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On Immigration, Biden Offers a Muted, Muddled Message

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Former President Donald J. Trump repeated his hard-line message on immigration at the debate on Thursday, casting undocumented immigrants as a threat to American jobs, national security and the social safety net. President Biden offered little in the way of rebuttal.

Mr. Trump argued that the president’s policies had left the U.S.-Mexico border wide open, allowing crime and drugs to flow into cities and converting every state into a border state.

“We are living right now in a rat’s nest,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re killing our people in New York, in California, in every state in the union because we don’t have borders anymore.” It was one of many statements by Mr. Trump that were either false, lacked context or were vague enough to be misleading.

Mr. Biden, meanwhile, did not define any broader strategy on an issue that has become one of his party’s most nagging political vulnerabilities. He also did not counter what many historians see as rhetoric about immigrants that could fuel violence.

The president’s most forceful defense of undocumented immigrants came more than an hour into the debate, when he suggested that they were a “reason why we had the most successful economy in the world.”

The portion of the debate dedicated to immigration was brief, but Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden pivoted to the issue repeatedly.

Ten minutes into the first topic of discussion — the economy — Mr. Trump argued that the only jobs Mr. Biden had “created are for illegal immigrants.” A few minutes later, on the issue of abortion, Mr. Biden appeared to try to make a point about how Mr. Trump pays attention to the murders of young women by immigrants, but not women killed by stringent abortion restrictions. But he mangled his delivery. Mr. Trump, in response, decried the “many young women murdered by the same people he allows to come across our border.”

Some contrasts inevitably emerged. Mr. Biden, however muddled his responses, sought to highlight his efforts to increase the number of asylum officers and attempt to pass bipartisan legislation to boost funding for border security. He promoted his success in reducing migration numbers in recent months.

Mr. Trump argued that the border had never been safer than it was under his watch. He said, without offering evidence, that migrants are taking up residence in “luxury hotels” while veterans remain on the street and that migrants are taking jobs away from Black and Latino Americans and overburdening services, like Medicare and Social Security. He conflated, as he often does, immigrants and criminals, though broader statistics have not supported that immigration fuels violent crime. He also dodged a question about whether his plans for mass deportations would ensnare every undocumented immigrant, including those who have jobs, are married to citizens or have been here for decades.

Some Democrats and Latino and immigrant-rights leaders — who had hoped Mr. Biden would deliver a message rooted in toughness and compassion, in line with his most recent executive actions — saw the performance as a missed opportunity.

They believed the candidates would articulate two starkly different visions on the issue, but found it to be more of the same. Democrats have grappled with how to talk about the thorny subject, when they talk about it all, while Republicans have often filled that vacuum with fear, anger, resentment and prejudice, they said.

Pablo Alvarado, who fled war-torn El Salvador and became a U.S. citizen and activist, said he felt that both candidates were weak. Mr. Trump was scapegoating people with the least power in American society, he said, and Mr. Biden had failed to defend them.

“As an immigrant, the feeling that I get is that we are on our own,” said Mr. Alvarado, co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a labor organization based in Los Angeles. “We are going to have to organize. We are going to have to protect ourselves.”

Simon​​​​ Hankinson, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, rejected characterizations that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric was dangerous, saying Mr. Trump had only been referring to a subset of the immigrant population who had entered the country illegally.

“It is a pretty difficult ask of Biden to push back on negative characterizations of illegal immigrants when we have a laundry list of cases of young girls who have been killed by men who were deliberately released or paroled by the Biden administration,” he said.

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