Biden Used the Words 'Illegals' and 'Legals' While Talking Immigration in SOTU. Here's the Quote

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On March 8, 2024, U.S. President Joe Biden's State of the Union (SOTU) speech generated controversy due to his reported use of the term "illegals" in reference to migrants residing in the U.S. without authorization.

The moment occurred when Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green shouted the name "Laken Riley" from the crowd — referring to a 22-year-old, in her words, "was killed by an illegal."

In response, Biden seemingly went off script. And, according to social media posts attempting to highlight a wording issue by the president and some media outlets, he responded: "How many of thousands of people are being killed by illegals?"

(Screenshot via X)

We listened to CNN and C-SPAN's video recording of Biden's speech several times. Based on our listening, during the in-question part of the speech, Biden did not say "illegals," but, rather, he used the uncommon phrase "legals" presumably in reference to killers who are not undocumented. The White House's official transcript of the speech and The New York Times also said, "How many of thousands of people are being killed by legals?"

Outlets like CNN, however, reported Biden said, "But how many of the thousands of people being killed by illegals."

We should note, seconds earlier, Biden did use the term "illegals" in reference to undocumented immigrants. Saying the phrase dehumanizes immigrants, a number of Democratic lawmakers criticized him for using the word, including Rep. Chuy Garcia and Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Here's What Happened

With her heckling, Green was calling attention to Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student from Georgia who was killed in February 2024. A migrant from Venezuela residing in the U.S. illegally without authorization was charged in her killing. During the SOTU speech, Green wore pins on her lapel that referred to Riley.

Biden — who had picked up one of those pins labeled, "Say Her Name Laken Riley," on his way to the rostrum — responded to Green's shouts by holding up the pin and directing his next comments to Riley's parents. He said, according to our viewing of the C-SPAN video and White House transcript, "Lanken Riley. An innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. That's right."

Biden clearly used the phrase "an illegal" in that instance, and he mispronounced Laken's name.

He continued (emphasis, ours):

But how many of the thousands of people [are] being killed by legals? — to her parents, I say my heart goes out to you. Having lost children myself, I understand. But look, if we change the dynamic at the border — people pay these smugglers 8,000 bucks to get across the border. Because they know if they get by and are let into the country, it's six to eight years before they have a hearing. [...] But if its only six weeks, the idea is it's highly unlikely that people will pay that money and come all that way knowing that they will be kicked out quickly.

Presumably, the hypothetical question was Biden alleging the level of crimes carried out by undocumented migrants is smaller compared to those committed by people who reside in the U.S. as documented immigrants or citizens.

He added, "I will not demonize immigrants. [...] I will not separate families. I will not ban people because of their faith." He called for securing the border and providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

The in-question part of the speech can be seen in this video:


"Biden Holds up Laken Riley Pin as Greene Heckles Him." CNN, 7 Mar. 2024, Accessed 8 March 2024.

Cameron, Chris. "Biden Spars With Marjorie Taylor Greene About a Murder He Said Was Committed 'by an Illegal.'" The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2024., Accessed 8 March 2024.

"Full 2024 President Biden State of the Union Annotated and Fact-Checked." CNN, March 8, 2024. Accessed 8 March 2024.

"Full Transcript of Biden's State of the Union Speech." The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2024., Accessed 8 March 2024.

"Remarks by President Biden in State of the Union Address." The White House, March 8, 2024, Accessed 8 March 2024.

"See Biden's Response to Marjorie Taylor Greene Interrupting Speech." CNN, March 7, 2024., Accessed 8 March 2024.