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CT immigrant advocates criticize Biden’s 'illegal' remark during SOTU address

US President Joe Biden holds a "Say her name Laken Riley" button while delivering the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2024.
Saul Loeb / AFP
US President Joe Biden holds a "Say her name Laken Riley" button while delivering the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2024.

Barbara Lopez said she had a gut reaction hearing President Joe Biden’s use of the term “illegal” during last week’s State of the Union address. It’s a pejorative term when used to describe a person’s immigration status.

“It's very disappointing to hear a president use that word in a way that stigmatizes the immigrant community,” said Lopez, executive director of Make the Road CT, one of the main immigrant advocacy groups in Connecticut.

Activists across Connecticut are criticizing Biden’s use of the word. But they said his words reflect a tougher immigration stance, which include increasing arrests and deportations in New England by the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They also point to a failure to move forward with a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people and recipients of DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – in and outside of Connecticut.

But they’re continuing to advocate and say they’re heartened by grassroots support for policies helping migrant communities at the state level.

Lopez said that's her organization’s focus, after the group issued a statement the day after Biden’s address, criticizing the use of the term due to its dehumanizing effects on undocumented people.

“Immigrants should not be used as political pawns,” she said. “We demand humane solutions that prioritize the safety and well-being of our communities.”

Biden used the word twice during his address, referring to an undocumented Venezuelan man charged with killing a Georgia nursing student in late February. Biden later said he regretted using the word.

His administration advocated for a Senate border security proposal for adding more U.S. Border Patrol personnel, more asylum officers and additional space at ICE detention facilities. But Senate Republicans ended up blocking the deal .

Regardless of what’s happening nationally, Lopez says their group is building grassroots support for statewide efforts that will have immediate impact on migrant communities in the state.

That includes expanding “just cause eviction” protections – they require landlords to have a reason for evicting someone.

“That one's a priority for our community,” Lopez said.

Make the Road CT is also advocating for expanding the state’s Medicaid access to undocumented parents and older siblings of minors, Lopez said.

But Biden’s words and actions are similar to whathas already been said at the state level from Gov. Ned Lamont, said John Lugo, organizing director of Unidad Latina en Accion,

“When Ned Lamont said that he wanted to send National Guard members to the border, it's a setback, because there’s no clear immigration policy and they think they can resolve this by militarizing the border,” Lugo said.

But Lugo doesn’t need to travel far to see the impact of Biden’s words, which according to him, is reflective of his hardline stance on immigration.

Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) has ramped up arrests and removal proceedingssince Biden took office. Arrests in New England climbed from 6,971 in 2022 to nearly 9,000 last year.

For 2023, most ICE detentions involved noncitizens who were arrested but later had specific charges, other than violating immigration law, dropped.

Numerous outlets, universities and the federal government have consistently reported that undocumented people are less likely than native-born citizens to commit crimes, despite several high-profile stories over the last few years of killings either committed or alleged to be committed by undocumented people.

Meanwhile, crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border are at a record high.

About 120,000 undocumented people live in Connecticut, according to various estimates. Many of them face uphill legal and financial challenges towards obtaining citizenship or residency.

Lugo said he doesn’t expect much to change at the federal level, but he said what gives him hope is activism at the local level to exert political pressure.

“Our organization has always believed the only solution to the problems migrants face, is to organize our community and get politically active, to demand what they (politicians) will not,” he said.

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