How Stephen Miller seized the moment to enact immigration agenda
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, 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, 2001, 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.