Joe Biden on MSNBC

President Joe Biden sitting for an interview with MSNBC's Jonathan Capehart on Saturday, March 9, 2024.

(Photo: Screengrab/MSNBC)

Doing Something Trump Almost Never Does, Biden Apologizes

Following criticism, Biden said he regrets using the noun "illegal" to characterize an immigrant during his State of the Union address.

President Joe Biden did something Saturday night his 2024 Republican rival Donald Trump rarely, if ever, does: he apologized in the form of expressing regret.

Following vocal criticism of his use of the word "illegal" to describe an immigrant during Thursday's State of the Union address, Biden admitted during his weekend interview with MSNBC's Jonathan Capehart that he should not have used the word widely spewed by right-wing xenophobes and GOP lawmakers to denigrate undocumented migrants and refugees residing in the country.

"I shouldn't have used 'illegal,' it's 'undocumented,'" Biden said.

"When I spoke about the difference between Trump and me, one of the things I talked about in the border was his, the way he talks about 'vermin,' the way he talks about these people polluting the 'blood.' I talked about what I'm not going to do. What I won't do. I'm not going to treat any of these people with disrespect."


"It takes a big person to admit their mistakes," said Santiago Mayer, executive director of Voters of Tomorrow, a voter mobilization group. "As an immigrant, this retraction means a lot to me."

During his Thursday night address, Biden took the bait from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), shouting about a woman named Laken Riley, who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant and has now become the latest victim of violence exploited by the GOP to demagogue and fearmonger over immigration.

"Laken Riley" said Biden in response to Greene, "an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. "To her parents, I say my heart goes out to you."

The president was immediately and roundly rebuked by progressives and immigrant rights advocates for the comment.

"Let me be clear: No human being is illegal," said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), responded by saying: "Just like we should not be implementing Republican policy, we should not be repeating Republican rhetoric."

Despite many reactions like that, Biden defended his use of the word again on Friday. When asked about his use of the word by a reporter, Biden said, "Technically, they are not supposed to be here."

But Saturday's reversal was welcome by many of the same voices who had earlier condemned the president's choice of words.

"I'm glad to hear Biden taking back his comment," said Erika Andiola, an immigrants rights activist, who on Thursday night called Biden's remarks hurtful and argued that "words matter" because they ultimately shape opinion and policy.

"He's the President," Andiola said late Saturday in response to Biden's new comment. "His words can shape narratives and using the 'I' word to describe any undocumented person or asylum seeker can have negative consequences against our communities."

As is well-documented, but requires repeating every time the issue arises, U.S. citizens commit violent crimes at much higher rates than undocumented people but this has never stop the political right from deploying these tropes—especially during election years.

Despite the ability to reverse course on rhetoric, it has been Biden's policies around the border which have most concerned immigrant rights defenders.

Ahead of a visit to a border area in Texas last month, Amnesty International USA called on Biden to reverse course on supporting a legislative deal, now languishing in Congress, that largely embraced "cruel" Trump-like policies of deterrence and rolled back key protections for refugees and those seeking asylum.

"President Biden needs to find the political courage to rise above the growing tide of xenophobia and return to his promise to push for commonsense solutions that center safety and human rights," said Amy Fischer, director of refugee and migrant rights for Amnesty, at the time. "Until he does that, he'll only be on a race to the bottom as far as who can be the cruelest to those who need protection."

The propensity of Trump—who still broadly refuses to admit he lost the 2020 election to Biden even as he faces federal charges over his role in the January 6 insurrection effort—to never show contrition or confess wrongdoing has been widely documented in articles over the years with headlines like: "Donald Trump is not sorry. Ever"; "Trump Never Apologizes But Says It's a Great Thing"; "Trump's Rare Apology—A FactCheck"; and "Trump's Apology That Wasn't."

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