Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It is Miller time in America – and what a dismal time it is.
Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s 33-year old senior policy adviser, is rumored to have written a good bit of the speech that the President delivered last night from the Oval Office. Taken by itself, the speech and its horror-heavy rhetoric would suggest that the Trump administration and Miller take issue only with illegal immigration to the United States, the sort they believe authorities could stem with a physical barrier.
This is not true. For Stephen Miller, advocating for the border wall and railing against illegal immigrants is but one part of the transformation he envisions for the United States and its immigration system. The other parts have to do with legal immigrants and crippling the programs that allow them to come into the country.
Miller, whose antipathy for immigration dates back to his high school years (when he wrote editorials critical of Hispanic students while blasting bilingual high school announcements) and is himself descended from immigrants, has gone so far as to associate immigration, as he said in a June 2016 Trump rally, with “heartbreak,” “heartache” and “needless death.” In August of 2018, Miller’s uncle denounced him as an “architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.” A former National Security Council official told Politico in November that Miller said at one meeting: “We must save Americans from these immigrant criminals!” Despite evidence showing that immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born Americans, Miller’s persona and policy objectives make it clear that, to him, a “fixed” immigration system is one in which as few immigrants as possible cross America’s borders, illegally or otherwise.
In the first two years of the Trump administration, Miller, taking care not to leave a paper trail, has hacked away at America’s legal immigration system using what one senior Senate staffer described to Vanity Fair as the “termite” method: letting legal immigration programs erode from neglect and in some cases intentionally pulverizing them.
With pernicious regularity, Miller – considered Trump’s most influential immigration adviser – has inserted himself into the construction of one executive order which bans travelers from seven countries, another that exhorts American employers to “Hire American,” forced the State Department to reject research that discounted a connection between refugees and terrorism, and inserted himself into high-level NSC meetings leading at least one official to label him “president of immigration.”
The details of how so many programs that enable legal migration to the United States have been debilitated are damning. The H-1B program, long the best way for highly skilled workers to migrate to the United States, will now be harder to access. According to data obtained by the National Foundation for American Policy, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has begun to issue more visa denials and “requests for evidence” than it did before, with nearly 69% of applicants getting an RFE in the last quarter of 2017. The onerous requirement delays visa processing further and, along with new forms demanded from employers, contributes to costly delays, potentially suggesting a deliberate effort to deter employers from hiring foreign workers altogether.
Where all immigrant workers are concerned, statistics released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last month showed a 750% increase in the number of worksite investigations, administrative proceedings and raids over the previous year. Ironically, the government shutdown has also led to the unavailability of the E-verify system that allows employers to check the immigration status of workers before they hire them, thwarting the administration’s own concern with worker legality.
H-1B applicants who get “requests for evidence” are actually the luckier bunch among all visa applicants. A new policy directive issued by USCIS last summer permits the agency to summarily deny visa applications for immigrant visas, for green cards and for adjustments of status without first issuing a “request for evidence” or a “notice to appear” as they used to. Instead, the agency can, at their discretion, deny the visa and immediately label the applicant illegal and deportable, without giving them an option to depart voluntarily. The real consequence of the policy change is to make many more people ineligible for re-entry into the United States, because they have been deemed deportable. In cases of immigrant visas, applicants appearing for green card interviews have been rejected and then immediately detained because, under this new policy directive, they had been declared “illegal.”
The virulence of Miller’s views toward international students also came through last fall when he argued that Chinese students should be banned from US universities because of the possibility that they could be engaging in espionage for the Chinese government, and because (in Miller’s view) such a ban would punish elite universities who have been critical of Mr. Trump. Thirty percent of international students are Chinese and most pay full price at American universities, subsidizing costs for American students. Around the midterm elections, it was reported that further restrictions on all international students and student exchange programs would also be forthcoming.
Miller has also been successful in arguing for a lower cap on the number of refugees coming to the United States, restricting the number to a record low of only 45,000 for 2018. In 2018, he turned his attention to asylum-seekers, championing a new rule that would disqualify those entering the country anywhere except a legal port of entry from claiming asylum. The law was struck down, but appeals are in progress. In late 2018, Miller pushed for yet another proposal to force asylum applicants on the southern border to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed.
Destroying or disabling work, student, immigrant, asylee and refugee programs is apparently not enough to sate the nativist sentiment that undergirds this Miller-led transformation of the US immigration system. Early in 2018, the Trump administration set about dividing “real” native-born citizens from naturalized citizens, inaugurating the “denaturalization task force,” whose Operation Janus and Operation Second Look are pursuing denaturalization proceedings and screening old naturalization applications for fraud. No public guidelines exist for whom they may investigate or for how long. Furthermore, naturalized citizens, along with all other visa holders, are being monitored by the government through their social media accounts, and the information is being stored in files known as “A-files” that are kept and maintained by USCIS. A naturalized citizen, it seems, in the Trump Administration’s view, is not entitled to the Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections the Constitution provides against just such surveillance.
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The current furor may be over the shutdown and the border wall, but regardless of how the cataclysm of the moment turns out, Stephen Miller will likely continue his campaign to deter, defeat and demonize immigrants to the United States. In the case of highly skilled workers, international students, refugees and naturalized citizens, he has already been successful. The much-touted wall may not be necessary after all – as the barriers, made up of policy briefs and administrative regulations and executive orders and task forces, have already been erected.