GREENWOOD, S.C. — Carlos Rojas drove all the way to South Carolina from Elizabeth, N.J., last week to confront former Vice President Joe Biden about the Obama administration’s record on immigration.

He asked Biden to answer for the three million people deported during President Barack Obama’s tenure, and to commit to a moratorium on deportations if elected. Biden said he would not end deportations in cases where a person has committed a felony. And when Rojas interrupted him again, Biden shot back an unexpected challenge:

“Well, you should vote for Trump," Biden said. “You should vote for Trump.”

“I’m not going to do that,” Rojas said before walking out with several other protesters.

Video of the exchange Thursday circulated widely on social media, propelling Rojas’ group, Movimiento Cosecha, into the spotlight. Rojas is a cofounder of the group, which advocates for far-left immigration changes. Rojas said Movimiento Cosecha — Spanish for “Harvest Movement” in a nod to undocumented farm workers — will continue disrupting Biden’s events.

Last week’s interruption was the latest of four protests the group has staged against Biden. Activists formed a human barricade in the lobby of Biden’s headquarters the week it opened in Philadelphia. The group also protested at the Democratic debate in Detroit this summer, and at a rally in New Hampshire.

Rojas said Movimiento Cosecha wants Biden to acknowledge and respond to concerns over the three million deported people under Obama, and to sign onto a moratorium. During various points during his presidency, Obama stepped up deportations in an attempt to gain Republican support for a larger immigration overhaul, but that support never materialized.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is confronted by a group of pro-immigrant protestors who interrupted his response to a question during a town hall event in Greenwood, South Carolina, on Thursday, November 21, 2019. .Charles Mostoller for The Inquirer
Charles Mostoller for The Inquirer
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is confronted by a group of pro-immigrant protestors who interrupted his response to a question during a town hall event in Greenwood, South Carolina, on Thursday, November 21, 2019. .Charles Mostoller for The Inquirer

Biden, who has staked his candidacy in part on Obama’s legacy, has avoided criticizing his former boss’ immigration policies. Of 18 Democratic presidential candidates, only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has said he would issue an executive order ending deportations — and he’s said the moratorium would only be in effect while an audit of immigration practices is completed.

Biden has committed to ending family separations and legalizing the so-called Dreamers, young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

We talked to Rojas, 31, himself a formerly undocumented immigrant from Peru, about this moment and the pro-immigration movement.

What was your reaction to Biden saying you should go vote for Trump?

“He said it twice and the first time, I didn’t want to engage. I wasn’t sure if I heard it right. The second time in my head, I’m like, ‘Wow, that is really outrageous that during the presidential race, on the campaign trail, with potential voters in the room that Biden would tell immigrant parents, immigration activists to support the most divisive sitting president.… Personally, I felt disrespected for the work we do, but more than anything I saw in Biden as someone who is completely out of touch with the needs of underprivileged communities.”

Why seek out Biden of all the candidates running?

“My experience with the Obama administration is that after he was elected, immigration reform wasn’t a priority, and he broke his promise of addressing the immigration issue. Not only that, he ended up deporting three million people.… So now that we see Biden on the campaign trail, it is hard not to associate one [with] the other. He was in the White House when those deportations happened. We just want to hear what is Biden’s take on Obama’s record on deportations. And unfortunately, time and time again, we have heard the vice [resident embrace Obama on deportations.”

Biden noted that Trump’s immigration policies are far more severe. Why the focus on a Democrat running to beat him?

“We understand, and we’re in unison that we have to get Trump and his message of hate for immigrants out of the White House. But we also understand, if we go back to the Obama status quo, that’s also unacceptable. Having another four or eight years under Biden with potentially three million deportations is not a solution for immigrants or the American public.”

Is calling for a moratorium on all deportations a little extreme? What about people who are convicted of a felony?

“I definitely hear that, and what I want to say is the playing field we’re operating under — the system throws around the word criminal. If you don’t show up for immigration court you can be labeled a criminal; unpaid tickets generate warrants. We already have a criminal justice system in place designed to deal with anybody who might be a real threat. But to blur those lines with immigration is to play on Trump’s terms.”

What’s next?

“We’ll continue going to Biden events. If we measure our work by what Biden said [Thursday night] then it’s easy to be a pessimist. But I also want to highlight over the past month [that] Bernie Sanders, also a front-runner, committed to stopping deportations. Warren, another potential nominee, said she’s open to the idea.”