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Biden's reference to 'an illegal' rankles some Democrats who argue he's still preferable to Trump

MIAMI (AP) — President Joe Biden faced disappointment and anger from some allies Friday for calling the suspect in the killing of a Georgia nursing student an “illegal” during his State of the Union speech. Other Democrats backed him as better on immigration issues than former President Donald Trump, his likely rival in November's election.

The moment occurred during an exchange in which Biden pressed Republicans to pass a bipartisan border security deal that fell apart after Trump opposed it. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a stalwart Trump ally, then shouted at the president to say the name of Laken Riley, the Georgia woman killed last month, adding she was killed “by an illegal.”

“By an illegal, that’s right,” Biden responded immediately, before appearing to ask how many people are being killed by “legals.”

Referring to people who arrived or are living in the U.S. illegally as “illegals” was once common but is far less so today, particularly among Democrats who more fully embraced immigrant rights’ issues during Trump’s presidency.

Biden campaigned four years ago against many of Trump’s immigration policies and changing official guidelines to stop using the term “illegal aliens,” but he is now pushing for new border restrictions in the wake of record numbers of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, straining federal authorities and Democratic-run cities forced to open emergency shelters. Biden has adopted some of Trump’s own language, saying he’d “shut down the border” if given the power, which he also brought up again in Thursday's address.

His campaign on Friday argued the incident would not affect his efforts to reach Latino voters and other communities of color that are part of the Democratic base. Several allies on Capitol Hill defended him even as they criticized his use of the term.

“It was an unfortunate choice of words, but I think he could easily correct it,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think that the inclusive vision that he painted of immigration was exactly what I was looking for.”

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, chair of civil rights and civil liberties at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, said Biden’s use of the term was an “off-the-cuff moment” but also reflective of both the long time he has been in public office and also his recent shift on immigration.

“I think it is very revealing of the president, who really honed his chops on politics in an era in which that kind of language was routine, and it’s reflective of the fact that his administration’s immigration policies have increasingly moved to the right, trying to outmaneuver Republicans and to use the language that Republicans continue to try to wield," García Hernández said.

Some progressive Democratic lawmakers said they were disappointed to hear the term from Biden.

“Just like we should not be implementing Republican policy, we should not be repeating Republican rhetoric,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass, who added that she had never heard the president use that word before.

“The rhetoric President Biden used tonight was dangerously close to language from Donald Trump that puts a target on the backs of Latinos everywhere,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Castro acknowledged there was “a lot of good” in Biden’s speech, but called his rhetoric about immigrants “incendiary and wrong.”

Others were ready to give Biden a pass on using the term.

“This is what happens when you engage with the boneheads,” said Rep. Nanette Barragán of California, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Republicans celebrated the moment with Greene saying Democrats were “melting down.”

As he departed for a campaign trip to Philadelphia, Biden was asked by a journalist if he regretted using the term “illegal.”

He first hesitated saying “well I probably,” before pausing and saying “I don’t" and appearing to start saying the word “regret.” Then he stopped again and said, “Technically not supposed to be here.”

On a call with reporters on Friday, Biden campaign officials were asked whether his use of the word could impact his efforts to reach Latino voters.

“Our community knows Joe. They know who is fighting for our community. They know who is fighting for us,” said Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s reelection campaign manager. “His values of faith, of family, of hard work. All of those are so consistent with what our community stands for."

A Pew Research Center study conducted in January found three-quarters of U.S. Hispanics describe the large number of migrants seeking to enter the U.S. through the border with Mexico as a major problem or a crisis. A similar number said U.S. government is doing a bad job handling the influx. Non-Hispanics were more likely than Hispanics to describe the situation as a crisis, or to say the migrant situation is leading to more crime in the U.S.

Campaign spokesman Michael Tyler argued that Trump and top Republicans are “using immigrants as their primary political punching bag.”

Tyler said Biden’s campaign wants to “treat people here with the dignity and respect that they deserve, and we are going to contrast that against Donald Trump and his hate-fueled rhetoric and his hateful extremism when it comes to the substance of the issue.”

The term was common in the past before some started to advocate against its use. In 1972, the same year Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate, Latino labor activist Cesar Chavez — Julie Chavez Rodriguez's grandfather — used the terms “wetbacks” and “illegals” in a TV interview to describe migrant workers from Mexico who were brought in to break a strike.

After Biden’s address, some quoted Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in saying “no human being is illegal,” a phrase that was used by immigrant rights advocates to push people to move away from using “illegal” and “illegal immigrant” first used by the British toward Jewish refugees entering then-Mandatory Palestine without authorization.

In 2013, The Associated Press made the change to no longer use “illegal immigrant” to describe a person, just an action of living in or immigrating to the country illegally.

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Associated Press writers Will Weissert, Stephen Groves, Josh Boak and Farnoush Amiri in Washington, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego, contributed to this report.