal’, it’s ‘undocumented’. And look, when I spoke about the difference between Trump and me, one of the things I talked about on the border was, is the way he talked about ‘vermin’, the way he talks about people ‘polluting the blood’, I talked about what I’m not gonna do, what I won’t do, I’m not going to treat any of these people with disrespect. Look — they built the country, the reason our economy’s growing.

Most people, if blamed blamed for both misstating the name of a murder victim and mischaracterizing the status of the person charged with killing her, would apologize for the former, not the latter.

That said, Biden’s hardly alone in his use of the adjective “illegal”. Take Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the current Senate majority leader, who during a 2009 speech, explained:

Illegal immigration is wrong, plain and simple. ... People who enter the United States without our permission are illegal aliens; when we use phrases like ‘undocumented workers,’ we convey a message to the American people that their government is not serious about combating illegal immigration.

Or consider Justice Sonia Sotomayor. An article in the University of Pennsylvania Law review noted that she was being interviewed at Yale Law School in February 2014 when, “during the course of a wide‐ranging discussion”, she “explained that ‘her use of the term ‘undocumented immigrants’ rather than the traditional illegal alien’ label stemmed from her analysis of ‘the issue as a regulatory problem’ and that she found it insulting to label immigrants as criminals”.

Nonetheless, more than six years later in responding to an argument by the state of Texas during the oral argument in Biden v. Texas, the justice referred to an alien subject to detention under the INA as an “illegal immigrant”.

And, for what it’s worth, during the November 2020 oral argument in Niz-Chavez v. Barr, she described persons who are neither citizens nor nationals of the United States as “aliens” — by my count, at least four times — joining Justices Breyer and Kagan in that characterization.

That Was Then, This Is Now. Nor is this the first time that Joe Biden has ever used the term and ones like it.

For example, a May 2019 article in CNN begins: “Joe Biden once spoke about jailing employers who hire ‘illegals,’ said sanctuary cities shouldn’t be allowed to violate federal law, and argued a fence was needed stop ‘tons’ of drugs coming into the country from ‘corrupt Mexico’”.

The article continues, referencing a 2007 campaign event in which the then-senator from Delaware explained:

We’ve got to get tougher with employers. In fact the person we should send to jail is not the illegals, we send to jail the employers . . . If you knowingly hire an illegal alien, then you should be held accountable. Because let me tell you, the next person I hear tell me that my labor guys aren’t willing to work hard, that’s why you have illegals putting up sheetrock, then I want to tell you, you don’t know my guys.

Why, exactly, was CNN discussing Joe Biden’s tough rhetoric in describing immigrants in 2019? That’s explained in the second paragraph:

Then-Sen. Biden’s past comments, which he made in the run-up to and during the 2008 presidential race, show an approach to the issue of immigration that could run afoul of the party’s more liberal wing as Biden seeks the Democratic nomination to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.

In the 2024 race, Biden is president and Trump the challenger, and consequently the incumbent is trying to appear concerned about alien crimes committed on his watch while at the same time attempting to shore up the “more liberal wing” of his party.

That’s why yesterday’s (and yesteryear’s) “illegal” in Biden’s estimation is now “undocumented, an undocumented person” when he’s appearing on the network that best exemplifies that more liberal wing of the Democratic party.

Of course, these rhetorical games distract from the real issues — the national-security, humanitarian, and law-enforcement vulnerabilities inherent in a border in crisis verging on chaos and teetering on the brink of disaster. Those, however, are adult problems that require serious analysis and response. Don’t expect any of it in this hotly contested election year.

For now, the president finds himself in a box of his own design, torn between a need to appear tough on migrant crime and a desire to appeal to migrant interests — all due to his off-the-cuff use of a single adjective, “illegal”.