White House senior adviser for policy Stephen Miller spoke at the daily press briefing on Wednesday to tout Donald Trump’s newly announced plan to cut legal immigration in half and make it harder for non-native English speakers or low-skill workers to enter the country.
When he was challenged on this part of the proposal by CNN reporter Jim Acosta, Miller decided to explain who America’s real enemy was: The poem on the Statue of Liberty.
The Statue of Liberty says “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer. Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you’re telling them you have to speak English? Can’t people learn how to speak English when they get here?
And Miller’s response:
I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty enlightening the world; it’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to that was added later and is not part of the original Statue of Liberty.
(For those interested, here is a brief history of how that poem came to become synonymous with the Statue of Liberty and this country’s assimilation of immigrants.)
Acosta and Miller then got into a lengthy back-and-forth about what it means to be an immigrant to this country. Acosta accused the administration of attempting to limit immigration in a way that was “trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country.” Miller responded that Acosta betrayed his “cosmopolitan bias” and “ignorance” by suggesting that the administration was trying to limit immigration to certain types of people.
The exchange is notable because Miller—who is ethnically Jewish, like the writer of the Statue of Liberty poem he doesn’t think represents anything important about America—is one of the Trump administration officials with the deepest connections to the white-nationalist movement.
Miller went to college at Duke with neo-Nazi rebrander Richard Spencer, who has said they knew each other very well and that they bonded over “concerns that immigrants from non-European countries were not assimilating.”
When he was in high school, Miller wrote an op-ed attacking Hispanic classmates. “When I entered Santa Monica High School in ninth grade, I noticed a number of students lacked basic English skills. There are usually very few, if any, Hispanic students in my honors classes, despite the large number of Hispanic students that attend our school,” he wrote.
He also criticized policies meant to help integrate Spanish-speakers into American school systems:
Even so, pursuant to district policy, all announcements are written in both Spanish and English. By providing a crutch now, we are preventing Spanish speakers from standing on their own. As politically correct as this may be, it demeans the immigrant population as incompetent, and makes a mockery of the American ideal of personal accomplishment.
Additionally, former classmates of Miller’s told Univision Noticias that he used to mock children of Asian and Hispanic immigrants who didn’t speak English well. Finally, one former classmate told Vanity Fair that Miller ended his friendship with him in part “because of my Latino heritage.”
The point is that Acosta’s question was totally reasonable given Miller’s own past and his influence on immigration policy today. The presidential aide treated it, though, as an “insult.”
As BuzzFeed News reported, Trump’s policy would increase the percentage of skilled workers allowed to immigrate to the United States, decrease the number of low-skilled workers and family members of green-card holders and Americans, and create a points system that prioritized English speakers. “This competitive application process will favor applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy,” Trump said in announcing the proposal.
At one point, Acosta wondered hyperbolically whether the administration was aiming to limit immigration to Great Britain and Australia. Miller erupted at him in indignation. “That you think that only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions who do speak English from all over the world,” he said.
Miller effectively distracted from his potentially embarrassing statements about the Statue of Liberty and the focus of the policy itself on English speakers and its potentially xenophobic roots.
Incidentally, Miller has supporters in his position on the insignificance of the Statue of Liberty poem. Rush Limbaugh, for one, has ranted against it in recent years. It is also a consistent topic on the xenophobic anti-immigrant web site VDare. And after Trump’s first unconstitutional Muslim ban was issued in January, Richard Spencer said this about the poem: “It’s offensive that such a beautiful, inspiring statue was ever associated with ugliness, weakness, and deformity.”
Looks like Spencer has a kindred spirit in the White House, one who’s apparently crafting national immigration policy.