Pro-Trump anti-immigrant ad makes it seem as if Haley coddles ‘criminals’


“Drug traffickers, rapists, poisoning our country. But Nikki Haley refused to call illegals ‘criminals.’”

– Voice-over of an ad attacking former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (R) via pro-Trump super PAC Make America Great Again Inc., Jan. 8

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FILE PHOTO: With U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley at his side (L), U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a working lunch with ambassadors of countries on the UN Security Council at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/Files

Nikki Haley may have served as ambassador to the United Nations during the presidency of Donald Trump, but now that she’s threatening his lead in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Tuesday, Jan. 23, he and his super PAC are attacking her as too liberal to be the Republican standard-bearer.

“Nikki is a Globalist RINO,” Trump fumed Monday on his social media platform, Truth Social, using an acronym for “Republican in name only.” (Never mind that before former New Jersey governor Chris Christie dropped out of the race last week, the super PAC flooded independent voters with mailers tying her to Trump in an effort to drive those voters to Christie.)

This ad begins by reflecting the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler – that immigrants are “poisoning” the country – and charges that Haley is “too weak, too liberal, to fix the border.” It underscores this point by twice using a clip of Haley saying: “We don’t need to talk about them as criminals. They’re not.” Indeed, the ad claims that she “refused to call illegals ‘criminals’” and that she opposed Trump’s plan to build a wall along the border.

None of this is true. We dug up the original clip from which this ad was crafted. This ad is a textbook case of how political campaigns dishonestly snip comments made by opponents so that they are untethered from reality.

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The Facts

In July 2015, when Haley was still governor, she appeared on a panel with three other Republican governors at the Aspen Institute, where they had a wonky discussion on issues such as health care, the economy and immigration.

Just a month earlier, Trump had descended the Trump Tower escalator and announced he was running for president. In his speech, he especially attacked immigrants from Mexico: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Moderator Walter Isaacson turned to Haley and asked her: As a child of immigrants from India, “what do you feel about the tone of the immigration debate as it’s recently turned?”

Haley responded first by decrying illegal immigration – and, notwithstanding the ad’s claim that she opposed a border wall, endorsing one.

“I have always believed … we’re a country of laws,” she said. “That’s what’s made us strong. We have to always be a country of laws. So it’s incredibly frustrating for a lot of people when they see the illegal immigrants being able to come across. It really is astonishing that after all these years, D.C. can’t figure out how to build a wall.”

(A couple of months later, in an appearance before the National Press Club, Haley also called for a wall that was part of a comprehensive immigration strategy: “Don’t say you’re just going to build a wall. Because a wall is not going to do it. You’ve got to have commitment of ground troops, equipment, money, all of that to bring it together. Then you’re being serious about tackling illegal immigration.”)

In the Aspen talk, she then turned to legal immigration.

“Having said that, we are a country of immigrants,” she said. “I am the proud daughter of Indian parents that reminded us every day how blessed we were to live in this country. They resent when people come here illegally.”

The quote that the MAGA super PAC uses comes from the next section, when she addresses the original question about tone. We will show the section that the ad uses in boldface. After watching the clip several times and discussing it with colleagues, we have concluded that Haley is making these comments generally about all immigrants, not just those who enter the country illegally. But the comment is open to interpretation.

“But let’s keep in mind these people that are wanting to come here, they want to come for a better life, too,” she said. “They have kids, too. They have a heart, too. So we don’t need to be disrespectful. We don’t need to talk about them as criminals. They’re not. They’re families that want a better life, and they’re desperate to get here. What we need to do is make sure that we have a set of laws that we follow, and that we go through with that.”

In context, Haley appears to be expressing sympathy for people who are seeking entry to the United States, illegally or not. But she emphasizes again: “What we need to do is make sure that we have a set of laws that we follow, and that we go through with that.”

Finally, she concludes, in a possible reference to Trump’s rhetoric: “So, you know, I think that some things have been said that have been unfortunate and wrong. But I think we also need to remember, especially for all of us, I say for Republicans, [that] tone and communication matters, and people matter. And we don’t ever need to talk about this in a coldhearted way.”

(Elsewhere during the panel discussion, she explicitly mentioned Trump’s tone: Calling him a supporter and a friend, she said: “He is creating a very combative tone in a time where we really need to be able to vet our candidates. Every day, I feel like I’m hearing Mr. Trump attack another person personally.”)

The ad charges, “Illegals are criminals, Nikki. That’s what illegal means.” Conservatives tend to refer to “illegal immigrants,” but there’s a reason the more neutral term is “undocumented immigrant.” It’s against the law to enter the United States without permission – but being present in the United States without documentation is not a crime. That’s a civil violation – unless someone was previously deported and then reentered in violation of a deportation order.

In 2021, nearly 900,000 people entered the United States legally but overstayed their visas, according to government statistics. Until recently, there were far more cases of travelers overstaying their visas than there were southern border apprehensions. People also can be granted asylum even if they arrive without proper documentation.

The ad cites a statistic in a Fox News report – that Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2022 arrested about 44,000 noncitizens with criminal histories. That’s a relatively small percentage of the population of nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants. ICE’s annual report shows that the leading charges were drugs, immigration offenses, traffic offenses and assault.

As a governor and as a presidential candidate, Haley generally has taken a tough line on illegal immigration. In 2011, she signed into law a bill that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest for another reason and suspect may be in the country illegally. Running for president, she said that she would assign thousands of immigration agents to handle deportations and that the roughly 4 million undocumented immigrants who arrived under the Biden administration “absolutely have to go back.”

Alex Pfeiffer, a MAGA Inc. spokesman, sent a statement defending the ad. The statement ignored Haley’s opening comment about the United States being a country of laws and bemoaning the inability of Washington lawmakers to build a wall. “She is clearly referencing those people who are breaking America’s immigration laws when suggesting we ‘don’t need to talk about them as criminals,’” he said. “Nikki Haley is okay with people resenting them, just not okay calling them criminals – our ad highlights that point.”

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The Pinocchio Test

We hold attack ads to a high standard and judge especially harshly any ad that we deem to be manipulated video. This ad twists a snippet of a long answer that Haley gave about improving the tone of the immigration debate – and falsely suggests that she supports people who enter the country illegally. Whether she was explicitly talking about undocumented immigrants may be open to debate – but not that her words were taken out of context.

Four Pinocchios



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