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Did Joe Biden just leak a secret government plan to stop deportations?

Joe Biden has a secret for you. Or is it a gaffe?
Joe Biden has a secret for you. Or is it a gaffe?
Win McNamee/Getty

In March, the Obama administration announced it was conducting a review of its deportation policy, to see if the government could take a "more humane" approach to unauthorized immigrants than deporting 2 million of them. Since then, there have been varying reports about when the review will finish and what it will say. Some reports say the administration will announce significant changes, and announce them soon. Some say the administration will make an announcement soon, but it won't be a huge policy shift. And some say that small changes will be announced soon, with another, bigger set of reforms coming later in the year — say, around election time.

Advocates want the administration to stop deportations entirely, or at least radically scale them back, and to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to more of the unauthorized population. The administration has been very firm that it won't be making any changes that broad.

But at a speech in Miami on Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden either made an epic gaffe that was hugely misleading, or he previewed a White House decision to stop deportations entirely:

So did Biden just leak the president's secret plan to stop deportations? Or was he thrown off-script by the heckler and made an off-the-cuff remark, without understanding that what he was saying had some policy implications? Here are two reasons to think he might have been for real, and two reasons to think he wasn't:

PRO: He's done it before.

In May 2012, Joe Biden told a television interviewer that he was "totally comfortable" with gay marriage — putting him way out ahead of President Obama, who was still saying he was "evolving." But when Biden's comments didn't provoke a massive backlash, Obama himself "came out" in support of marriage equality just four days later.

Did Biden force Obama's hand to commit to something he was wavering on? Or was the Vice President's remark a planned "dry run" for the President's coming announcement, to see how things went? Either way, the bottom line: the last time Biden embraced a progressive priority Obama hadn't been committing on, Obama did commit to it very shortly thereafter.

CON: The administration has said explicitly "we can't do that."

The difference between marriage equality in 2012 and deportations today is that President Obama hasn't said he's "evolving" on deportations. In fact, he, and everyone else in the administration, have said that they just don't have the authority to stop most deportations, and that they're doing basically everything they can. The implication is that the results of this review will look more like the policy changes they attempted in 2010 and 2011 — memos to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents that may or may not be followed — than like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program Obama introduced in 2012, which allowed young unauthorized immigrants to apply for relief from deportation and work permits.

PRO: The administration has a history of saying "we can't do that" about immigration policy, then changing its mind.

Even a month before President Obama announced DACA, though, he was telling hecklers at his own events that he couldn't do anything more to protect DREAMers from deportation. In fact, he got defensive when anyone brought it up, saying that the Constitution didn't let him change things by waving a magic wand. But in June 2012, the administration appears to have decided that protecting DREAMers from deportation required neither a magic wand nor Congressional approval.

This is the reason advocates keep calling for an end to deportations even after the administration's said they won't go that far: sometimes, it turns out Obama has more of a magic wand than he initially lets on. So Biden's comments could be a signal the White House is changing their minds on immigration enforcement yet again.

CON: The administration also has a history of thinking their immigration enforcement policy is much gentler than it is.

In 2011, before Obama got upset with immigrant hecklers for asking him to protect DREAMers from deportation, he got upset with them for saying he was deporting DREAMers at all. "We aren't going around rounding up students," he told Univision anchor Jorge Ramos during an interview in spring 2011. "That's just completely false." The next week, during a televised town hall — also on Univision — a young woman stood up and held up her order of deportation for the President to see. Only then did he shift from denial to defensiveness.

More recently, the administration has maintained that since 98 percent of deportations fall under one of the administration's "enforcement priorities," their deportation record really isn't that bad. If they genuinely believe that, it raises the question of what they're actually going to change after this review is over. But it would make sense that Vice President Biden would say off the cuff that they're going to stop deportations — he might think that, for the most part, they've already stopped.