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Biden spars with Republicans on border security during State of the Union

President Biden delivers the State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
President Biden delivers the State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.

Updated March 8, 2024 at 11:15 AM ET

President Biden continued to attack Republicans for playing politics with the border during his State of the Union address, as Republicans in the House gallery heckled him back.

He pointed his finger and blasted Republican leaders for bowing down to former President Donald Trump and walking away from the "toughest set of border security reforms we've ever seen" in the country.

"I'm told my predecessor called members in the Senate Congress and demanded they block the bill," Biden said. "He feels it would be a political win for me and a political loser for him. It's not about him or me. It'd be a winner for America!"

As he spoke, some Republicans screamed at Biden to "say her name," referring to Laken Riley, a Georgia nursing student who was killed last month. An undocumented immigrant has been charged with the crime.

The speech — as well as the response — reflect how difficult the border issue has become ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Republicans hold a political advantage on immigration

For Biden, his strong language is just the latest example of how he's sought to flip the script on Republicans and attack on an issue that has been a political liability for him.

For Republicans, it about trying to keep Biden on his heels on an issue where they have a clear political advantage.

Polls show a majority of Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats on securing the border.

A new Monmouth University poll found that 53% of respondents support building a border wall, the first time a majority of Americans have backed the proposal since Trump launched his first presidential campaign.

Trump has made border security a central theme for 2024. He has promised to launch the largest domestic deportation operation in American history if elected.

Biden gives an unscripted response

During the State of the Union, one of his surrogates in Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, wore a red cap with Trump's MAGA logo on it. She also had a shirt that read "say her name." She handed out pins with the same logo.

In response to the heckling, Biden did say Riley's name. In unscripted remarks, he held up the pin and forcefully repeated Laken Riley, though mispronouncing her first name.

"Laken Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal," he said. "That's right. But how many of thousands of people being killed by illegal. To her parents, I say, my heart goes out to you. Having lost children myself, I understand."

The use of the term "illegal," referring to describe the undocumented immigrant made Democrats cringe.

"No human being is illegal," Rep. Delia Ramirez of Illinois wrote on X.

They say the language is insensitive at best, but also encourages fear-mongering more prevalent among Republicans.

Biden continued his speech, saying the dynamics at the border must be changed and said the border plan would do that.

He also listed some of the toughest measures in the proposal, including hiring 1,500 border security agents, 100 more judges and 4,300 asylum officers.

"It would also give me and any new president new emergency authority to temporarily shut down the border when the number of migrants at the border is overwhelming," he said.

It was a deal that the progressive wing of Biden's party opposed, but it also allowed him to present himself as being tough on the border.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
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