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Here's Why Biden Calling Laken Riley's Killer an "Illegal" Could Cost Him the Election


Sun, March 10

On March 7, 2024, President Joe Biden delivered what could have been his final State of the Union Address to an unprecedently divided group of legislators and politicians. In one of the most chaotic State of the Union addresses in American presidential history, President Biden faced heckling from Republican politicians and even audience members. As the Presidential election nears, Biden has faced criticisms due to his advanced age and perceived senility. Seeking to disprove his critics and prove his competence for the job, Biden took the stage Thursday night and delivered one of the most fiery State of the Union Addresses in recorded American history.

Regarded as a polarizing political campaign speech by some and an invigorating condemnation of the far-right wing of American politics by others, he received nearly unanimous applause on the Democratic side of the aisle, whereas Republicans almost universally refused to applaud during his address. Furthermore, he received heckling not only from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a vocal MAGA Trump supporter but also from Gold Star father Steve Nikoui, whose son, Lance Corporal Kareem Nikoui had been killed in the disastrous US withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan in 2021.

In response, Biden repeatedly engaged with his hecklers, even going so far as to entertain the protests of Congresswoman Greene by referring to the undocumented immigrant killer of Laken Riley as an “illegal” in a move that could have severe repercussions for his future political career. To understand the unprecedented nature of these hecklings and Biden's response, the history of the event itself must be explored.

The Rich History of the State of the Union Address

The requirements themselves for the State of the Union address are quite unspecific and can even be classified as vague. According to Article II, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, “[t]he President shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient,” (US Const. Art.

II, Sec. 3). A tradition started by our first President George Washington on January 8, 1790, the first State of the Union focused on the concept of the union itself, being that the United States was a new republic at the time. However, after President Thomas Jefferson converted the State of the Union to a written form, it was not spoken again by a President for 112 years until Woodrow Wilson revived Washington's precedent in 1913, (State of the Union).

Throughout the many years since the State of the Union's inception, Presidents have focused their speeches on their legislative, domestic, and foreign agendas, and decorum was maintained that was preserved until the remarkable 2009 interruption of President Barack Obama by Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, with the now-infamous words, “You Lie!”. Since the administrations of President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, heckling at the State of the Union Address has now become a common activity for legislators, from Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) to Rep.

Joe Crowley (D-NY). However, this year's address received some of the fiercest heckling in decades. This phenomenon can be explained through the increasing polarization experienced by both parties.

According to the Pew Research Center, “[b]etween the 92nd Congress of 1971-72 and the current 117th Congress, both parties in both the House and the Senate have shifted further away from the center,” as Liberal Republicans and Conservative Democrats were gradually voted out of office in favor of more radical politicians, (Pew Research Center). The degradation of civility has become increasingly evident, and polarization from both factions is becoming harder to refute.

However, it is also critical to examine another aspect of this article's topic and its subject of focus. For many unfamiliar with the current political situation, a common question would revolve around the identity of Laken Riley and the reason for her name having such a profound impact on the proceedings of this year's State of the Union.

The Death of Laken Riley, Aftermath, Reaction, and Role at the State of the Union

On February 22, 2024, Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student at the University of Georgia was found dead from blunt force trauma near a lake in a forested area of the university's campus. José Antonio Ibarra, a 26-year-old undocumented Venezuelan immigrant was arrested on suspicion of what police have now labeled as a “crime of opportunity”.

In the aftermath of Riley's death, Republicans publicly accused President Biden of allowing Ibarra to cross the US-Mexico boundary with his lenient border policies, as Ibarra had previously faced multiple encounters with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. However, the reaction to her death was far from universal. Democrats, according to the Boston Globe, criticized the GOP's stereotypes of illegal immigrants as criminals due to the revelation of Riley's suspected murderer as an undocumented alien, (Graham).

Even before the State of the Union, discussions about Laken Riley's death and the undocumented status of her alleged murder caused discussions among liberals and conservatives alike, with most liberals tending to attribute crimes to those of all nationalities instead of just immigrants alone, and conservatives directly blaming the prevalence of illegal immigrants in the United States for the increased occurrence of violent crimes. These polarized reactions eventually escalated to a confrontation on the national stage between the highest-ranking American political leaders at Thursday's address.

Laken Riley at the State of the Union Address

On Tuesday, while Congresswoman Greene from Georgia was busy distributing pins with the words, “Say Her Name”, about Laken Riley, to her fellow lawmakers, President Biden was preparing to mount the dais to present his address to the nation. As the political tensions and partisanship in the House chamber became continuously evident during the speech, Congresswoman Greene eventually heckled President Biden to demand that he say Laken Riley's name as a remembrance of a victim of his flawed border policies, insinuating that Biden was responsible for her death.

Thus the now-infamous words were uttered at this very moment. President Biden, in an unscripted ad-lib response to Congresswoman Greene, remarked that “Lincoln Riley,” in a disgraceful mispronunciation of Riley's given name, was, “an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal …", finally acknowledging Riley's tragic murder. He then proceeded to inquire about the,"… many of thousands of people… being killed by legals," in pointed criticism of the perceived racist attacks by the GOP on the undocumented immigrants flooding in from America's southern border, (Today).

In the immediate aftermath of Biden's rhetorically charged response to Greene, it became discernable that his statement faced two main criticisms from both sides of the aisle. The GOP, rather than giving him credit for labeling an undocumented immigrant by using a common conservative term (illegal), instead lambasted him for the disrespectful mispronunciation of Riley's name. Even the mother of Laken Riley angrily commented that “Biden does not even KNOW my child’s name – it [sic] pathetic,” (Palin and Land).

In contrast, members of his own Democratic Party criticized him for, "… using "illegal" as a noun to describe a person, saying he was adopting rhetoric on the right that dehumanizes undocumented immigrants," (Gringlas). Even more notably, Texas Democrats, especially Rep. Joaquin Castro, remarked that Bidens's inconsiderate words were,“…dangerous rhetoric," while further elaborating on his beliefs regarding, "…the president['s]… bad advice from his advisers and speech writers," (Choi and Govindarao).

Ergo, it is evident that Biden has received nothing but nearly universal condemnation for his ad-libbed remarks regarding Riley's murder at the State of the Union this Thursday. However, the long-term consequences of these remarks are yet to be fully discovered.


President Joe Biden is no stranger to gaffes and slips of the tongue, as shown by remarks that, “Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than [him]… to be Vice President of the United States of America,” to gaffes about not being able to visit a 7-11 store unless one possessed an Indian accent, (“Top 10 Joe Biden Gaffes - TIME”). As concerns grow about the mental stability and perceived senility of both party frontrunners heading into the upcoming 2024 election, this costly mistake at one of the most publicized speeches of his Presidency may very well cost him valuable public support over his likely opponent and predecessor, Former President Donald Trump.

Although the full repercussions of this most recent gaffe have not yet become abundantly apparent, Biden's attempt to appear passionate, young, and vigorous may be argued as a complete and utter disastrous failure as the general election looms closer with every passing day. Perhaps the lessons we can learn from this year's State of the Union address are that heckling is an incredibly effective method of disarming and disorienting an opponent and that President Biden no longer has the mental capacity to continue his service as the 46th President of the United States.

Indisputably, these lessons are contradictory to the interests of President Biden's reelection campaign, demonstrating the potentially steep price that he must pay for his overconfidence in ad-libbing this latest retort to his political opponents on the nation's highest stage.


The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription. National Archives, United States National Archives and Records Administration, 28 Feb. 2017

State of the Union. 29 Apr. 2003

Pew Research Center. “The Polarization in Today’s Congress Has Roots That Go Back Decades | Pew Research Center.” Pew Research Center, 22 Apr. 2022

Graham, Renée. “Reaction to Laken Riley’s Killing Highlights Racism of Republicans.” BostonGlobe.com, 5 Mar. 2024

Today, Usa. “Biden Mentions Laken Riley in State of the Union, Calls Man Accused of Killing Her an ‘illegal.’” USA TODAY, 8 Mar. 2024,

Palin, Megan, and Olivia Land. “Laken Riley’s Mother Slams Biden for Fumbling Murdered Nursing Student’s Name at State of the Union: ‘Pathetic.’” New York Post, 9 Mar. 2024

Gringlas, Sam. “How a Georgia Nursing Student’s Killing Reached Biden’s State of the Union.” NPR, 8 pMar. 2024

Choi, Matthew, and Sejal Govindarao. “Texas Dems Cringe at Biden Calling Migrant ‘An Illegal’ at SOTU.” The Texas Tribune, 8 Mar. 2024

“Top 10 Joe Biden Gaffes - TIME.” TIME.com, 23 Mar. 2010

Ethan Bùi

Writer since Dec, 2023 · 2 published articles

I am a Franklin HS Sophomore living in Sacramento, California who is interested in government, politics, and political science. I am a member of the FHS Mock Trial Team, Speech and Debate Team, Marching Band, Wind Ensemble, Cross Country Team, Wrestling Team, and Track and Field team in addition to being a National Honor Society chapter Committee Member. I have experience serving in the FHS ASB leadership program and am also a Life Scout working towards the Eagle Scout rank with work experience serving on the staff of Camp Whitsett, a Boy Scout owned and operated camp in Tulare County, CA.