Democrats Chide Biden for Saying 'Illegal' Instead of 'Undocumented'

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March 8, 2024

President Joe Biden referred to an illegal migrant as an "illegal" during his State of the Union address Thursday night, drawing backlash from members of his own political party. 

"Lincoln [sic] Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. That’s right," Biden said of the February murder of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old University of Georgia nursing student, allegedly by a Venezuelan national who had entered the United States illegally. The off-script remark came as a response to heckling from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.), who interrupted Biden’s comments on the border crisis to reference Riley's murder.

Biden’s use of the term "illegal" quickly prompted condemnation from Democrats, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), who said on X, "No human being is illegal," and Rep. Chuy Garcia (Ill.), who said that "as a proud immigrant" he was "extremely disappointed to hear President Biden use the word ‘illegal.’"

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D., Texas), meanwhile, called Biden’s remark "dangerous rhetoric" but did not blame the president directly, instead suggesting Biden was "getting bad advice from his advisors and speech writers." Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), the former House speaker and a longtime supporter of Biden, said the president "should have said 'undocumented,'" although she added that "it’s not a big thing."

"We were shocked to hear the president echo the words of anti-immigrant extremists in his #SOTU speech tonight," the National Immigrant Justice Center said on X. "Manipulating a personal tragedy for political gain in this way is dangerous. Conflating immigration status with criminality is racist and dehumanizing."

Biden’s remark came after his own administration in 2021 asked Department of Homeland Security officials to stop using terms such as "illegal alien" and instead opt for "undocumented individual," "undocumented noncitizen," and other more "inclusive" phrases. "While it may to some be a symbolic change, we remove the word 'alien' from the immigration code and replace it with 'non citizen,'" Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) said at the time. "No longer will we dehumanize the undocumented."