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Haley Says She Would ‘Send Back’ Migrants Already Here, Pledges to ‘Close’ Border

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Tough promises on immigration from Nikki Haley and her rivals for the Republican nomination face logistical and legal barriers.

On the national debate stage, in interviews and at town halls, the message on immigration from every top Republican in the 2024 presidential race has resounded clearly: It is time to shut down the nation’s southern border.

Coming into view now is how candidates would approach the issue of undocumented immigrants who are already in the United States — of both those who have been living and working in the country for years, and those who have entered more recently.

In a packed diner in Londonderry, N.H., on Thursday, Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who has called on the United States to “close” the border and defund “sanctuary cities,” was pressed on just that issue by a potential voter. The question of how to provide an avenue to citizenship or permanent legal residency for immigrants, whether undocumented or under temporary forms of protection like DACA, has long been at the center of the debate around overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.

Her response to Neil Philcrantz, 71, a Republican and retired quality engineer from the nearby town of Hudson, was revealing in its encapsulation of Republicans’ embrace of hard-line tactics and her own rhetorical shifts on the issue.

“If you do get ‘catch and deport,’ what would you do with all of the ones who are here now?”

The phrase “catch and deport” refers to Ms. Haley’s campaign trail riff on the term “catch and release,” which generally refers to the longtime practice of allowing people who have been vetted and deemed a low risk to live in communities, instead of detention, as they wait for their immigration cases to move through the courts.

Former President Donald Trump made ending the practice central to his first White House campaign, and frequently derided it while in office. But his administration widely expanded it in 2019 before scaling it back again, as it struggled to process an increase in families arriving at the nation’s southern border from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In 2020, Trump officials began to turn away people who sought asylum at the border, which led to their expulsion without the right to claim they feared returning to their home country because of persecution or torture. The removals were carried out amid the coronavirus pandemic, under a public health order called Title 42, which expired under President Biden in May.

With migration patterns changing and reaching new highs around the world, the Biden administration has expanded legal pathways to entry for some migrants. Still, illegal border crossings continue to set records, straining city support systems. Ms. Haley has said she would immediately deport those who enter unlawfully.

“OK, of the six to seven million that have come over since Biden did this — this is going to sound harsh — but you send them back. And the reason you send them back, the reason you send them back is because, my parents, they came here legally. They put in the time, they put in the price. I take care of my parents. They live with us. They’re 87 and 89. There’s not a time I’ve had dinner with my mom when she doesn’t say, ‘Are those people still crossing the border?’ And the reason is, they are offended by what’s happening on the border. And when you allow those six or seven million to come, to all those people who’ve done it the right way, you’re letting them jump the line.”

The subtext

As governor of South Carolina, Ms. Haley signed some of the harshest immigration laws in the country in 2011, including measures that required police officers to check the immigration status of some people. But she tended to refrain from fire and brimstone in her language on the issue, and tended to describe immigrants and refugees as part of the fabric of American society.

On the campaign trail now, Ms. Haley and her top rivals have spent months trying to outdo each other with extreme immigration proposals and rhetoric as the party’s primary base has veered hard right on the issue. Ms. Haley, the daughter of Indian American immigrants, has in particular wielded her background to significant effect as a messenger for hard-line proposals.

Undocumented immigrants already in the country, she continued on Thursday, should be divided between those working and paying taxes and “those that are feeding off the system,” she said. “If they’re feeding off the system, you send them back.”

Immigration has become a dominant issue among Republicans, and it is particularly salient in New Hampshire, where a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/USA TODAY poll released last month found that immigration and the border were the top concern for voters likely to cast their ballot in the G.O.P. primary.

Responses like Ms. Haley’s capture the way Mr. Trump’s approach, both in style and substance, has become Republican conviction as the nation’s immigration challenges have grown more intractable.

With her call to “send them back,” she embraces a position that Mr. DeSantis took in early October regarding undocumented immigrants who have entered during Mr. Biden’s presidency. Mr. Trump has also pledged to enact mass deportations. Other promises among the G.O.P. field include calls to eliminate or limit birthright citizenship; and ramp up military responses at the southern border. The tough proposals face logistical and legal barriers.

Much of the candidates’ language tends to conflate illegal and legal types of immigration, and overestimates the number of people who have entered the country unlawfully under President Biden. And some of the measures may not be feasible; plans to deport hundreds of thousands of people would require huge investments in immigration officers, judges and detention spaces. And the economic impact could be enormous.

But at Ms. Haley’s town hall gatherings and campaign events, voters have consistently asked her for more in-depth solutions to fix an immigration system where legal migration to the country has become almost impossible, though many businesses and local economies are struggling through labor shortages, and rely on foreign workers.

On a farm in a rural town in Iowa this fall, business owners welcomed a pledge from Ms. Haley to ease legal pathways for new workers as an effort to alleviate labor shortages. At a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire last month, one audience member asked what Ms. Haley believed was “the compassionate way,” or “the American way,” to handle the undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

For Mr. Philcrantz, Ms. Haley’s answer was satisfying, he said in a follow-up interview. He had been undecided when he walked into the diner Thursday afternoon. A few hours later, he called a reporter back to declare that he had changed his mind: “I am voting for Nikki.”

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