Former President Donald J. Trump and his allies have spent weeks painting Nikki Haley as a bleeding heart on immigration as he seeks to dispatch her as his last remaining rival for the 2024 Republican nomination.
In Mr. Trump’s telling, Ms. Haley, a former governor of South Carolina and the daughter of Indian immigrants, is a “globalist” who flip-flopped on her support for Mr. Trump’s hard-line policies before she served as his ambassador to the United Nations. Ahead of a showdown between the two candidates in South Carolina’s primary on Feb. 24, his surrogates have accused her of being a secret liberal who supports open borders and won’t do enough to curb the flows of migrants and refugees into the nation.
But it’s a portrait nearly unrecognizable to many who knew her as governor: the Republican state lawmakers who counted on her support for immigration restrictions; the longtime immigrant rights activists in South Carolina who fought her on legislation; the conservative religious leaders who were disappointed with her opposition to allowing Syrian refugees to resettle in the state. Mr. Trump’s attacks are complicated by her record as a staunch conservative on the issue, they said, even as she maintained support for legal immigration when her party shifted its focus toward more extreme immigration cuts.
Larry Grooms, a South Carolina state senator who in 2011 helped lead the passage of the immigration restrictions Ms. Haley now promotes on the trail, said it has been disheartening to hear Republican colleagues who were in the trenches with him on that law now take part in Mr. Trump’s attacks against her on the issue.
“It was one of the toughest battles that I ever fought in the Legislature, and if it wasn’t for Nikki Haley rolling up her sleeves and pushing the ball, it would have not passed,” he said, calling distortions of her record wrong and “unfair.” He has endorsed Ms. Haley.
From the time she entered politics in 2004, Ms. Haley has held views on immigration that have remained largely consistent, according to a review of her past statements, legislative record and interviews with both supporters and detractors. She has long been in favor of improving legal pathways to the United States, while aggressively curbing illegal ones. And she often frames her beliefs in her own origins.
“I am the proud daughter of legal immigrants — emphasis on the legal,” she wrote in her 2012 memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option.” Her parents, she wrote, left affluent lives in India before eventually migrating to Canada and the United States, though she and her staff have declined to provide details.
As a state lawmaker in 2008, Ms. Haley backed legislation that made South Carolina the first state to explicitly prohibit undocumented students from enrolling in public colleges and universities. But it was the tough immigration measures she signed in 2011 that pushed South Carolina into the national spotlight. At the time, a faction of the conservative Tea Party movement that helped propel her own rise in politics was fueling a broader wave of crackdowns across the Sun Belt just as states in the Deep South were seeing a rise in their small Latino populations.
The South Carolina measures, which were modeled after the strict “show-me-your-papers” law in Arizona and went virtually just as far, prompted a lawsuit from the Obama administration while fueling concerns that it would encourage racial and ethnic profiling of Latinos. It also barred professional licenses for undocumented immigrants, keeping even those who attended private or out-of-state colleges from some professions in the state.
Mr. Grooms said Ms. Haley helped bring members of her party in line in the final push to get it passed. Tom Davis, a Republican state senator in South Carolina who supports Ms. Haley’s presidential bid, pointed to her seal of approval for the bill as an example that Mr. Trump’s assertions about her record were “pure fiction.”
“Anybody who looks at Nikki Haley’s record and says that she’s progressive or says that she’s not conservative just isn’t doing their homework,” he said.
And yet, Ms. Haley became caught in the changing headwinds of her party on immigration as reform deals broke down in Congress and the immigration hawks of her party moved further right.
In 2015, Ms. Haley faced a backlash from local Republicans for supporting the efforts of faith groups to resettle people in South Carolina. She eventually took an aggressive stance against resettling Syrians in her state after terror attacks in Paris that same year, citing gaps in intelligence that could make the vetting process difficult.
The next year, Ms. Haley delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address. She urged against following “the siren call of the angriest voices” and extended a welcoming hand to immigrants who follow the rules — a move many of her Republican critics still see as a rebuke of Mr. Trump’s demonizing rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Lee Bright, a former state senator who is unaligned in the 2024 race, contended that Ms. Haley was more conservative on the issue when she entered the State House but seemed to become more liberal with time. During the debate over Syrian refugees, he recalled, she was said to have doomed the prospects of one bill that would have held relief organizations liable for violent acts committed in the U.S. by anyone they sponsored.
Now, he argues, Ms. Haley is taking more credit than she deserves for the hard-line legislation that Republican state lawmakers had written.
“President Trump is exactly right,” he said, she is “a flip-flopper.”
Campaigning in her home state, Ms. Haley has been more forcefully firing back against attacks on her record, though she is facing an uphill battle. Mr. Trump, who continues to dominate by double-digits in South Carolina polls, has more than 80 current and former Republican state officials endorsing his campaign, including Gov. Henry McMaster and Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.
In recent days, she has argued that as she was signing that 2011 legislation, Mr. Trump was “still a New York liberal” donating to Democrats like Vice President Kamala Harris. She has called him “irresponsible” for his recent intervention in a Republican-led immigration deal in Congress, stalling progress as the crisis at the border mounts.
She still expresses support for revamping legal immigration avenues, based on business needs and merit, and strengthening the asylum system that she says protects persecuted people like the Afghan interpreters who aided her husband, Maj. Michael Haley, while he was overseas. But her stances on illegal immigration have kept pace with the new conservative extremes of her party under Mr. Trump: She has expressed support for deploying the military against Mexican drug cartels, limiting birthright citizenship and sending millions of migrants back to their home countries.
She does back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which grants work permits and temporary legal status for 570,000 people brought into the United States as children. But she calls it the “carrot” to the stick that must be used to push for a broader and more hard-line overhaul of immigration laws.
Mr. Trump, in ads, interviews and rallies, is promising a return to his own hard-line policies if elected, and has escalated his rhetoric about the southern border, describing undocumented immigrants as “poisoning the blood of our country.”
The impact of the curbs South Carolina put in place in 2011 is difficult to quantify. Federal courts blocked some aspects, including the provisions that required law enforcement officers to check some people’s immigration status on routine stops and immigrants to carry federal registration documents. But a portion of the law that demanded illegal immigrants be transferred from state to federal custody was upheld.
The major provision left untouched to this day mandates that businesses verify that their workers are in the country legally. But a 2018 study by the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center, found that it had serious problems because it misidentified a small number of legal workers as undocumented, imposed expensive costs and regulatory burdens on businesses, and spurred a black market of document forgery and identity theft.
In interviews, Mexican immigrant students and activists, some who had been undocumented, recalled living in fear of authorities, hardly leaving their homes and staying alert for raids, during Ms. Haley’s two terms in office.
Erika Hernandez Perez, 26, a DACA recipient who had been enrolled in cosmetology classes, said her career dreams were crushed when she was barred from obtaining her license in 2015, as South Carolina, under Ms. Haley, fell among states that held out in fully recognizing the DACA program..
She ended up going to work for her parents’ food truck and saving enough money to open up her own restaurant in Greenville that serves up her native Oaxacan food.
“I understand her stance on illegal immigration because, like she has said before, her parents came here legally,” she said of Ms. Haley. But she added that she also wished Ms. Haley had more sympathy for young immigrants whose parents were not wealthy or highly educated.
Diana Mesa, 21, who was in middle school in 2011, remembers tensions in her small Latino community in Spartanburg, S.C., amid the crackdown. She had been born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and moved to South Carolina as a child after her father secured a job at a BMW factory. Though she and her parents had legal status, other relatives did not, and they often had to watch out for one another, she said.
“It really was a preview,” she recalled, of what was to come under Mr. Trump.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.