Remembering the First Stephen Miller

In Immigration, Everything Old Is New Again

Even a world of ephemeral national emergencies does not need another story about White House senior advisor Stephen Miller’s greatest hits, which include the “zero tolerance policy” that empowered Border Patrol agents to separate thousands of migrant and refugee children from their parents. He also co-wrote the Muslim ban, since repositioned as a ban on migration from select, largely Muslim, nations. In mid-2018 he sponsored an effort to defund the State Department’s refugee bureau altogether. He’s notable, too, for loud and proudly “politically incorrect” insults of several non-Caucasian ethnicities and some Caucasian ones, too. He’s floated balloons to deport even resident aliens and, of course, the now-grown children of migrants who arrived undocumented.

His supporters are legion. Opponents tend to be ineffective, if not paralyzed by befuddlement and rage. But Miller’s ideas did not arise in a vacuum. Anti-immigration as well as befuddlement and rage are stubbornly recurring themes in American history.

Our anti-immigration tradition is long. Since 1885, the U.S. has serially excluded Asian contract laborers, then all Asians, epileptics, beggars, “white slavers,” people who couldn’t yet speak English, sundry classes of disabled and sick people, anarchists, communists, Mexicans, and Eastern Europeans. During the 1950s, it launched round-ups of undocumented immigrants — often including their U.S.-citizen children — in Texas, California and Arizona. One official estimate is that it expelled 1.3 million people.

Those federal restrictive immigration laws, moreover, do not include the persistent local exclusions of African-American, Catholic, Asian, Muslim and Jewish citizens from services, housing, jobs, schools, trains, water fountains and more.

Many of these laws and customs have been repealed or slowed from time to time. But history keeps repeating itself. They are typically reborn first among the nation’s most comfortable classes. That makes Stephen Miller a direct heir of a man named Breckinridge Long.

The first Stephen Miller. Long was the State Department official who, as the man in charge of granting or blocking visa applications into the United States before and during World War II, intentionally left literally hundreds of thousands of Jews and others to be destroyed in the Nazi death camps.

He was, like Miller, born to wealth. Like Miller’s, Long’s cruelest acts came not out of legislation, but out of long-professed prejudices. Like Miller, he justified making his prejudices into policy by dressing them up as necessary for national security.

Much like today’s “caravans” of supposed gang members, drug dealers and embedded terrorists migrating north from Central America, Long explained it was likely there were spies and Nazi moles among them among the threatened European asylum-seekers. They needed to be kept out.

In barring them, he also initially denied atrocities existed. He then ignored, slow-walked, censored and discredited reports of round-ups, beatings, sidewalk shootings, property thefts and then, more famously, the industrialized executions of five million gays, Roma, political opponents, Russian POWs, and supposedly mentally ill Germans and, not least, six million Jews

National security made them do it. Miller, meanwhile, casts a blind eye to the reasons Central Americans are fleeing. The Council on Foreign Relations ranks El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras among the most murderous, extortionate countries in the world. Salvadorans, it found, paid an estimated $390 million in annual extortion fees to gang members in 2016. Hondurans paid $200 million. The International Crisis Group counts nearly 20,000 Salvadorans killed from 2014 to 2017, a number higher than in Ukraine, Somalia and Libya, which were at war.

The national security argument for turning them away is that included agents hope to bring a terrible plague of gang violence, murder, Fentanyl, job theft, terrorism and extortion. Miller’s rationale for his Muslim ban was that the thousands fleeing horrors in the Middle East might well include spies and terrorists anxious to bring the United States down, just like those of the 1940s.

For Long, some refugees were too wedded to peace. He once blocked visas for 292 German refugees camped in England because they had been pacifists during World War I and would probably still be pacifists if they came to the United States.

He had a “chain migration” prequel, too. His was called the “relatives rule.” It let him deny visas to anyone who still had close relatives living in Nazi-occupied territory, which would of course encompass all European Jews. The German government, he reasoned, could pressure the arrivals into becoming spies.

Both were transparent about their goals.

20,000 ugly adults. Most recently, Miller was quoted in Team of Vipers, a book by a former White House colleague, as saying he “would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America’s soil.”

In 1940, Long proposed that we could “delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

And, crucially, both had large swaths of followers who bought both their prejudices and their contentions that barring immigrants constituted a national security and cultural imperative.

American public opinion polls of Long’s time suggested that “10 percent of the people would have been willing to join a movement against the Jews and another 20 percent were willing to back it,” a University of Massachusetts historian found in Paper Walls, a study of anti-Semitism just before and during the war.

In 1939, Long called a bill that would have let an extra 10,000 refugee children into the United States each year the product of nothing less than “an enormous psychosis.” In its story about it, The Boston Globe reported that “the wife of one Administration official” opposed the bill because “20,000 children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

In a December 2018 poll Pew Research found 29% of American adults essentially agreed with Miller. They favored cutting back or simply stopping migration into the country.

In an NPR/Ipsos poll last summer, 28% supported separating refugee families at the border.

These are not inconsequential minorities. There are some 247 million adults currently living in the U.S., and the 28% of them who now agree with Miller’s policies amount to more than 69 million people.

“Impressively unlikeable.” We like to believe prejudice — literally “pre-judging” someone or some group — grows out of poverty, lack of education, perceived unfairness and hopelessness. It doesn’t.

For a book, I recently researched the case of a group of disloyal American soldiers during World War II. Most were well-educated (Harvard, Columbia, Texas, Oxford) and the scions of parents in the professions (statistician, engineer, minister, corporate executive). And all came to their anti-social views through adolescent attempts to build emphatically different, oppositional identifies. Their first displays of bigotry or intolerance were often cloaked as pranks. One played Nazi anthems loudly on a dorm floor otherwise occupied by boys who disliked him. Another cultivated a public reputation as a student Nazi to (none-too-logically) win a scholarship.

They did not, in short, fit the poor, unschooled and socially threatened stereotype we like to think explains prejudice and racism. Neither did Long. Neither does Miller.

Long, Princeton 1904, was born into a family of wealthy Kentucky horse breeders. After a law career in St. Louis, two unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate and some well-placed political donations, President Franklin Roosevelt named him ambassador to fascist Italy in 1933. In 1940, he made Long the official in charge of granting visas to European refugees just before and during World War II. As a person he was, according to Rep. Emanuel Cellar of New York, “cold and austere, stiff as a poker, highly diplomatic in dress and in speech…[and] anti-Semitic.”

Miller, Duke ’07, is also often portrayed as stiff and cold. Numerous profiles refer to his combativeness. Personally, he is apparently reviled: “an impressively unlikeable person” (Esquire), “he’s Waffen SS” (Vanity Fair), “an immigration hypocrite” (his uncle in Politico).

Miller and Long do differ in their prejudices.

Long, for one, disliked Jews. He would have disliked Miller, who was brought up in a Jewish home. Miller, on the other hand, made his bones as anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic and, in general dog-whistle terms, anti-immigration.

Miller’s biases emerged early. In high school, he demanded Latino classmates speak only English and protested Spanish-language announcements that came over the PA system. At Duke, he accused a student organization of being a “radical national Hispanic group that believes in racial superiority” and organized an “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” to publicize the “holy war being waged against us.” He twice tried to bring writer David Horowitz, who the Southern Poverty Law Centers calls “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements,” to his schools. He did successfully bring the founder of the anti-immigration website VDARE to a debate that included Duke classmate Richard Spencer, now an advocate of “a peaceful ethnic cleansing” of non-whites Americans.

It would be nice to say Long got his come-uppance, but though he was transferred from the State Department’s Immigrant Visa Section under a cloud in late 1944, he really didn’t. He represented the U.S. at the Dumbarton Oaks conference that shaped the United Nations. In the postwar years, he bred horses on his farm in Laurel, Md. With his wife, he split his time between Maryland and his vacation home in West Palm Beach, Florida. He died after a “long illness” in 1958 and is entombed at Washington National Cathedral.

As this is written, Miller remains a cable news show regular and makes $179,700 a year. As of this writing, he remains a trusted advisor to the president and the current upsurge in anti-immigration legislation and street violence has shown few signs of subsiding.

Those believing we are destined to return to generosity and the experiences of their forebears may be underestimating just what they’re up against.

Author, Paradigms Lost: the life & deaths of the printed word; A Small Treason (out summer, 2021)

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