WASHINGTON – Stephen Miller may have been denounced by fellow Republicans and his own family, but the White House anti-immigration ideologue has the one ear that counts: President Donald Trump’s.
Miller’s influence was clear this week with the sweeping shakeup of the Department of Homeland Security, including the ouster of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, amid Trump’s frustration at its failure to halt hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants from entering the country.
The 33-year-old, self-avowed political provocateur now finds himself in charge of delivering on Trump’s promise to stem uncontrolled immigration — legal and illegal — by whatever means available.
That could entail considering legally problematic measures like ending asylum or restarting forcible separations of migrant families, according to reports, although Trump said Tuesday he is not considering returning to the contentious practice.
Equally controversially, it could also mean the eventual construction of the multi-billion-dollar southern border wall that was central to Trump’s campaign, using Pentagon funds earmarked for other projects.
The hard-charging, consciously controversial, ever-argumentative Miller has bonded closely with Trump over their shared opposition to immigration.
Raised in a liberal Jewish family in cosmopolitan Los Angeles, he turned sharply against immigration and multiculturalism as a high school teen.
He developed a core conviction that refugees and other immigrants threaten American culture and, as a rule, align with liberal Democrats.
As a political science student at Duke University, he was a polemicist and a firebrand, attacking Hispanics, Muslims, feminists and anyone tied to Democrats to spark anger and debate.
He associated with leaders of the budding white supremacy movement — though he has kept a physical, if not ideological distance from the movement.
As a congressional staffer he made his mark in 2013, helping mastermind the defeat of a bipartisan Democrat-Republican immigration bill that would have, with substantial public support, opened a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants who had been in the U.S. for years and even decades.
That success made him a valuable addition to Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.
Trump made shutting down the U.S. borders a central promise of his candidacy, and Miller, as speechwriter and sometimes warm-up act for Trump on the campaign trail, fell into the position of crafting the details.
They were a good fit: like Trump, Miller takes pride in rhetorical bomb-throwing, trolling the left — what he calls generating “constructive controversy.”
When Trump took office, Miller helped design a ban on Muslim arrivals — a move that was ruled illegal in courts several times, until it was forcibly recast.
And he provided Trump the arguments for a campaign to lock out the Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans crossing the southern border — arguing that they are made up of rapists, murderers, human and drug traffickers and gang members.
“Thousands of Americans die year after year after year because of threats crossing our southern border,” Miller says.
Although such arguments are often contradicted by evidence, he is an absolutist on the border.
“You cannot conceive of a nation without a strong, secure border,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
“It is fundamental and essential to the idea of sovereignty and national survival to have control over who enters and doesn’t enter the country.”
Miller doesn’t try hard to convince others of his views. He has just one audience: Trump, whom he has called a “political genius.”
His sway over his boss was already evident in January 2018, when he persuaded the president to renege on signing bipartisan immigration legislation.
Republicans lashed out at Miller directly for killing a painstakingly crafted deal.
“As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we are going nowhere. He’s been an outlier for years,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, has said.
His stance has made the slim, prematurely balding Miller an unpopular figure in deeply liberal Washington, where he has been verbally assailed in restaurants.
After one bartender made a nasty gesture at him, the Washington Post wrote, Miller threw out $80 worth of sushi takeout because he feared it had been tainted.
More seriously, his stance had earned him the ire of his own family and the Jewish community.
His uncle, David Glosser, wrote last year of “dismay and increasing horror” over Miller’s immigration views, which “repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.”
Miller is descended from refugees who arrived in the US in 1903 after fleeing violent anti-Jewish pogroms in what is now Belarus.
“Honestly, Mr. Miller, you’ve set back the Jewish contribution to making the world spiritually whole,” childhood rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels said in a sermon last year, “through your arbitrary division of these desperate people.”