When the news stories began to surface last month of sobbing young migrant children being forcibly removed from their parents at the border, many close White House watchers instantly suspected Stephen Miller was behind it.
Though he keeps a relatively low profile compared to the cast of camera-muggers and Twitter warriors in President Donald Trump’s orbit, the 32-year-old speechwriter and senior adviser has cultivated a reputation as the most strident immigration hawk in the West Wing. So, it came as little surprise when The New York Times reported over the weekend that Miller had played a key behind-the-scenes role in advancing the new border policy:
“No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” he said during an interview in his West Wing office this past week. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
… Privately, Mr. Miller argued that bringing back “zero tolerance” would be a potent tool in a severely limited arsenal of strategies for stopping migrants from flooding across the border … And in April, after the border numbers reached their zenith, Mr. Miller was instrumental in Mr. Trump’s decision to ratchet up the zero tolerance policy.
But while Miller’s influence on this issue is a matter of documented fact, his motives remain somewhat murkier. Why exactly is he using his perch to champion a measure that’s so unpopular that it’s opposed by fully two-thirds of Americans? Theories abound, of course—ranging from ideology to incompetence to xenophobia—but they are almost all products of distant speculation.
I spent a significant amount of time earlier this year reporting on Miller for a recent profile in The Atlantic. In addition to interviewing friends, allies, enemies, and associates, I sat down for a lengthy interview with him in late March. At the time, the forced family-separation policy had not yet been implemented. But our conversation illuminated the grim calculus that seems to underlie the border strategy Miller helped shape.