Biden Responds to Marjorie Taylor Greene in State of the Union Off-Script Moment

President Biden jousted during his speech with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right representative with a history of interrupting recent State of the Union addresses, about crimes committed by undocumented migrants, saying that in one recent incident a young woman “was killed by an illegal.”

Mr. Biden’s use of the term triggered immediate backlash from liberal Democrats and immigration advocates, who accused the president of dehumanizing undocumented migrants by highlighting the killing and using the term “illegal.”

Mr. Biden’s remarks to Ms. Greene caused the president to veer from his prepared script. Mr. Biden had originally intended to draw attention to Donald J. Trump — his Republican predecessor and likely opponent in November — and his caustic language about immigrants. He had been expected to say in his speech: “I will not demonize immigrants saying they ‘poison the blood of our country’ as he said in his own words,” referring to the former president, who was sharply criticized late last year for repeating language that resembled that used by leaders like Hitler or Mussolini, as well as white supremacists.

But Ms. Greene, a Republican from Georgia, heckled Mr. Biden before he got to that part of the speech during a segment on immigration policy. Mr. Biden was calling on Republicans to support a bipartisan border deal that had been negotiated in the Senate but abandoned by Republicans who had asked for the legislation.

Wearing a bright red “Make America Great Again” hat and pins on her lapel referring to Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student from Georgia who was killed in February, Ms. Greene shouted at Mr. Biden, who had picked up one of the pins honoring Ms. Riley on his walk to the rostrum to give his speech.

Mr. Biden then turned his speech to address the killing. Authorities have charged a Venezuelan migrant — who crossed into the United States illegally and was then released on parole — in the case.

“An innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. That’s right,” Mr. Biden said to Ms. Greene, using a term to refer to the migrant that is favored by Republicans and criticized as dehumanizing by many Democrats.

But he quickly added there are thousands of other murders who he appeared to attribute to “legals,” people who legally reside in the United States. Mr. Biden and White House officials have made similar comments on migrant crime in the past.

Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates criticized Mr. Biden for engaging with Ms. Greene on the subject, and for using the word “illegal” to refer to undocumented migrants, many of whom are seeking political asylum or a humanitarian parole.

“We were shocked to hear the president echo the words of anti-immigrant extremists,” the National Immigrant Justice Center said in a statement. “Manipulating a personal tragedy for political gain in this way is dangerous. Conflating immigration status with criminality is racist and dehumanizing.”

Kica Matos, president of the National Immigration Law Center, similarly criticized Mr. Biden, saying he “parroted dehumanizing Republican rhetoric about immigrants.”

Representative Pramila Jayapal, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said to an Associated Press reporter that she wished “he hadn’t engaged with Marjorie Taylor Greene and use the word illegal.”

“As a proud immigrant, I’m extremely disappointed to hear President Biden use the word ‘illegal,’” said Representative Chuy García, Democrat of Illinois.

Mr. Trump had deplored the death of Ms. Riley, but even border authorities who worked for the former president during his term in office have said most migrants who cross the border are vulnerable families fleeing poverty and violence rather than criminals. Studies have also repeatedly shown that migrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.

“To her parents, I say my heart goes out to you. Having lost children myself, I understand,” Mr. Biden continued.

Mr. Biden went on to continue his speech, returning to his prepared remarks. “I will not demonize immigrants, saying they are poisoning the blood of our country,” he said to applause.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.

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