Senator Biden & Co: Not Hegelian on Immigration

By Stephen Steinlight on August 28, 2008

Whatever Joe Biden does or doesn't contribute to the Democratic ticket by way of gravitas on foreign policy or appeal to white working-class Catholic voters, he's no asset when it comes to immigration policy. He's exhibited neither knowledge nor understanding of the issue – not even of the most basic facts – let alone judgment on policy or comprehension about how to work the issue politically. These deficits, or worse, were on embarrassing display throughout the course of the Democratic primary debates, and he was joined in his remarkable exhibitions of ignorance by several of his colleagues.

Though Biden is presently Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (immigration falls under the purview of the Judiciary Committee) that’s hardly cause to give a pass to a senior legislator, a six-term senator, for failing to possess basic facts about a vast socio-economic-political phenomenon transforming the United States. Especially not this Senator. Biden has served for many years on the Judiciary Committee. He Chaired the Judiciary Committee from 1987-1995 and served as Ranking Minority Member from 1981-1987 and 1995-1997. It also seems astounding that a Senator with so many years on the Judiciary Committee and who supposedly has great expertise about foreign countries would be totally clueless about which ones send the most immigrants to the United States, especially when immigration is the highest in all American history.

In the course of the NPR/Iowa Public Radio Debate on December 4, 2007, Biden made a spectacle of himself with his arrogant, unshakeable insistence that the overwhelming majority of illegal aliens – some 60% -- are non-Spanish speaking. When Steven Inskeep of NPR tried gently correcting him by citing data from the Pew Hispanic Center showing the vast majority of illegal aliens are Hispanic, Biden fairly sneered at the statistics and turned to a red-faced Senator Dodd to confirm his point: on the spot, having to choose between his old colleague and the facts, Dodd muttered something to the effect that not all the data were in and Biden grinned triumphantly, taking Dodd’s cringing, evasive response as support.

Dodd’s sin during the NPR/Iowa Public Radio Debate was to mantle Biden’s inexcusable ignorance with the equivocal, dishonest language habitual to politicians, but he had a severe case of hoof-in-mouth disease of his own regarding immigration during a subsequent debate. In fact, he was impolitic enough to utter a comment widely regarded as deeply offensive, even racist by pro-illegal immigrant advocates. Perhaps needless to say, in political commentary by journalists immediately following the event and in news reports of the debate the next day, the mainstream media gave him the pass typically provided Democrats: it was simply ignored; it was a non-story. During the CNN/You Tube Q&A on July 23, 2007, the candidates were asked about providing health care to illegal aliens. Governor Richardson and Senator Dodd chose to respond and explained why they favored it as well as “bringing illegal aliens out of the shadows.” Sounding like nothing so much as a Victorian sanitary reformer – or any one of a host of political conservatives on the issue, including the most extreme – Dodd brusquely opined it was necessary to get them out of the shadows because otherwise they might spread contagious foreign diseases. Not a peep of criticism followed: talk about double standards!

To view Senator Dodd's remarks at the CNN/You Tube Q&A, go to the 3 minute 40 second marker.

Even more troubling was Biden’s memorable attempt to demagogue the issue by suggesting a paranoid conspiracy. Thanks to the rationality of the audience to whom this pandering was addressed, what Biden presumably thought would be an applause line was greeted with stony silence. One always wishes to be charitable, and perhaps Biden didn’t have his wits entirely about him: he had arrived late to the debate, frozen and out-of-breath, having driven through a snow storm to join the Iowa Brown and Black Forum on December 1, 2007. When the discussion turned to perceptions of mutual African-American and Hispanic conflict over immigration and its effects on employment and opportunity in general, Biden suggested it was all the fault of a bunch of “white guys” who were playing the old “divide and conquer game.” For African Americans and Hispanics who understand the genuine hostility between their communities, this paranoid explanation was yet another form of white condescension: Biden wasn’t even allowing blacks and Latinos the freedom to dislike each other or hold opposing views of their best interests as a matter of their own volition. He had sufficient sense to let that gambit go quickly.

But the Senator couldn’t let the occasion pass without exhibiting, once more, his startling ignorance regarding illegal immigration. He remarked that 60% of illegal aliens are non-Spanish-speaking people, and focused on visa over-stayers, citing the Irish and Poles, leaving the strong impression the group is primarily European in origin.

To find Senator Biden's remarks at the Iowa Brown and Black Forum, go to the 1 hr 14 minute marker.

It’s impossible to know whether these displays of ignorance were politically-motivated and calculated, thus duplicitous – what Saint Thomas Aquinas calls “Ignorantia Affectata” in Summa Theologica – or whether he is simply stunningly ignorant of facts central to the work of a Senate Committeee he chaired for years. But engaging in concscious disinformation or being astoundingly clueless are equally inexcusable, especially in a man who may be a heartbeat away from being President.

Everyone – just about – is educable. Assuming his misstatements are the product of honest ignorance, perhaps in the course of the campaign Biden will take some time and familiarize himself at least with the facts we can all agree upon. Senator Dodd might do so as well, and former Senator Mike Gravel who believes America suffers from a labor shortage. Since Biden’s evidently so thoroughly uninformed when it comes to the subject, perhaps we might see that he receives a recently published work on immigration policy by one Mark Krikorian, whose name he might not even recognize, and try to guide his education on the subject.