At Debate, Democrats Challenge Biden Over Obama’s Deportation Record

The topic of immigration was, once again, a major point of contention during the fourth Democratic debate, with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. under attack from hecklers as well as his fellow Democrats over the Obama administration’s deportation record.

Asked whether he would resume President Barack Obama’s deportation rate — which outpaced the first two years of the Trump administration — Mr. Biden said, “Absolutely not.” But he defended Mr. Obama’s record.

“To compare him to Donald Trump, I think, is absolutely bizarre,” he said.

The exchange over immigration began when Julián Castro, who served as Mr. Obama’s housing secretary, defended his proposal to decriminalize border crossings, which he has called the only way to end the Trump administration policy of separating children from their parents at the border.

[Read more about the plan to decriminalize crossing the border.]

Mr. Biden — who seemed to raise his finger during the June debate to indicate he favored Mr. Castro’s plan — has since disavowed that position.

“I have enough guts to say this plan doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Biden said on Wednesday. “The fact of the matter is that when people cross the border illegally, it is illegal to do it unless they’re seeking asylum. People should have to get in line. That’s the problem.”

Mr. Biden called for a plan to “flood the zone” to process asylum seekers and to significantly “increase the number of legal immigrants who are able to come.”

As for Mr. Castro, a cabinet member under Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden said, “I never heard him talking about any of this when he was secretary.”

Other Democrats, siding with Mr. Castro, joined in piling on Mr. Biden, the front-runner.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York repeatedly asked whether Mr. Biden had tried to stop deportations during the Obama administration.

“I didn’t hear your response. You were vice president of the United States. I didn’t hear whether you tried to stop them or not, using your power, your influence in the White House.” Mr. de Blasio said.

He was joined by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has released a plan that he said would “virtually eliminate” immigration detentions, who told Mr. Biden: “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.”

Americans view immigration as the country’s top problem at the moment, their concern prompted in large part by images of children separated from their parents at the border. Yet there is broad disagreement over a solution.

The Trump administration’s crackdown at the border — and the reaction by many Americans who believe migrants have been harshly treated — have pushed Democrats left on the issue. A number of the Democratic candidates have embraced not only decriminalization but also a plan to provide health care benefits to undocumented migrants.

Democratic political advisers worry that the candidates have moved too far left of center, and that it will play into Republican hands by alienating general election voters. In memos, they have urged Democrats to embrace a more moderate message, one that emphasizes reforming immigration but also securing the border.

In advance of Tuesday night’s debate, when Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts argued for decriminalizing border crossings, President Trump’s campaign released a new ad blasting Democrats on immigration, calling their ideas radical and Socialist.

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