In the Documents: Stephen Miller Emails with Justice Department Official About Anti-Immigration Measures

As the president’s top adviser on immigration, Stephen Miller has extended his reach into multiple federal agencies, helping to install like-minded appointees who can help enable some of the Trump administration’s harshest anti-immigration policies. Through Freedom of Information Act litigation, American Oversight has obtained records revealing Miller and a top Justice Department official discussing controversial policies and working together to push anti-immigrant messaging in 2018. 

The documents show that in the spring of 2018 — two years before the coronavirus pandemic offered him the opportunity to halt migration using an obscure public health law — Miller was discussing with Justice Department lawyer Gene Hamilton other immigration statutes that could be used to serve the administration’s restrictionist goals, from making asylum-seekers wait in Mexico to using immigration penalties and fees to pay for the construction of a border wall.

On March 25, 2018, Miller emailed Hamilton, who was then a counselor to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to ask him about a “Fine/Penalties Statute.” “What is the language of the statue and what fines apply?” he asked.

A couple of days later, Hamilton replied with statutory language about a Treasury fund known as the “Immigration Enforcement Account,” which includes money collected from civil penalties and can be refunded to enforcement activities like removal operations, tracking systems, or “the repair, maintenance, or construction on the United States border, in areas experiencing high levels of apprehensions of illegal aliens, of structures to deter illegal entry into the United States.”

Miller replied, “So the fines and penalties can PAY for wall construction?” 

Hamilton affirmed that the money could be used for such purposes as outlined, and added that the penalties could amount to “[u]p to $500 (now higher for inflation) per day, per alien.” Miller replied, “Remarkable.”

In the summer of 2019, NPR reported that the Trump administration had been hitting immigrants who were in the country illegally with fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The administration ultimately backed down.

Also on March 25, 2018, Miller emailed Hamilton to ask, “What is the statute and relevant [executive order] text on returning asylum seekers to transit countries while awaiting adjudication?” The question appears to be a precursor to the administration’s controversial Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the Remain in Mexico policy, which forces migrants applying for asylum at the U.S. border to wait in Mexico, often in unsafe conditions without a proper notification system in place. 

Another similar exchange in which Miller sought Hamilton’s legal expertise had occurred a month earlier, when Hamilton shared with Miller the legal definition of “public charge.” In 2019, the administration unveiled a new rule, pushed by Miller, that would make it harder for poor immigrants or those the government deemed likely to become dependent on public assistance to obtain green cards. 

Other emails between Miller and Hamilton show an ongoing effort to push anti-immigrant propaganda using the Justice Department’s media relations staff, the Office of Public Affairs (OPA). The same month that Miller and Hamilton discussed the aforementioned statutes, Miller praised an email newsletter produced by OPA that contained several stories detailing crimes committed by immigrants. And the next month, Miller thanked Hamilton for forwarding a press release about the denaturalization of a child sexual abuser and others. Miller also forwarded Hamilton an email from the director of an anti-immigration organization about a 28-year-old murder case. Records previously obtained by American Oversight show Miller working with a senior adviser at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to craft the immigrants-as-criminals narrative

In addition to the correspondence with Hamilton, the records include an exchange between Miller and Sessions (who was using the email pseudonym “Camden Hybart”) from May 2018 regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). “Had good quick talk with [then-House Majority Leader Kevin] McCarthy,” Sessions wrote. “We will see.” To this, Miller replied, “Great.” 

At that time, McCarthy and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan were reportedly in disagreement over a potential immigration deal involving protections for Dreamers, with McCarthy (now the House minority leader) taking the White House’s hardline position. 

DACA was also the subject of an email Miller sent to then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in August 2018, after a federal judge ruled that the program should be fully restored. On Aug. 3, 2018, Miller forwarded a CNN story about the judge’s ruling, along with commentary that is fully redacted. He then followed up the next day in an email to Kelly with an excerpt from a Bloomberg story about a Senate hearing on family separation, in which an official from the Department of Health and Human Services said that he had warned the administration for months about the potential harm to migrant children if they were separated from their parents. “[T]his was the witness HHS sent to the hearing,” Miller wrote, apparently in criticism. Kelly’s response is redacted.

The administration has still not given up its efforts to end DACA, despite a Supreme Court decision blocking its attempt as well as another federal judge’s recent order that the program be restored to its pre-2017 status.

American Oversight uncovered these records in our investigation of Miller’s influence over Trump administration immigration policy. Read more about that investigation, and see a timeline of the related records we’ve obtained, here.

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