Democratic presidential candidates had stern words for frontrunner Joe Biden during Wednesday night’s primary debate, calling on the former vice president to explain the deportations of undocumented immigrants that occurred under President Obama.
"If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It's a crime," Biden said, disagreeing with several other candidates who said the matter should be a civil rather than a criminal issue.
President Obama, who was nicknamed the "deporter-in-chief" in 2012 by immigration rights advocates, deported or removed over 5 million undocumented immigrants, fewer than the Clinton and Bush administrations did but more than the Trump administration has.
Julian Castro, who also served in the Obama administration as Housing and Urban Development Secretary, shot back at Biden that, "open borders is a right-wing talking point, and frankly I'm disappointed that some folks, including some folks on the stage, have taken the bait.”
"It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn't," Castro told Biden. "We need someone who actually has guts on this issue."
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio pressed Biden on the issue, asking him what his private advice to Obama had been and whether he had recommended stopping mass deportations.
"Did you say those deportations were a good idea or did you go to the president and say, this is a mistake, we shouldn't do it?" de Blasio asked the former vice president.
Biden said he would decline to share his private comments to Obama about the issue.
New Jersey senator Cory Booker then added his voice to the critics, calling Biden out for invoking his former running mate only when it served his purposes.
"You can't have it both ways," Booker said. "You invoke President Obama more than anyone in this campaign; you can't do it when it's convenient and then dodge it when it's not."
Other candidates agreed that illegal border crossings should be relegated to the civil courts.
"We should make sure that we treat people humanely," New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand said.
During the Democratic debate in June, Biden defended Obama’s record on immigration.
“President Obama, I think, did a heck of a job. To compare him to what this guy’s doing is absolutely — I find close to immoral,” Biden said at the time.