South Carolina Republicans were worried. In early 2015, the Obama administration was looking to place thousands of people fleeing war-torn Syria; a refugee resettlement group had just opened an office in Spartanburg County. Gov. Nikki Haley, newly re-elected by 14 points, wrote county GOP officials a letter, to allay their fears.
“South Carolina, along with 48 other states, has proudly welcomed refugees from around the world,” Haley wrote. She would ask the State Department for “greater transparency” in how it screened refugees; if they passed vetting, Americans couldn’t “allow fear to erode America’s place in the world as accepting of immigrants who chose to come legally and contribute as citizens.”
Seven months later, Haley reversed course, urging the government not to “resettle any Syrian refugees” in her state, explaining that the vetting wouldn’t catch potential terrorists. And this week, after Ron DeSantis falsely claimed that Haley saw Gazans as potential refugees, she told Fox News that she didn’t.
“I’ve always said we shouldn’t take any Gazan refugees in the U.S.,” Haley said. “I said it when I was at the U.N. — that we shouldn’t take Syrian refugees [in] the U.S.”
The brief, bitter exchange over a non-existent refugee issue was a sideshow in the Israel-Gaza conflict; Israel’s Arab neighbors have refused to take in anyone fleeing the region. But it demonstrated just how much the Republicans who want to beat Donald Trump have adopted his politics — and how DeSantis, now trailing Haley in some early primary states, sees any deviation from it as a weakness to exploit.
“It shows an instinct on her behalf [to] try to cater to elite opinion,” DeSantis told Megyn Kelly this week. “She’s still suffering under the illusions, which should have been wiped away after dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan, that somehow people in that part of the world just yearn to live in American-style democracy and freedom.”
Haley’s critics on the right were glad to see her drawn out on the issue. Lee Bright, a former state senator from Spartanburg County, recalled how Haley had opposed the local conservatives who rallied against bringing Syrian refugees, even throttling a bill that would have made aid groups liable if refugees ended up committing crimes in America.
“She was for it initially, and then she flipped,” said Bright, who also opposed Haley when she took the Confederate flag down from its place near the state capitol. “If Nicky Haley and Nancy Mace aren’t connected through political DNA, I would be amazed. They are both on every side of every issue.”
Evangelicals who supported refugee resettlement saw 2015 as a political turning point. Dr. Russell Moore, then a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that Haley had been “a voice of reason,” and not “cruel and vindictive,” at a moment when some right-wing activists were advancing refugee conspiracy theories.
“I’ve heard it from presidential candidates, but almost nothing from regular people,” Moore said. “There was a lot of grassroots angst about Syrian refugees, for a long time, and governors responded to that.” But the response from candidates was “not surprising, given the atmosphere right now.”
The remarkable fact about this fight is that Haley never suggested that America take refugees from Gaza. Not once. The Florida governor based his attack on comments she’d made to CNN, after she was asked about his assessment that “all” of Gaza’s residents “are anti-Semitic.” She disagreed: “Half” of Gazans, she said, didn’t support Hamas, and “America’s always been sympathetic to the fact that you can separate civilians from terrorists.”
DeSantis had said that in the context of promising not to let refugees into America — a point that CNN’s Jake Tapper didn’t ask Haley about. DeSantis’s campaign pushed the issue with clips of Haley, in her 2017 confirmation hearing, saying that the state “always welcomed the refugee program,” cutting it before she explained why she rejected Syrian refugees.
But there was a real, year-long argument among Republicans about whether the country could vet and accept refugees from Syria. Trump himself even floated the idea of accepting some refugees “on a humanitarian basis.” The fight wasn’t settled until a terrorist attack in Paris in November 2015, and the revelation that three attackers had arrived in Europe from Syria.
Days later, Haley said that her state would take no refugees; weeks later, at a rally near Charleston, Trump first proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering America. Haley criticized that at the time, saying that “it defies everything that this country was based on.” Now, DeSantis was getting to Trump’s right on the issue, Haley was bringing her position in line, and the former president was reminding voters of who said it first.
“We aren’t bringing in anyone from Gaza, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Libya or anywhere else that threatens our security,” Trump said in the western Des Moines suburbs on Wednesday. “I banned refugees from Syria, I banned refugees from Somalia — very dangerous places — and from all of the most dangerous places all over the world, I banned them. In my second term, we’re going to expand each and every one of those bans.”
The View From The Rest of the GOP Field
DeSantis’s persistence got other Republicans on record on the refugee question, none of them departing from post-Trump orthodoxy. In an interview with the Associated Press at Georgetown University, Tim Scott quibbled with the idea that every Gazan was anti-semitic, but added that they shouldn’t be coming to America.
“We’re not bringing anyone — no refugees in from Gaza, period,” Scott told reporter Meg Kinnard. “I think that’s the right decision. Not because I think they’re all anti-semitic, but I can’t tell the difference. And I do know that the majority of the Palestinians support Hamas based on all the latest polling that I’ve seen, since 2021.”
In an Iowa town hall, hosted by Newsmax, Mike Pence said that “nations in the region, with reasonable concerns about terrorism in their own country,” should take refugees, and America could play a role – while not “open[ing] the spigot to refugees coming to the United States of America.”
“I don’t want to upend our refugee program,” Pence added. “There are many church organizations across the country that work with refugees on a regular basis. But in this moment of war, we ought to be calling on Egypt, we ought to be calling on Jordan, to open the way.”
The View From Immigration Advocates
Alex Nowrasteh, a vice president at the libertarian Cato Institute, said “any proposal, real or make believe, to admit refugees, is toxic to the Republican caucus” — though it was far more contested before Trump won the 2016 primary. His own research has found that, since 1975, just four Americans had been killed in terror attacks by refugees. “The annual chance of being killed in a normal homicide is about 240,000-times greater.”
- In RealClearPolitics, Philip Wegmann credits DeSantis with forging a “new orthodoxy on how the Biden administration should respond to Palestinian refugees.”
- In the Daily Signal, Heritage Foundation border security scholar Lora Ries argues that “pro-Hamas demonstrations in the U.S. in the past week have shown us that the Palestinian population has no interest in assimilating into American culture and governance.” Former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a Palestinian-American known for his right-libertarian politics, urged the think tank to delete a “xenophobic” post featuring Ries’s take.