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Texas Dems cringe at Biden calling migrant 'an illegal' during State of the Union

President Joe Biden holds a Laken Riley button as delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Thursday March 7, 2024.
Andrew Harnik
President Joe Biden holds a Laken Riley button as delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Thursday March 7, 2024.

WASHINGTON — Texas Democrats were not thrilled with President Joe Biden using the term “an illegal” to describe an undocumented immigrant during his State of the Union address Thursday.

During the speech, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene heckled Biden to acknowledge Laken Riley, a Georgia student who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant, as he was discussing the border. Biden repeated Greene saying Riley was “killed by an illegal. That’s right.”

Democrats were not impressed, even if it was parroting Greene.

“It's dangerous rhetoric. And I think that the president is getting bad advice from his advisers and speech writers. That kind of rhetoric is what inspired the people who killed Aaron Martinez,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said, referring to a North Texas man who was killed by his neighbor who repeatedly harassed Martinez’s family over their Latino ethnicity. Castro brought Martinez’s wife, Priscilla Martinez, as his guest Thursday.

“I just don't get why the president will go down that road,” Castro added. “I don't think it's helpful to him or to the Democratic Party.”

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat who is also a co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, said “that is the statutory language,” though “it’s not the language I use.”

U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, found Greene’s heckling inappropriate and thought it did not reflect Biden’s views. He predicted Biden’s team would clarify his remarks later.

Republicans heckled Biden as he made a case for a bipartisan border security deal introduced in the Senate late last year. The bill, negotiated by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Arizona; Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut; and Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma. Republicans turned on the bill after former President Donald Trump denounced it, essentially stopping it in its tracks. House Republicans oppose the bill.

“In November, my team began serious negotiations with a bipartisan group of senators. The result was a bipartisan bill with the toughest set of border security reforms we’ve ever seen in this country,” Biden said. “It’d be a winner for America. My Republican friends, you owe it to the American people to get this bill done.”

The border was one of the most contentious issues discussed during the speech. After the speech, Sen. Ted Cruz said Biden’s comments were “profoundly dishonest and out of touch.” U.S. Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Midlothian, said Biden was “gaslighting Republicans” by “blaming us when he invited the border to be open.”

U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Sherman, tried to give Biden a pin that said “STOP THE BIDEN BORDER CRISIS” as he entered the chamber. Biden refused.

Escobar also does not support the Senate border deal, but she praised Biden’s speech otherwise as demonstrating “why the difference between him and the other guy is so stark,” referring to Trump. Escobar has long been a voice on bipartisan border reform, introducing her own bipartisan plan last year.

Earlier in his speech, Biden also vowed to overturn Texas’ restrictive abortion laws if he gets reelected and Democrats retake control of Congress.

“My predecessor came to office determined to see Roe v. Wade overturned. He’s the reason it was overturned. In fact, he brags about it,” Biden said. “Look at the chaos that has resulted.”

Biden highlighted the plight of Kate Cox, a Texas woman who filed a lawsuit to end her pregnancy in Texas after her doctor uncovered a lethal birth defect. Cox’s doctor said terminating the pregnancy was necessary to save her health and future ability to have children but would not carry out the procedure due to the state’s strict abortion ban.

First Lady Jill Biden invited Cox as her guest to the address Thursday.

Cox’s lawsuit said the state’s abortion ban discouraged doctors from risking their medical licenses to perform the procedure. The Supreme Court of Texas blocked a lower state court order that would have allowed her an abortion. She ultimately sought medical care outside the state.

“Because Texas law banned abortion, Kate and her husband had to leave the state to get the care she needed. What her family has gone through should never have happened as well. But it is happening to so many others,” Biden said. “Many of you in this chamber and my predecessor are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom. My God, what freedoms will you take away next?”

Multiple Texas Democrats used the annual address to highlight abortion access. U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat who spearheaded legislation to protect abortion access nationwide, invited Dr. Damla Karsan, an OB/GYN who sought court approval to terminate Cox’s pregnancy. U.S. Rep. Colin Allred invited Dr. Austin Dennard, an OB/GYN who had to leave Texas to terminate her pregnancy after detecting a lethal birth defect.

U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragan, D-California, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, invited last year Olivia Julianna, a Gen Z activist who has been outspoken about abortion rights in Texas.

The White House has previously used the State of the Union to highlight Texas’ restrictions on abortion. At last year’s address, Jill Biden invited Amanda Zurawski, an Austin woman who nearly died after being denied an abortion for a nonviable pregnancy.

National Democrats are making reproductive rights a key issue in competitive races in Texas, crediting the overturning of national abortion access for staving off a larger Republican majority in the U.S. House. Allred has highlighted Sen. Ted Cruz’s opposition to legislation expanding access to abortion in his campaign to unseat him.

Jill Biden also invited Jazmin Cazares, a gun violence prevention advocate whose sister Jackie was killed in the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, to the speech.

President Biden evoked his visit to Uvalde after the shooting, after which he established a White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention. He urged Congress to pass further legislation on gun safety to prevent future shootings.

“We heard their message, and so everyone in this chamber should do something,” Biden said. “Meanwhile, my predecessor told the NRA he’s proud he did nothing on guns when he was president. After another school shooting in Iowa he said we should just ‘get over it.’ I say we must stop it.”

The Texas Tribune is nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization.