Trump and his senior adviser Miller wanted Americans to live in perpetual fear of foreign hordes supposedly laying siege to the country — to our economy, our culture, our racial complexion, even our women. According to this worldview, there is (or should be) no such thing as a legal immigrant; deep down, immigrants are all somehow intrinsically illegal and must be treated as such. The barbarians at the gate cannot be contained by good-faith vetting or the traditional rule of law; all foreigners must be beaten back by whatever means necessary.
This was the message of Trump officials’ rhetoric and policy. In addition to building a border wall to deter unlawful entry, the Trump administration foreclosed every legal avenue for immigration. The ruthlessness of foreign invaders — these “aliens,” to use Miller’s preferred term — demanded it.
Trump officials executed this agenda by booby-trapping paperwork and rigging eligibility criteria to keep out foreigners who tried to immigrate legally. Where executive authority allowed, Trump directly ratcheted down entry quotas. That’s what happened with refugees, whose numbers the president has almost plenary power to decide. Trump officials repeatedly declared that refugee admissions had to be reduced because other immigrants were gaining too much ground in their coordinated invasion and were allegedly overwhelming U.S. processing capacity.
It didn’t matter that refugees are among the most vetted immigrants in the world, waiting years and many rounds of background checks before being allowed to resettle in the United States. Nor that refugees are processed in an entirely different system from those entering U.S. borders without permission. Miller and his fellow xenophobes portrayed even immigrants willing to submit to extensive screening as likely drug-runners, terrorists, rapists and parasites.
Biden campaigned, and won, on a very different message.
He promised to “restore the soul of America,” which he argued included welcoming the stranger. It was a message he had promoted for decades. Upon taking office, he declared plans to roll back the Miller/Trump immigration agenda. Among them: raising the refugee admissions ceiling from 15,000 to 62,500.
Biden’s rationale for this policy was partly moral, partly practical. Unlike their predecessors, Biden and his immigration advisers recognized that creating more pathways for people to come to the United States legally would actually promote “law and order” and alleviate stress on the immigration system. In a February report to Congress, the State Department said one reason to “increase the overall refugee admissions number” was to “facilitate safe and orderly migration and access to international protection and avert a humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border.”
Then, inexplicably, Biden got cold feet.
He delayed signing the paperwork necessary to put his policy into effect, leaving hundreds of vetted refugees in limbo. White House spokespeople could not explain the holdup. Reports leaked that Biden worried about the “optics” of letting in more refugees amid a surge of migration at the southern border, even though he knew the two issues were unrelated.
In other words: Biden seemed to concede that Miller’s propaganda had worked and that the public might view all immigrants as a dangerous, undifferentiated horde of intruders the new administration was failing to contain.
Rather than fighting the confusion and fear Miller had sown, Biden caved. Friday’s White House announcement even invoked the same weaselly excuse Trump officials had used to justify their record-low cap — that it was necessitated by the (irrelevant) border surge.
On Twitter, Miller took a victory lap. He urged Biden to reduce refugee admissions to zero, which he declared would be the “most popular” thing to do.
But Biden and Miller both misread the politics. Biden’s announcement drew immediate, widespread backlash. Perhaps unsurprisingly: Despite Team Trump’s relentless smears of refugees and other immigrants, polls show the public has grown more pro-immigrant in recent years — with support reaching record highs.
Within hours of its initial announcement Friday, the White House backtracked, saying a higher refugee ceiling would be forthcoming. Officials refused to specify the new level and will not commit to the 62,500 Biden previously promised. Biden is leaving his options open — perhaps in case Miller’s political assessment turns out to be right.
It’s not clear why Biden has been so timid. As Biden himself has persuasively argued, admitting more refugees is in the country’s moral and national security interests. What’s more, he was elected on a popular mandate to do it. The White House must exorcise the ghost of Stephen Miller and deliver the agenda that our new, soul-restoring president promised.