Inside Stephen Miller’s personal anti-immigration crusade

New reporting by Politico offers a disturbing insight into the driving force behind the Trump administration’s most contentious anti-immigration policies

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Donald Trump’s far-right policy adviser Stephen Miller is already known to be the architect of the administration’s most contentious and hard-line anti-immigration decisions, from the so-called Muslim ban to the recent ousting of the head of homeland security, Kristjen Nielsen, over her unwillingness to break the law.

A recent report by Politico offers more disturbing insights into Miller’s worldview, suggesting that he is not so much motivated by political conviction than by a sense of personal crusade, and that his animosity towards immigrants runs so deep that he is prepared to intervene in individual cases.

Politico reports that while other aides were enjoying a rare moment of downtime during Trump’s 2017 Paris visit, Miller instead used the time to call administration officials to pressure them into deporting a person held in immigration detention.

“As the other officials looked on, Miller spent several minutes loudly pressing administration officials on the other end of the line to deport an individual who had been detained by immigration authorities.

The episode, recounted by two former administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter, struck some of Miller’s colleagues as bizarre. They were familiar by then with Miller’s volatile temper, and of his central role in Trump’s immigration policy. Even so, the effort by a young White House aide to dictate the fate of a single detainee was a startling sign of his deep involvement in the federal government’s immigration system.”

It is indeed startling – and revealing.

For a start, it’s hard to see how the fate of a single detainee should represent so great a political problem that it warrants the attention of one of the president’s most senior advisers. Unless, perhaps, his attitude towards immigration is so xenophobic, so far divorced from any rational border policy that one person’s predicament becomes symbolic of something bigger: the future of the country, maybe; a sense of moral purpose.

That said, it is not exactly news that Miller is an anti-immigration zealot: many of the Trump administration’s most hardline anti-immigration policies, from the Muslim ban to family separations, have been declared illegal by the courts. He is believed to have been instrumental in pushing out Nielsen over her refusal to reinstate family separations or completely close the US border, two actions the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security correctly argued are illegal.

The episode is also reflective of the Trump administration’s alarming disregard for the rule of law. Except under exceptional circumstances, it is completely inappropriate for a senior presidential aide to intervene in personal cases. It is up to immigration agencies, and the courts, to apply government policy and immigration laws thoroughly and fairly to determine who does and does not stay in the US. Immigration decisions can already seem arbitrary and unfair, without one person’s future in the US being shaped by whether or not some junior civil servant had Miller shouting in his ear.

The Politico story also reveals that Miller played a role in a much-overlooked presidential order that excludes people who are not US citizens or lawful permanent residents from federal privacy law. This paved the way for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to (under pressure from Miller) start releasing personal details of people who have been detained or deported.

Politico reports that ICE also came under pressure to highlight the criminal records of people they had detained. An ICE official instructed agency offices around the country to report their three “most egregious cases”. “If a location has only one egregious case — then include an extra egregious case from another city,” he instructed.

“There has to be some compelling reason for why you’d want to do it and nothing I’ve heard rises even remotely to that level,” a former DHS official told Politico. “You're talking about the federal government spotlighting a particular individual. There’s something wrong about that.”

Often the Trump administration is accused of dehumanizing immigrants, by referring to them as rapists or criminals or animals. But Politico’s reporting brought to mind a 2017 New Yorker essay on the science of human cruelty that argued that, contrary to popular belief, perpetrators of political violence rarely dehumanize their victims. “The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not,” it observed.

It is hard enough to imagine that Trump administration officials had so dehumanized migrant families that they were able to justify ripping children from their parents at the border, but the truth is even harder to stomach. Miller is fully aware that immigrants are people – he demonstrates an unhealthy interest in individual cases – and yet he’ll call for illegal, inhumane and frankly, deadly, immigration policies all the same.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.