LAS VEGAS — Joe Biden, in a swing through Nevada on Saturday, continued to face tough questions and criticism about his defense of the Obama administration’s mass deportations — but that might not stop him from winning Latino votes in the state.
In Las Vegas on Saturday, Biden was pressed again on whether he would disavow the mass deportations that occurred in the Obama administration, which, at times, were happening at a higher rate than under Trump.
“You privately know where I was on that but I’m not going to get into that because I was vice president,” Biden told Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director of Mi Familia Vota.
That was a slight, but significant, departure from his outright defense of the policy on the debate stage and on the campaign trail in previous months. But he again sidestepped or outright refused to make firm commitments on other points on Saturday — whether he would commit to getting comprehensive immigration reform passed in the first 100 days of his administration, and whether he would commit to appointing four Latinx cabinet members.
Several Latino voters in the room with Biden on Saturday, however, didn’t see his reluctance to apologize for the deportations or commit to more specifics as a disqualifying factor — something that so far has been reflected in Nevada polls, which in recent months have shown Biden consistently ahead of or neck-in-neck with Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I think he has the perfect maturity to be able to run the country,” said Gloria Castro, who hasn’t decided whom to vote for but says she is seriously considering Biden. “I think the candidate just has to win.”
Asked about criticisms of Biden’s approach to immigration, Castro said, “He just needs to pay more attention to our community and not hurt us more than we’re already hurt.”
She added that broadly all campaigns need to invest more in Spanish-language campaigns if they want to win over Latinos in Nevada — she said she has only seen ads in Spanish from billionaire Tom Steyer.
“I respect his decision-making,” said Thania Moctezuma, 18, who said she’s decided to vote for Biden. “I feel like his approach to those answers [on immigration] — they were good. They were thought through. He knew what he was talking about when he was saying all this stuff. Could there be improvement? Yes, there could always be improvement just as any human being, but so far how he’s been approaching things is moderate and appropriate.”
Biden’s immigration plan acknowledges “the pain felt by every family across the U.S. that has had a loved one removed from the country, including under the Obama-Biden administration.” Some immigration advocates were unmoved. They say Biden stops short of several reforms other candidates have proposed, including decriminalizing border crossings, an immediate moratorium on deportations, and fundamentally redesigning the way immigration enforcement agencies work.
“All he has to simply say is ‘We tried. We couldn’t make it happen. I am ready to turn a new page,’” Adrian Reyna, strategy director of United We Dream Action, told BuzzFeed News. “For us, it is a sign that there is zero commitment from them mentally to the idea that immigrants should be protected.”
“The thing that I have told time and time again to the Biden campaign is … that look, this is just the primary; your boss is literally the frontrunner; and if this is the way he is reacting to questions about Obama, how is he going to respond to Trump?” Reyna added.
Erika Castro, a DACA recipient and immigration activist with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said she hasn’t been impressed with how Biden talks about immigration — and as she waits for a life-changing Supreme Court ruling on her immigration status, she said she needs more from a presidential candidate.
“I worry that there’s a lack of urgency in how this issue is impacting communities like mine,” she said.
“When somebody brings that up, and the response is hostile, to me that shows that you don’t see my humanity and you don’t see how painful it is to be undocumented,” she said, of Biden’s handling of the Obama legacy.
Castro was part of an immigration roundtable discussion organized by the campaign on Sunday. Castro said her father was arrested and detained by ICE for close to a month in 2017 because of a minor traffic violation.
Two Biden endorsers, Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis and Rep. Filemon Vela of Texas, sat with half a dozen Nevada-based immigrant advocates and lawyers, who took the opportunity to press the surrogates and campaign staff about the deportations, and more broadly about their concerns that Biden’s plan does not include dismantling many of the current processes and agency practices that they say the Trump administration has been able to weaponize against immigrants.
“How can I trust a candidate that, for instance, yesterday at the town hall, he mentioned that he can’t commit to doing comprehensive immigration reform in the first hundred days?” Erika Castro asked the Biden team, adding that she hasn’t heard Biden consider using executive power as president to stop deportations and address urgent problems with the system while working on reforms.
“How can we ensure that he is actually taking us into account and that we’re not just going to be political pawns again?” she asked.
Biden “was just being realistic with his answer … there’s not a way to get comprehensive immigration reform in the first 100 days” while Republicans control the Senate, Vela responded, adding that even if Democrats controlled both chambers, “we never know right, because we have some differences in our caucus.”
The former vice president’s plan is “strongest on visa reform,” said Michael Kagan, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who was also at the Sunday meeting.
Kagan said he does think Biden has “taken steps to try to own and apologize for the chain of deportations that occurred especially during the first term of the Obama administration,” referring to the language in Biden’s policy plan.
“On many areas of immigration enforcement, the Biden plan essentially says, ‘Trust me; I’m Joe Biden.’ The protections that would be offered to many immigrants would be in the form of the president’s discretion,” said Kagan, adding that Biden doesn't propose as much as other candidates to reform ICE and CBP.
Kagan said after the meeting on Sunday that while he doesn’t doubt Biden’s sincerity in saying his administration would not use ICE and CBP to attack immigrants the way Trump has, not taking more steps to curb their power “fails to learn one of the lessons of the Obama administration, which is if you leave a dangerous machine intact and available, it’s eventually going to be used in a dangerous way.”
At the discussion on Sunday, the Biden campaign seemed to agree with the idea that on issues like local law enforcement working with ICE, the current system is open to being used by presidents to very different ends.
“It does matter who’s in charge, it matters who’s president, and I think we all have seen that in a way that we probably didn’t think was possible,” said Laura Jimenez, Biden’s national Latino engagement director, during the roundtable talk. “These priorities are coming from the top in the same way that the rhetoric is.”
But those at the table were left frustrated that the Biden campaign won’t commit to what they see as the next step — more substantially changing the way the system is set up so that it can’t be easily weaponized in the same way against immigrants by a future president.
“The plan has good points, but there’s still some items that were left out that are some of the ones that are hurting us the most,” said Cecia Alvarado, Nevada state director for Mi Familia Vota, after Sunday’s meeting, which she said she appreciated being invited to as a sign the campaign is trying to reach out to community leaders.
One significant group of Nevada’s Latino voters in particular may find themselves having to choose between two urgent priorities for them: health care and progressive immigration reform — a choice that potentially gives Biden an advantage.
The largest and arguably most influential union in Nevada, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226’s leadership has made it clear that they are not behind Medicare for All because it would involve giving up union-negotiated health care plans. That leaves Biden and Buttigieg as the two frontrunners the union is likely to consider if they make an endorsement during the primary (in 2016, the union did not endorse during the primary but backed Hillary Clinton in the general election).
The union’s 60,000 members are 54% Latinx and 15% Asian, representing workers who keep Las Vegas’s billion-dollar casino and hotel industry running. In 2016, the union says, 60% of its membership was registered to vote — including members’ families, the union says as of 2019 they have approximately 82,400 people registered to vote.
“The health care issue for the members is number one,” said Geoconda Argüello-Kline, Secretary-Treasurer for the Culinary Union.
At two CWU town halls on Saturday morning with Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, about a dozen members told BuzzFeed News their top two priorities are health care and immigration — and almost all mentioned Biden and Buttigieg as the candidates they’re considering, despite the criticisms of Biden’s approach to immigration from advocates.
“I liked what Biden said in general,” said Luz Valdivia, a union member, adding that she is watching what union leaders say. “It’s important who the union leaders support because the union supports us.”
Asked how union leaders are weighing up candidates’ health care and immigration approaches, and whether there is a tension between the two priorities, the union’s communications director Bethany Khan responded, “We will keep speaking with candidates and members about importance of having a president who will champion issues that working families care about — health care, immigration, the economy, and making it easier for workers to organize into unions.”
Solis, in her closing pitch at the roundtable immigration meeting on Sunday, reiterated that she thinks immigrant communities should trust Biden to protect them “I believe so strongly in what Biden represents, and I know at least four or five of the others personally, because I served with them,” she said. “I can attest to someone who when he gives his word, he gives his word.”
During Sunday’s discussion, Vela said he had some of the same misgivings as advocates about Biden having been part of the Obama administration when mass deportations were taking place. But, he said, “I had made the decision to support him nonetheless because there’s so many issues, you just can’t agree on everything.”
Vela said, regarding mass deportations, “Very clearly the Obama administration was wrong on this issue.”
After the event, Vela was asked if Biden himself should directly acknowledge the deportations as a misstep and apologize.
“I really don’t think so,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Well, I mean, you have to put the Obama presidency in context, and it may not have been perfect in every single respect but so much good was done on so many fronts, and I think there’s also the question of loyalty. He was the vice president of President Obama for eight years, and sometimes you just have to have a practical perspective on some of this.”
“I think we have to look forward to the future, and I’m hopeful that if we’re ever in a position where he’s in charge that we’re going to be able to fix a lot of this,” Vela continued.
This post has been updated to clarify that Adrian Reyna is strategy director for United We Dream Action.