Why We Confronted Joe Biden on Deportations

Carlos Rojas

Last night, immigrant rights activists asked Joe Biden to repudiate Obama’s immigration record. Biden said no and then told them to “vote for Trump.” Carlos Rojas, one of the activists, talks to Jacobin about why he spoke out — and why we need an immediate moratorium on deportations.

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden speaks to the audience during a town hall on November 21, 2019 in Greenwood, South Carolina. Sean Rayford / Getty Images

Interview by
Eric Blanc

Immigrant activists last night confronted Joe Biden at a campaign town hall in Greenwood, South Carolina. “Every day I live with the fear that ICE will separate my family,” explained immigrant Silvia Morreno, who called upon the former vice president to support a moratorium on deportations through executive action on his first day of office. Biden refused.

Before walking out in protest, her translator, Carlos Rojas, from the immigrant activist organization Movimiento Cosecha, added: “In 2008, I was a volunteer for Obama because I had hope and I believed in the promises that he made to the immigrant community. The fact is that over those eight years, over three million people were deported and separated from families.” Biden’s response: “You should vote for Trump.”

Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with Rojas about why they confronted Biden and what it will take to win full rights for immigrants.

Eric Blanc

People across the country have been sharing the video of your action last night. Can you explain why you decided to challenge Joe Biden?

Carlos Rojas

There’s a presidential election unfolding right now where immigration has received a lot of attention.

And the immigration crisis is felt deeply by many people, not only immigrants. We’ve seen record numbers of allies mobilize to express their outrage about children in cages, family separation, and deaths at the border. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets when Trump declared his “zero tolerance” policy.

But sometimes it feels like the American public thinks Trump started this crisis. So we wanted to take this opportunity to remind voters that even under the Obama administration — with Biden as VP — we had a daily immigration crisis, with an average of over a thousand deportations every single day, 3 million in total.

And yesterday was not first time Biden has been asked about this. It’s really concerning to me that Biden continues to embrace Obama as someone who was supposedly a friend of immigrants. I’m terrified when I hear presidential candidates talk only about rolling back Trump’s policies. Just going back to the Obama status quo is completely unacceptable; it would be a betrayal of the immigrant community.

Eric Blanc

One of the things Silvia Morreno told Biden was that, given Obama’s broken promises, “it is hard for me to trust you.” Can you speak more about this distrust?

Carlos Rojas

Yes, as I mentioned last night, I had been a volunteer for Obama in 2008. I remember hearing Obama sit down with Jorge Ramos from Univision and promise to legalize the undocumented. And I bought into that — it gave me hope. I believed. A lot of people did.

You know, Obama in 2008, and 2012, depended on immigrant voters — Latino, Asian, African — to win. We carried him to victory in states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan. And one of the reasons we did that is because he promised to pass immigration reform.

But the rest is history; Obama didn’t meet his promises. Not only did he never prioritize immigration, he ended up deporting 3 million of the same people he had promised to help.

We’ve been down this road before. We’re used to presidential candidates adopting positive rhetoric on immigration only when it’s convenient for them. We’ve experienced broken promises leading to family separations. That’s why we’re really focused on this demand that all presidential candidates pledge on day one of taking office to pass a moratorium on deportations through executive order.

Given the magnitude of the crisis, this is the minimum. The mistrust is deep; many immigrants right now are skeptical that either party could be a vehicle for change. Clearly Trump is terrible and he has scapegoated us, but the Obama legacy is still strong. It was not long ago; immigrants remember what happened. So supporting an immediate moratorium on deportations is a critical litmus test — it will take that level of commitment to even begin to restore trust.

We know that Congress is the only body that can pass full legalization, but it would leave candidates off the hook if we only called for a pathway to citizenship. We can’t rely only on Congress. Presidents have executive power to protect immigrants — and they need to use it.

Eric Blanc

Were you surprised by Biden’s response that “you should vote for Trump”?

Carlos Rojas

It really shocked me. He actually said it twice; it was a weird answer. Honestly, the first time he said it, I didn’t want to engage, because I thought maybe I had heard him wrong.

We’re calling on the Democratic Party to support the dignity of immigrants — how does it make sense to encourage us to vote for Trump? I think it speaks to how out of touch the Democratic Party establishment is. They take our communities for granted.

After Silvia, an immigrant mother, shared her story about why she couldn’t trust him after Obama’s deportations, Biden’s response was basically, “If you don’t like what we have to offer — even if it’s just bread crumbs — you have to go to Trump.” Obviously we’re not going to do that.

Biden had the opportunity last night to acknowledge that those deportations should not have happened. He could have showed us he understands the pain of immigrants — but instead he defended the Obama legacy. My takeaway from this was: if Biden becomes president, we shouldn’t expect anything different than what we saw under Obama.

Eric Blanc

What’s your take on the immigration stances of the other 2020 candidates?

Carlos Rojas

We in Cosecha are part of the immigrants’ rights movement. And I think the role of a movement is to speak to the American public, the majority of whom want to support immigrants. So we’re going to keep on pushing boundaries.

In terms of the candidates, our efforts are bearing fruit. Through our efforts and the efforts of many others, we have been able to help get candidates to start embrace ending deportations on day one.

Senator Bernie Sanders recently issued his immigration plan and we were really encouraged to see him pledge to immediately pass a moratorium on deportations through executive order on his first day in office. It gives us even more energy and strength to keep on pushing the rest of the party on this.

Another thing that struck me was that Bernie finally fully incorporated immigrants into his vision for the working class; he now includes immigrants in a bold way as part of his political narrative. Because one of the most effective ways to counter right-wing claims — that immigrants are taking jobs, that we’re drug dealers, criminals — is to insist that immigrants are part of the American working class. We say: if you are pro-worker, you need to be pro-immigrant.

Eric Blanc

What do you think it will take to demilitarize the border and win papers for all undocumented people in the United States?

Carlos Rojas

The message that Cosecha wants to send is that a moratorium on deportations is the starting point, not the finish line. We’re going to have to stay in the streets to pressure the candidates and Congress to do the right thing.

This country needs a deep transformation of immigration policy  — and we’re going to have to fight to win it. That’s why we think it’s necessary to build toward a seven-day immigrant-led strike.

Our organization was born out of the 2006 protests. What did immigrants do in that movement? They leveraged their labor and economic power to pressure politicians and to change the political narrative. After the xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate crimes that had become so widespread following September 11, we know that it was those mega-marches and strikes that made the country turn a page. We believe we have to do that once more.

Immigrants understand that without their labor, this economy will sink. So we need to leverage our power to win a moratorium on deportations, to win legalization for all, and to transform the United States into a country that truly respects immigrants.