Biden Expresses Regret for Calling an Undocumented Immigrant ‘an Illegal’

President Biden expressed regret on Saturday for using the word “illegal” to describe an undocumented immigrant who has been charged in the killing of a 22-year-old nursing student in Georgia, agreeing with his progressive critics that it was an inappropriate term.

Mr. Biden used the word during an unscripted colloquy with Republicans during his State of the Union address on Thursday night, and then came under fire from immigration supporters who consider the term dehumanizing. Among those who said he should not have used it were several congressional Democrats.

“I shouldn’t have used ‘illegal’; it’s ‘undocumented,’” Mr. Biden said on Saturday in an interview with Jonathan Capehart on MSNBC, during which he addressed his disagreements with former President Donald J. Trump.

“And look, 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,’ ” he said, adding, “I talked about what I’m not going to do. What I won’t do. I’m not going to treat any, any, any of these people with disrespect.”

He continued: “Look, they built the country. The reason our economy is growing. We have to control the border and more orderly flow, but I don’t share his view at all.”

Mr. Capehart asked if that meant he regretted using the word “illegal.”

“Yes,” Mr. Biden answered.

The president’s reply went further than when he was first asked about the matter by reporters on Friday. He did not explicitly take back the term at that point, noting that the immigrant charged in the murder in Georgia was “technically not supposed to be here.”

The president’s use of the word came on Thursday night when he was pressing Republican leaders to stop blocking a bipartisan agreement to toughen border security. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia who enjoys the role of provocateur, shouted at him about the case of Laken Riley, the student who was killed last month by, according to the authorities, a Venezuelan migrant who had entered the country illegally. The case has become a cause célèbre among hard-liners critical of illegal immigration.

“What about Laken Riley? Say her name!” screamed Ms. Greene, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “Say Her Name,” and had been handing out buttons in the chamber with the same slogan.

Mr. Biden interrupted his speech to comply, holding up one of the buttons and saying Ms. Riley’s name, although he mispronounced her given name.

“Lincoln Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed,” Mr. Biden said.

“By an illegal!” Ms. Greene shouted.

“By an illegal, that’s right,” Mr. Biden agreed. “But how many of thousands of people are being killed by legals?” he added in mangled syntax, making the point that crime rates among undocumented immigrants have historically been lower than among others living in the United States.

“To her parents, I say my heart goes out to you,” he went on. “Having lost children myself, I understand.”

He then argued that Republicans could do something about illegal migration by passing the compromise legislation. “Get this bill done,” he told them. “We need to act now.”

Ms. Riley’s mother, Allyson Phillips, was not comforted by the president’s words and expressed indignation that he had mispronounced her daughter’s name.

“Biden does not even KNOW my child’s name,” she wrote on Facebook, adding that it was “pathetic.” She continued: “If you are going to say her name (even when forced to do so) at least say the right name!”

Mr. Trump met with Ms. Riley’s parents before a campaign rally in Rome, Ga., on Saturday, according to a senior campaign adviser, Chris LaCivita. And he seized on Mr. Biden’s comments once he took the stage, where the crowd held up signs with Ms. Riley’s photograph and the words “Say Her Name.”

“They just told me prior to what I’m doing right now that Joe Biden went on television and apologized for calling Laken’s murderer an illegal,” Mr. Trump told the crowd, adding that the immigrant in Georgia “shouldn’t have been in our country, and he never would have been under the Trump policy.”

Michael Gold contributed reporting.

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