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Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a town hall event at Clinton College on Aug. 29, 2019 in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden opened a new line of attack Thursday on Donald Trump, accusing the Republican president of deliberate cruelty to children after the administration ended a policy shielding certain immigrants from deportation if they’re seeking life-saving medical treatment.

“He’s seeking to deport sick kids,” Biden said while campaigning Thursday. “It’s just wrong. It’s wrong. … Cruelty is the point. It’s their only point. It’s all they have to run on: fear, anger, division, cruelty.”

The former vice-president levelled his criticisms a day after the administration confirmed that it ended a policy that lets immigrants apply for deportation protection if they’re in the United States seeking life-saving medical treatment. Immigration advocates say repealing the medical exemption will have an acute effect on children whose families have come to the U.S. for treatments they cannot get in their home countries.

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But the Trump campaign retorted that Biden was indulging in “fake news” because, it said, a different federal agency – Immigration Customs and Enforcement, known as “ICE” – will still consider medical exemptions. “Yet again, the Trump administration policies are being misrepresented,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the president’s reelection effort.

That’s not the explanation the government has given some immigrants, sending them letters in recent weeks telling them they have about a month to leave the country, without mentioning any alternative way to seek a medical exemption.

Biden said the situation is part of a pattern that includes Trump’s previous “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in separating migrant children from their families at border detention facilities.

The president and Republican operatives have taken aim previously at President Barack Obama’s immigration policies, asserting incorrectly that Obama, while Biden was vice-president, began family separation. The Obama administration did detain some children who came to the border alone.

“Every nation has a right and necessity to protect their borders, and I will do that,” Biden said Thursday. “But the way we are treating immigration right now is not who we are.”

The Trump campaign also pounced on Biden for telling one voter who asked about border detention facilities that he would “close them down.” He did not immediately expound on his answer other than to argue, as he has before, that migrants who are being detained could be released with the expectation that they will “show up” for court dates adjudicating their immigration claims.

Part of a series of Trump’s hardline immigration policies, the latest change occurred Aug. 7, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services, which had been handling immigrants’ applications for protection from deportation.

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At issue is a special deferred action status sought by about 1,000 applicants annually, according to federal officials. It has functioned much like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Obama created 2012 for immigrants brought to the country illegally as minors. Trump also has sought to dismantle that policy.

Administration officials said immigrants still can seek deportation deferrals from ICE, as the Trump campaign cites.

But letters sent to Boston-area immigrants last week and reviewed by The Associated Press do not mention that option. They order applicants to leave the country within 33 days or face deportation, which can hurt future visa or immigration requests. Advocates say similar letters have been sent in several other cities.

Biden’s condemnations of Trump are in line with other Democrats running for president, but that hasn’t inoculated the former vice-president from criticism on the issue.

Some immigration activists have taken aim at Biden for the Obama administration’s deportation record, and former Obama Housing Secretary Julian Castro, another presidential candidate, criticized Biden for his role during Democrats’ July presidential debates.

Obama’s administration set a record for annual removals defined as deportations with more than 400,000 in 2012. Biden claimed incorrectly in Iowa recently that “we did not in fact send anybody back who had not committed a felony.” At other campaign events, Biden has more accurately declared that the Obama administration “focused” on immigrants with felony convictions.

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Biden also has differed from some of his Democratic rivals, saying he doesn’t want to decriminalize all border crossings. He says the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border stems from Trump not fairly applying the asylum process. Crossing the border to seek asylum is not illegal.

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