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Uninstalling Stephen Miller

How one man’s mastery of the dark bureaucratic arts made life a living hell for immigrants and refugees.
December 17, 2020
Featured Image
Senior Advisor Stephen Miller looks on as US President Donald Trump speaks to the media in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on July 26, 2019. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

In November 2019, a former staffer from Breitbart leaked emails from 2015 in which White House advisor Stephen Miller recommended The Camp of the Saints, a book that describes immigrants as “kinky-haired, swarthy-skinned, long-despised phantoms” and “teeming ants toiling for the white man’s comfort.” Written by the late French explorer Jean Raspail, the book centers on a flotilla of impoverished Indians invading the “white world,” which seems “bent on taking revenge against itself.” The Indians, whom Raspail refers to as “grotesque little beggars from the streets of Calcutta,” are led by a feces-eating “gigantic Hindu” called “the turd eater.” The Western world lets them in, ushering in an onslaught of rape and murder.

Miller promoted the 1973 novel in an email to Breitbart staff, which became the impetus for a Breitbart article that aimed to draw parallels between Raspail’s dystopia and the migrant caravans then journeying to the Southern border of the United States. Raspail summed up his outlook on immigration in two sentences. “To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.” Miller took the book’s lesson to heart, exclaiming that he “would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America’s soil.”

While much of the conservative intelligentsia asserts that Trump’s gains among minority voters somehow disproves the long-held allegations of bigotry directed at his administration, even voters who easily shrugged off headline-grabbing dog whistles like “very fine people on both sides” or “stand back and stand by” would be appalled by Stephen Miller’s beliefs and the extent of his influence. His implementation of an agenda that the vast majority of Americans oppose exploited our nation’s institutional vulnerabilities, disfiguring our immigration system in a way that will take years to reverse.

As a senior advisor to the president, Miller used his position to focus on immigration while avoiding the congressional scrutiny to which agency officials are subject. Miller frequently circumvented department heads, opting instead to call lower-level staff to implement his orders, reportedly telling them things like “This is the most important thing you will do at your agency.” Without looping in cabinet secretaries, Miller would hold weekly meetings with their subordinates, occasionally helping get promotions for those who shared his beliefs. Even senior officials reported that they frequently felt torn between Miller and the actual head of their agency. Miller and his allies would go “out of their way to vilify all immigrants,” demanding press releases whenever a refugee or immigrant committed a gruesome crime. This tendency of Miller’s was underscored by his correspondence with officials at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to manufacture statistics linking immigrants to violent crime and terrorism—efforts that were the likely impetus for a misleading 2019 DOJ report claiming that immigrants now comprise 64 percent of all federal arrests, having “more than tripled,” between 1998-2018.

The report arrived at these numbers by burying the fact that 95 percent of the increases in non-citizen arrests were specifically from immigration offenses. It also neglected to mention that federal arrests comprise only 1.5 percent of total U.S. arrests, rendering the entire report moot. But since the litany of research on the topic largely contradicts Miller’s views, he and his staff had no choice but to mischaracterize the data. The report still hit the airways, with pundits citing the misleading figures in defense of the president’s restrictionist agenda.

Similarly, when the White House commissioned the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to draft a report assessing the net fiscal impact of refugees, Miller urged officials to scrub information detailing their fiscal contributions. “The President believes refugees cost more, and the results of this study shouldn’t embarrass the President,” he said. Before the administration could release Miller’s distorted report, the undoctored version was leaked to the public. The report found that from 2005 to 2014, refugees paid $63 billion more in federal, state, and local taxes than they consumed in benefits.

According to officials responsible for helping determine the maximum refugee admissions target for the year, Miller was responsible for lowering the number to 50,000—the lowest resettlement ceiling since the refugee program’s creation in 1980. Even in the years directly following the September 11 attacks, the ceiling had never dipped below 70,000. Miller worked to keep slashing refugee admissions to new lows at the end of each fiscal year. Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, along with other Pentagon officials, expressed grave concern that further cuts to admissions would jeopardize America’s promise to protect the Afghani and Iraqi interpreters facing violent backlash for assisting U.S. troops. “A failure to honor our commitments to those who have supported the U.S. in combat would undermine our diplomatic and military efforts,” Mattis wrote in a letter to the administration.


Miller would complain about being hamstrung by “bureaucratic inertia,” eventually convincing the president to “drain the swamp” so he could refill it with restrictionist acolytes. One source from which Miller would draw talent was the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), whose current president, Dan Stein, has warned about immigrants engaging in “competitive breeding,” and worried about “people with low IQs,” having “as many children as possible.” These comments even disgusted a young Tucker Carlson, though he now seems happy to look the other way.

Miller was also a master at erecting bureaucratic roadblocks. One particularly effective policy designed to dramatically lower the number of successful immigration petitions was a rule requiring U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to reject applications if any spaces are left blank—even when it makes no sense for an applicant to fill out that field. Instead, the applicant must write in “N/A,” as the answer for every single non-applicable question. Many applications have been declined for reasons that have nothing to do with their eligibility. For example, in the “Name in native alphabet,” section an applicant whose name in their native alphabet is the same in English must write “N/A,” or be rejected. Only “N/A,” “unknown,” or “none,” will suffice. (“NA” will result in rejection.) The “no-blanks policy,” was first weaponized in the fall of 2019 against asylum seekers, a group that often lacks access to legal counsel. The rule was then expanded to include undocumented victims and witnesses of certain crimes applying for the U visa, which enables them to communicate with police without fear of deportation. From late December to mid-January, 98 percent of U visa applications were rejected under the no blanks rule. After the first six months of implementation, the policy still resulted in the rejection of roughly half of 24,000 total applications. Had Trump been re-elected, USCIS would’ve extended the policy to green card applicants.

The expansion of the public charge rule was another one of Miller’s big wish-list items. The rule requires green card petitioners to fill out roughly 18 hours’ worth of forms and supply dozens of pages to prove that they aren’t likely to go on welfare. Under this rule, a professional earning $76,000 with a spouse and four kids may still be rejected. But even those likely to have cleared the rule would’ve been deterred by the obstacle course of new paperwork. Making the policy even more ridiculous is the fact that family sponsors are already required to demonstrate they have the means to financially support their family members if necessary.*

Miller was adept at shrouding his cruelty in boring bureaucracy, making it difficult for news outlets to cover persistently. Doug Rand, cofounder of Boundless Immigration, a company that helps immigrants obtain permanent residency and citizenship, told us that in addition to the Trump administration’s official policies, “we have no idea how many shadow directives were released behind the scenes.” Rand cites the fact that rejections for “genius”-level green cards awarded to people like nuclear scientists and Nobel Prize winners increased by 26 percentage points. “This trend couldn’t have happened by accident,” he told us.


But not all of Miller’s policies could evade the media spotlight. One such exception was the family separations under “zero tolerance,” for which Miller may be most famous. Shortly after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared the administration’s zero tolerance policy of prosecuting all illegal border crossers in early 2018, stories of toddlers being ripped from their mothers’ arms dominated headlines.

The family separations were deemed so indefensible that the administration and its allies have since deflected blame, arguing that “Obama built the cages.” And while it’s true that the Obama administration built cages at the border and separated families, there are substantial differences between Miller’s policy and that of his predecessors. Under previous presidents, parents of family units were generally deprioritized for criminal prosecution if their only crime was illegal entry (although they would still be subject to civil penalties and deportation if found lacking a claim to stay). Likewise, prosecutors and adjudicators were given discretion to focus their resources on targeting smugglers and human traffickers, not people whose only crime was crossing illegally. Stephen Miller’s zero tolerance, on the other hand, required all illegal border crossers to be detained and criminally prosecuted in order to intimidate the Central American families making the trek. The separations were a feature, not a bug, of the Miller strategy. Making matters even worse, the Trump administration forced asylum-seeking families to enter illegally by blocking ports of entry where they could legally claim asylum, triggering even more separations. The administration justified the policy by claiming it didn’t have the personnel or holding space, but an OIG report proved this to be a lie.

Overall, zero tolerance resulted in over 5,000 children being separated from their parents. The government has yet to find parents of well over 600 children, 129 of whom were younger than 5 years old when they were separated. And while the policy was controversial enough for Trump to partially roll it back later that summer, it didn’t go far enough for Miller. During a White House meeting in May 2018, Miller articulated his plan of separating families going through civil court proceedings as well, including asylum hearings, which would have separated at least 25,000 additional children from their parents.

While this particular suggestion of Miller’s never came to fruition, he has succeeded in effectively shutting down asylum. Near the end of 2018, the administration enacted a policy forcing tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their claims to be processed, inhibiting them from getting legal assistance and rendering them vulnerable to murder and torture as they waited in Tijuana and Juárez—cities with some of the highest homicides per capita in the world. And when COVID-19 hit America, Miller used the crisis to invoke emergency powers denying all asylum seekers, a policy he previously tried to enact using the flu and measles outbreaks a pretense. Yet the thousands of unaccompanied children turned away were required to test negative for the virus before boarding their deportation flights, undermining the entire justification behind their deportations.


Stephen Miller didn’t simply leave a mess for America to clean up—he installed his ideology within a system now accustomed to buckling to his will. Uninstalling Stephen Miller will be an endeavor that takes several years, at minimum. Despite—or perhaps because—of Trump and Miller’s efforts, American support for immigration has soared to historic highs.

Miller’s agenda, implemented through bureaucratic force of will, may take longer to end than the four years he spent enacting it. Although Miller himself will leave, the culture he helped create will likely stay for a while. And while Trump’s rhetoric has backfired with the general public, GOP primary voters still prioritize immigration as an issue much more than immigration supporters. For the former, it’s their most salient issue. This dynamic means that it will be an uphill battle for the incoming administration to restore sanity to the system.

*Correction: The article originally stated that the public charge rule was vacated, when actually it had only been enjoined in 18 states at the time of this writing

Sam Peak and Jonathan Haggerty

Sam Peak is an immigration policy analyst and writer in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Haggerty is a Resident Fellow in Criminal Justice Policy at the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, D.C.