by Jenna Johnson
Joe Biden in August at an Asian and Latino Coalition town hall event in Des Moines. (Jason Bergman/Sipa USA/AP)
Joe Biden recently told a popular Spanish-language radio broadcaster that he would introduce a comprehensive immigration proposal on his first day as president. He spoke alongside Latino civil rights activists about the spread of the coronavirus in meatpacking plants staffed primarily by immigrants. His wife, Jill, who is learning Spanish while stuck at home by the pandemic, has begun meeting weekly with small groups of Latino members of Congress, taking notes on a range of issues to share with her husband.
In a private conversation months ago with some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee distanced himself from some of the Obama administration’s most controversial immigration policies, including its high number of deportations.
“He basically, respectfully, said that was the Obama administration’s decision, as a whole. He didn’t run point for that,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who helped arrange the meeting last year and endorsed Biden in December. “And Joe Biden, on top of that, mentioned that under his presidency, we wouldn’t see the need nor would we see those numbers of deportations. That’s just not what his path is going to be.”
In public and behind the scenes, Biden has been taking steps to address the view among some immigration rights activists that he has been dismissive of their concerns. It could be a critical weakness — Biden lost Latinos in several high-profile primaries to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) well after he began to reposition himself — and one that could be pivotal to his fate in several general-election states, such as Florida and Arizona.
These activists are desperate to see President Trump defeated, and they fear Biden has yet to deliver a compelling and effective counterargument on immigration — or even talk about the issue as much as Trump does.
They worry that if the former vice president is too focused on winning the support of white voters in swing states who like some of Trump’s hard-line immigration stances, Biden could alienate some Latino voters, who are expected to become the country’s largest nonwhite voting bloc this fall. And there is lingering resentment for how the Obama administration promised to make immigration restructuring a top priority, then deported more than 3 million people.
Biden said in a tense Univision interview in February that those deportations were “a big mistake” that caused many families pain. While Cárdenas and many who have endorsed Biden are confident he would govern differently, others are skeptical.
Some were disappointed that Biden did not publicly condemn Trump’s decision last month to temporarily halt immigration because of the high unemployment rate, an action that a majority of Americans agree with. Others are waiting for him to weigh in on recent proposals to give stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants who often are essential workers. Some were alarmed when the Biden campaign began airing an ad in battleground states that accused Trump of having “rolled over for the Chinese” amid the pandemic and “let in 40,000 travelers from China.”
The ominous narration coupled with images of Chinese officials looked and sounded like something the Trump campaign would release, said Cristina Jiménez, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream, which advocates for the undocumented.
“It leaves a lot of concern for us … that Biden would use Trump messaging to talk about immigration when, quite frankly, some of his policies were getting on the right pathway,” she said. “There’s definitely been a missed opportunity to lift up how he would be different than Trump.”
The Biden campaign declined to make the candidate available for an interview.
While Biden has broadly promised to undo Trump’s immigration actions, he has long been cautious in talking about his own proposals, a reflection of the complicated politics he faces as he looks to November.
As Biden prepared to run for president last year, he was briefed by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who months earlier had defeated Republican Lou Barletta, a former congressman and Trump supporter who made fighting illegal immigration the focus of his campaign.
Democratic studies of the 2016 election results have highlighted the advantages Trump gained by promising to shut foreigners out of the country and put Americans first, particularly among white blue-collar voters. The Biden campaign points to the 2018 midterm elections as evidence that while Trump’s rhetoric on immigration might have won him votes in 2016, that power did not carry over in 2018.
To win Pennsylvania in 2020, Casey told Biden in what he called a “pretty blunt” conversation, the next Democratic presidential nominee must attract the white working-class voters who liked Trump’s economic promises, including his immigration stances. He urged Biden to emphasize the economic benefits of immigration while pledging to secure the southern border to keep drugs and criminals out.
“You have to make it very clear that you stand for border security — and not just that you stand for it but that you voted for it,” Casey said, citing past measures that have won Democratic backing.
“You should vote for Trump,” Biden curtly told one protester last year.
As with much of his campaign so far, the implicit message from Biden on immigration is as simple as Trump’s promise to build a wall: He’s not Trump.
Biden released a lengthy immigration plan late last year that calls for a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, something supported by most Americans, and a number of other policies that are broadly popular across the political spectrum. He has vowed to invest $4 billion in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador over four years to lessen violence and poverty so fewer migrants flee north — a continuation of work he started as vice president.
Biden has called for an increase in the number of employment-based visas given to immigrants — but has also promised to work with Congress to reduce that number during times of high unemployment. The campaign declined to give specific numbers.
During the primary fight, Biden agreed under pressure to back a suspension of all deportations for 100 days and then only deport those who have committed felony crimes. He did not give his support to other policies pushed by activists and backed by significant segments of his party, such as removing criminal penalties for those who cross the border illegally, removing barriers from the border or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Some activists worry Biden will fall into the same trap they say Barack Obama did: agreeing to greater immigration enforcement and border security to placate Republicans — and not getting major changes in exchange.
“Over time we’ve created an overly punitive system of immigration that really treats and sees immigrants as ‘the other,’ ” said Lorella Praeli, who led Hillary Clinton’s Latino outreach in 2016 and is now the president of Community Change Action, which advocates for those who are marginalized. “The question for Biden in this moment is: What is his compelling vision? And can he reassure immigrant Latino voters . . . that he can actually deliver a humane and fair system?”
Biden’s primary campaign lagged substantially behind Sanders in organizing Latino voters. Sanders dominated in heavily Latino neighborhoods during the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, and he won the most votes from Latinos in the California and Texas primaries.
“Politicians think if you go out and get a couple of endorsements or you do some webinars, you’re, like, really working with our community and we’re really going to show up,” said Chuck Rocha, the strategist who built Sanders’s Latino outreach program and has been lobbying the Biden campaign to hire him. “You’ve got to spend some money and go out and talk to Latinos.”
Biden campaign officials have promised to significantly increase outreach to Latinos and further diversify the campaign’s staff now that it has raised more money, although they declined to provide target numbers. They noted that Biden won a plurality of Latino votes in the Florida primary, and exit polls show he also led in the Virginia and North Carolina primaries.
Biden’s November strategy is squarely focused on winning three Rust Belt states that were key to Trump’s 2016 victory — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — along with Florida and Arizona, which have large Latino populations. Although the Latino population in the Rust Belt states is small, Rocha said mobilizing those voters could give Biden the small margin he needs to beat Trump. The president’s campaign has been targeting those same voters in recent months.
In the Sanders campaign, Rocha said he started conversations with Latino voters by talking about immigration, even though polling showed health care was their No. 1 concern.
“I knew in my heart that to make a connection with them — so that they would listen to us about health care, which we would get to — I needed to lead with an emotional issue,” he said.
Emotion is key to how Biden talks about the issue. Biden’s campaign says that his positions reflect the middle ground and that he would bring a vastly different approach to immigration than Trump’s.
“The cornerstone of his approach to immigration comes back to family,” said Cristóbal Alex, a senior adviser to Biden who works on immigration policy and Latino outreach. “He understands what it’s like to lose family members and is able to make the connection to what it’s like for families torn apart by Trump’s horrible immigration policies.”
As Biden spoke earlier this month on a virtual coronavirus panel organized by Latino civil rights activists, he called for greater protections for undocumented workers and acknowledged the terror many of them face simply going to work or seeking medical care. He spoke compassionately, but vaguely.
In the online comments, one activist called on Biden to show greater leadership, while another remarked that “this is a prepared speech more for Americanos that aren’t in our community.” Another asked for specific solutions.
“We don’t need to hear statistics. We need change,” one activist wrote. “We need to know you care.”
Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.
Jenna Johnson is a national political correspondent who writes about the 2020 presidential election with a heavy focus on voters and political movements. Follow Jenna