WASHINGTON — When historians try to explain how opponents of immigration captured the Republican Party, they may turn to the spring of 2007, when President George W. Bush threw his waning powers behind a legalization plan and conservative populists buried it in scorn.
Bush was so taken aback, he said he worried about America “losing its soul,” and immigration politics have never been the same.
That spring was significant for another reason, too: An intense young man with wary, hooded eyes and fiercely anti-immigrant views graduated from college and began a meteoric rise as a Republican operative. With the timing of a screenplay, the man and the moment converged.
Stephen Miller was 22 and looking for work in Washington. He lacked government experience but had media appearances on talk radio and Fox News and a history of pushing causes like “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.” A first-term congresswoman from Minnesota offered him a job interview and discovered they were reading the same book: a polemic warning that Muslim immigration could mean “the end of the world as we know it.”
By the end of the interview, Rep. Michele Bachmann had a new press secretary. And a dozen years later, Miller, now a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, is presiding over one of the most fervent attacks on immigration in American history.
The story of Miller’s rise has been told with a focus on his pugnacity and paradoxes. Known more for his enemies than his friends, he is a conservative firebrand from liberal Santa Monica, California, and a descendant of refugees who is seeking to eliminate refugee programs. He is a Duke graduate in bespoke suits who rails against the perfidy of so-called elites. Among those who have questioned his moral fitness are his uncle, his childhood rabbi and 3,400 fellow Duke alumni.
Less attention has been paid to the forces that have abetted his rise and eroded Republican support for immigration — forces Miller has personified and advanced in a career unusually reflective of its times.
Rising fears of terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks brought new calls to keep immigrants out. Declining need for industrial labor left fewer businesses clamoring to bring them in. A surge of migrants across the South stoked a backlash in the party’s geographic base.
Conservative media, once divided, turned against immigration, and immigration-reduction groups that had operated on the margins grew in numbers and sophistication. Abandoning calls for minority outreach, the Republican Party chose instead to energize its conservative white base — heeding strategists who said the immigrant vote was not just a lost cause but an existential threat.
Arriving in Washington as these forces coalesced, Miller rode the tail winds with zeal. Warning of terrorism and disturbed by multicultural change, he became the protégé of a Southern senator especially hostile to immigration, Jeff Sessions of Alabama. And he courted allies in conservative media and immigration-restriction groups.
Miller, who declined to comment for this article, affects the air of a lone wolf — guarded, strident, purposefully provocative. But he has been shaped by the movement whose ideas and lieutenants he helped install across the government as he consolidated a kind of power unusual for a presidential aide and unique in the Trump White House.
“I don’t agree with his policy on reducing legal immigration, but I’m in awe of how he’s been able to impact this one issue,” said Cesar Conda, who battled Miller on Capitol Hill as an aide to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “He’s got speech writing; he’s got policy; he’s got his own little congressional-relations operation; he’s got allies whom he’s helped place across the government.”
“Years ago, the restrictionist movement was a ragtag group” with no strong ties to either party, he added. Miller “embodies their rise into the GOP mainstream.”
Country and Party in Motion
The story that has defined Miller’s life began two decades before his birth, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a 1965 law ending quotas that chose immigrants based on their national origin and heavily favored white people from northern Europe. Although Johnson called the new law a largely symbolic measure that would neither increase immigrants’ numbers nor alter their ethnic mix, it did both on a vast scale — raising the foreign-born share of the population to near-record highs and setting the United States on course for nonwhite Hispanics to become a majority of the population.
Opposition initially came from the left, especially from environmentalists worried about population growth.
The first major immigration-control group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, was founded in 1979 by Dr. John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist and Sierra Club member, with funding from Cordelia Scaife May, an heiress to the Mellon banking fortune. Mindful of the bigotry in earlier anti-immigration movements, Tanton vowed to keep it “centrist/liberal in political orientation.”
But his arguments about environmental harm and wage competition found little traction in a Democratic Party eager to court minorities. By the mid-1980s, Tanton was making the racial arguments he had pledged to avoid, decrying the “Latin onslaught” and insisting on the need for “a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
At the time, the Republican Party was divided on immigration. While cultural conservatives were wary of rapid demographic change, businesses wanted cheap labor, and Cold Warriors embraced anti-Communist refugees, including large waves of Cubans and Vietnamese. Running for president, a conservative as definitional as Ronald Reagan hailed “millions of immigrants from every corner of the earth” as a sign that God had made America a “city on a hill.”
But by the 1990s, the Cold War had ended, and globalization was sending manufacturing abroad. The business wing of the Republican Party, its main pro-immigrant faction, had less need for foreign workers. “It’s not that the business lobby became anti-immigration; it’s just that they cared a lot less,” said Margaret Peters, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Not least among the forces shaping the debate was immigration itself: It accelerated and spread to the South, with the number of immigrants in the country illegally growing especially fast.
In 1986, Reagan signed a compromise law that gave legal status to nearly 3 million people while adding new penalties to curb flows of immigrants in the country illegally. But enforcement proved weak, and the unauthorized population reached a record 12 million. Restrictionists, feeling betrayed, swore never to allow another “amnesty.”
After a Republican backlash in the 1990s led more immigrants to vote for Democrats, Bush ran in 2000 as a pro-immigrant conservative. He saw Latinos as proto-Republican — religious, entrepreneurial, family-oriented — and was considering a legalization plan when the Sept. 11 attacks consumed his administration.
By the time he returned to the issue in 2007, his party’s skepticism toward legalization had hardened into implacable opposition. Amplified by talk radio, populist critics denounced his plan as “shamnesty”; one called it an effort to make America a “roach motel.” Three-quarters of Republican senators opposed it.
Just a year before, a rising Republican star had urged fellow conservatives not to abandon the party’s Reaganite support for immigration.
“We are either going to prove that we believe in the ideas enshrined on the Statue of Liberty, or the American people will go looking elsewhere,” said a congressman from Indiana, Mike Pence.
But the party’s shift proved decisive. Now, as vice president, Pence loyally defends the policies set by the president and Miller.
The forces that pushed the Republican Party to the right also shaped Miller.
Born in 1985, he grew up in a post-Cold War world where the acceptance of refugees was no longer seen as part of America’s resistance to a hostile foreign power. Rapid ethnic change was shaping his world.
The son of an affluent real estate investor, he entered high school in a self-consciously multicultural Santa Monica in 1999, just as California became a majority-minority state. At the start of his junior year, the attacks on Sept. 11 took nearly 3,000 lives.
The terrorist plot was central to his political awakening. Complaining that school officials were insufficiently patriotic, Miller won an uphill fight to make them enforce regulations requiring the Pledge of Allegiance. “Osama bin Laden would feel very welcome at Santa Monica High School,” he wrote in 2002 in a local publication.
Tellingly, he took his case to talk radio, as a frequent guest on “The Larry Elder Show.” It was a pattern Miller would repeat in subsequent years: airing hyperbolic claims of liberal treachery to conservative media allies. “He loved being the provocative conservative behind liberal lines,” said Ari Rosmarin, who was editor of the school newspaper and now works on criminal justice issues at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Miller’s main issue was assimilation or what he saw as its failures. Writing in a local paper, he complained that “a number of students lacked basic English skills,” and his yearbook page quoted Theodore Roosevelt: “There can be no fifty-fifty Americanism.” The school paper ran a parody of him railing against ethnic food and demanding white bread and “fine Virginia hams, just as the founding fathers used to enjoy on their bountiful plantations.”
Classmates were often unsure whether his provocative views were sincere or a bid for attention. “Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have janitors who are paid to do it for us?” he said in a speech for student government. A video shows him flashing a self-satisfied smile as classmates jeer.
His uncle, Dr. David S. Glosser, a vocal critic, dismissed the antics as “just an early adolescent desire to be noticed.”
“This talk of his philosophy seems disingenuous to me,” he said in an interview. “It’s very seductive. All the sudden, you become the darling of media big shots and you get notoriety for it at home.”
Some of Miller’s Latino classmates say his comments made them feel personally attacked. In an interview, Jason Islas said Miller told him he was ending their friendship for reasons that included “my Latino heritage.” He added, “I think he is a racist.”
But with prominent allies like David Horowitz, a conservative author and organizer, Miller headed to Duke in 2003 with the beginnings of a national reputation.
The defining issue of Miller’s college career was the arrest, when he was a junior, of three white lacrosse players accused of raping a black stripper. Miller leaped to the players’ defense, charging that administrators and faculty members saw them as emblems of white privilege and simply assumed they were guilty — a case he made on the Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor,” then the most-watched cable news program. He demanded that the school president be fired and the prosecutor jailed.
The case collapsed. North Carolina’s attorney general declared the players innocent, the prosecutor was disbarred for misconduct, and the accuser was later convicted of killing her boyfriend. For Miller, it was a two-part vindication — reinforcing his conviction that liberal dogma about racial oppression was wrong and that his scorched-earth tactics were effective.
In his last column for the Duke Chronicle before graduating, he called himself “a deeply committed conservative who considers it his responsibility to do battle with the left.” Then he headed for Washington.
Taking the Fight to Congress
Most of Miller’s work for Bachmann was unrelated to immigration. He wrote news releases about gas prices and fire department grants. But in February 2008, soon after he began the job, an immigrant in the country illegally who lived in rural Minnesota, Olga Franco, drove through a stop sign and killed four children. Bachmann appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor,” where she framed the issue as “anarchy versus the rule of law.”
Although Franco was convicted of vehicular homicide, the National Academy of Sciences, a group founded to convey academic consensus, has written that immigrants are “much less likely than natives to commit crimes,” and recent evidence suggests that those in the country illegally are no exception.
But immigrant crime would be a running theme in Miller’s career, and his emphasis on the issue borrowed from the broader restrictionist movement. To erode public support for immigration, FAIR maintains an online archive of “serious crimes by illegal aliens.”
In a 2008 congressional campaign debate, Bachmann’s opponent accused her of exploiting the tragedy, but she argued that immigrants in the country illegally were “bringing in diseases, bringing in drugs, bringing in violence” — language nearly identical to what Trump would later employ with Miller as his aide — and she mustered a slender win.
Soon after that election, Miller went to work for Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona and then quickly crossed the Capitol to work for Sessions. Perhaps the leading immigration foe in the Senate, Sessions was a product of a region where immigration had soared, largely in places unaccustomed to it. In two decades, the number of immigrants had grown fourfold in Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina; fivefold in Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee; and sixfold in North Carolina.
Miller had opposed immigration mostly on cultural grounds, warning that newcomers were failing to learn English and endangering public safety. But Sessions emphasized economic concerns and what he called “the real needs of working Americans,” saying foreigners threatened their jobs and wages.
As a defender of the working class, Miller had uncertain credentials. If his high school gibe about janitors was a joke, he returned to the issue at Duke. He mocked a campaign to have students thank their dorm-cleaning staff, arguing that employment was thanks enough. “The janitors need a job, which we provide,” he wrote.
Striking a self-consciously elitist pose, he ridiculed calls for improved relations with working-class Durham, North Carolina (“one of the last spots in America anyone would visit”) and asked for a student smoking lounge with “plenty of mahogany and leather.”
The effect of immigrants on jobs and wages is much debated — they take jobs but make jobs, too. Most economists see greater downward pressure on wages coming from other forces, including the decline of the minimum wage (adjusted for inflation), weak unions, outsourcing and technological change.
The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2017 that immigration’s overall effect on wages was “very small” but added that “some studies have found sizable negative short-run impacts for high school dropouts” (who account for about 8% of the workforce). Even among dropouts, some economists find the effects modest or nonexistent.
One prominent scholar, Harvard economist George Borjas, consistently finds negative effects much larger than his peers do. He is the figure Miller most often cites.
A Sign of Things to Come
In moving to Sessions’ Senate suite, Miller arrived at a crossroads for the restrictionist movement’s people and ideas.
As head of communications, Miller acquired a deep knowledge of the movement’s players and policy goals. Others in the office would also go on to influential jobs in the Trump administration, not least Sessions himself, who as attorney general presided over a policy that separated thousands of young immigrant children from parents illegally crossing the border.
Miller’s minor moment of Capitol Hill renown stems from his efforts to defeat the so-called Gang of Eight bill, a bipartisan attempt to pair new enforcement measures with legalization for most of the country’s 11 million immigrants in the country illegally and to offer them a long path to citizenship.
He opposed the bill with the same zeal that had inspired high school parodies, haranguing reporters into the night and earning a gadfly reputation.
In retrospect, three elements of Miller’s approach foreshadowed his future exercise of power. One was his rejection of the view that Republicans needed to court minorities. The Gang of Eight bill was born after the 2012 presidential race, in which the defeated Republican, Mitt Romney, lost the Latino vote by 44 points.
No less a hard-liner than Fox News host Sean Hannity called for legalizing most of the immigrants in the country illegally. “Pathway to citizenship — done,” he said on his radio show. The Republican National Committee urged the party “to empower and support ethnic minorities” and “champion comprehensive immigration reform,” meaning legalization.
Miller took the opposite view, which the party ultimately followed: Mobilize the white working-class base, among whom turnout had fallen.
While Bush had seen Latinos as natural Republicans, most restrictionists saw them as an electoral threat. “If four out of five Latinos are registering with the Democrats, perhaps less immigration would be in the interest of the Republican Party, no?” wrote Jon Feere of the Center for Immigration Studies, a spinoff of FAIR. (Feere later joined the Trump administration as an immigration adviser.)
A second feature of Miller’s efforts was his symbiotic relationship with conservative media, especially online publications like Breitbart News.
Lacking gatekeepers, the internet was a medium tailor-made for anti-establishment causes. Right-wing populism had long flourished on talk radio, but Breitbart, with few restrictions on space, could cover the issue in greater depth, bringing intense scrutiny to hot-button issues. And social media made articles easy to share.
Breitbart ran three stories making the false charge, circulated by Sessions’ staff, that the bill offered immigrants in the country illegally free cellphones.
Miller and Breitbart worked together closely.
“Sessions: Special Interest, Extremist Groups Wrote Immigration Bill,” claimed one Breitbart headline. “Sessions: ‘Tide is Beginning to Turn’ Against Immigration Bill,” announced another.
A third element of Miller’s work involved his alliance with outside groups, especially three that Tanton helped create and that received millions of dollars from May’s foundation. (Over a recent 12-year period alone, the foundation gave the Center for Immigration Studies $17.6 million, FAIR $56.7 million and NumbersUSA $58.2 million.)
Once a lonely cause, restrictionism had grown into a mature movement — an intellectual ecosystem of sorts — with groups specializing in areas as diverse as litigation and voter mobilization.
When Sessions claimed on a conference call that the Gang of Eight bill threatened jobs, an analyst from the Center for Immigration Studies was on the line to vouch for the data, and Breitbart covered it as news. When the center presented its journalism award, Miller was the speaker, and his first-name references to the center’s staff — “all the great work that Mark and Jessica and Steve are doing”— made it clear that he felt among friends.
Despite Sessions’ opposition, the bill passed in the Democratic Senate in 2013. As it headed to the Republican House, Miller drafted a 30-page memo that Sessions shared with the House Republican caucus, urging members to oppose the bill on behalf of “millions of struggling American workers.”
House leaders were mulling how to proceed when, in June 2014, an obscure Virginia professor toppled the majority leader, Eric Cantor, in a Republican primary. Though vastly outspent, the newcomer, Dave Brat, prevailed in large part by attacking Cantor for being “in cahoots” with Democrats on immigration.
“The world just changed,” Miller exulted the next day.
Indeed, it had. Among those commenting in Breitbart was the “conservative provocateur” Trump, who said the upset showed that the Republican establishment was at risk. “Everybody is now vulnerable,” he said.
Circulating the article, Miller told friends that he wished Trump would run for president. When Trump did — demanding a wall and a ban on Muslims entering the country — Miller soon signed on.
The Right Kind of Candidate
Miller rose quickly on the small staff. A prolific writer and combative surrogate, he was the person most knowledgeable about the campaign’s central issue, and he lavished Trump with praise. (The Trump candidacy, Miller said, had altered “Western civilization.”) He also served as an ideological chaperone to a candidate given to sudden reversals of signature policies, a role Miller continues to play in the White House.
Trump scored a coup by winning the support of some tech workers who, after being laid off by The Walt Disney Co., were forced to train foreign replacements admitted on temporary H-1B visas.
The workers embodied Trump’s larger argument that immigration hurt American employment. Yet days after appearing with them at a rally, Trump said in a televised debate that he would drop his plan to restrict the H-1B program.
“I’m changing; I’m changing,” he told the stunned interviewer. “I’m softening the position because we have to have talented people in this country.”
Within hours, Trump reversed himself again, issuing a statement to assure his followers that he planned to “end forever the use of H-1B as a cheap labor program.”
Despite the president’s public image as an unrelenting immigration foe, some restrictionist leaders view him as soft — a businessman whose desire for labor will lead him to support more immigration. That unreliability, they say, makes Miller’s presence especially important.
“If he weren’t there, I’m pretty sure it’d be worse,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
To Remake America’s Self-Image
Miller now occupies a large West Wing office and has influence on virtually every element of immigration policy, from the words the president uses to the regulations he promulgates. Miller is a speechwriter, policy architect, personnel director, legislative aide, spokesman and strategist. At every step, he has pushed for the hardest line.
When Trump wavered on his pledge to abolish protections for 800,000 so-called Dreamers — people brought illegally to the United States as children — Miller urged conservative states to threaten lawsuits. Trump then canceled the protections.
When the president later mulled a deal to restore them, Miller stacked the negotiations with people who opposed the move, leading Trump to abandon compromise and rail against immigrants from “shithole countries.”
“As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere,” complained Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supported a deal.
The Trump effort to curb immigration has played out amid so much chaos — judicial setbacks, congressional defeats, personnel purges, Twitter wars — that it can be hard to keep a running tally of its effect.
The attempt to revoke Dreamer protections has been blocked in court. An effort to bar travelers from certain predominantly Muslim countries was struck down twice. The promised border wall has not been built. A campaign to deter illegal immigration by separating thousands of children from their mothers was abandoned amid blistering criticism, including some from the right.
Still, Miller has left a big mark, in ways both obvious and obscure. After two highly publicized failures, he helped craft a travel ban that passed court muster. A fervent critic of refugee programs, he has helped cut annual admissions by about three-quarters since the end of the Obama administration.
Writing in Politico, his uncle, Glosser, expressed an “increasing horror” at his nephew’s hostility to refugees and noted that their ancestor, Wolf-Leib Glosser, arrived at Ellis Island after fleeing Russian pogroms. Had Miller’s policies prevailed then, he wrote, the Glossers probably “would have been murdered by the Nazis,” as most in their village were.
With less fanfare, Miller has guided a series of policy changes that critics liken to building an “invisible wall.” The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, counted more than 100 of them, noting that “most have moved forward untouched.”
The Trump administration quadrupled the number of work site investigations. It slowed the processing of temporary H-1B visas. It imposed new performance measures on immigration judges, to encourage faster deportations.
Though Miller was often the driving force, many of these changes were long-standing goals of the restrictionist movement. “He comes from a community of people who’ve been working on this, some of them, since the ’90s,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA.
Beyond the commas and clauses of government rules, Miller and Trump are trying to change something deeper: America’s self-conception as a land of immigrants. Trump is the son of an immigrant. Two of the three women he married are immigrants. Four of his five children have an immigrant parent. Yet his immigration agency rewrote its mission statement to remove the phrase “nation of immigrants.”
Miller even took to the White House briefing room to offer a revisionist view of the Statue of Liberty. Like many in his movement, he argued it should not be seen as welcoming immigrants because it was originally built for a different purpose (to celebrate political freedom) and that the Emma Lazarus poem hailing the “huddled masses” carries little meaning because it was added later.
The border wars intensified this spring as large numbers of Central American families sought asylum and Trump, with Miller urging him on, purged top officials from the Homeland Security Department, including the secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen; he argued they weren’t doing enough to keep them out.
But a quieter bureaucratic story may have revealed as much about Miller’s priorities and bureaucratic skill.
After long deliberation, the administration last week released a 217-page rule making it easier to deny admission or permanent residency to low-income immigrants deemed likely to receive public benefits. Unlike the border disputes, this so-called public charge rule affects only legal immigrants, since those in the country illegally are already barred from most safety-net programs.
Critics say the rule is already causing needy immigrants to forgo health care and nutritional aid. They call it a backdoor way of circumventing Congress and creating a new immigration system that admits fewer people, excludes the “huddled masses” and favors Europeans over poorer Mexican and Central Americans.
Miller was so eager to see the rule enacted, he helped push out a onetime ally, L. Francis Cissna, head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, for not moving fast enough.
Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies argued that the rule would have only modest effects on immigrant numbers but praised Miller for asserting a principle. “The point of immigration policy is to benefit Americans,” he said, not “strain the social safety net.”
While the restrictionist movement had long taken that principle to heart, he said, “Stephen understood how to operationalize it.”