Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller spent years on the political fringe in the nation’s capital as high-decibel immigration hard-liners, ever warning about the dangers of open borders but rarely in a position to affect law or policy.
Now, Mr. Sessions, the attorney general and former senator from Alabama, and Mr. Miller, the president’s top policy adviser and former Senate aide to Mr. Sessions, have moved from the edges of the immigration debate to its red-hot center. Powerful like never before, the two are the driving force behind President Trump’s policy that has led thousands of children to be separated from their parents at the nation’s southern border.
It was Mr. Sessions who ordered prosecutors to take a new “zero tolerance” attitude toward families crossing into the United States, part of his plans to reshape the country’s law enforcement priorities to limit immigration. It is Mr. Miller who has championed the idea inside the White House, selling Mr. Trump on the benefits of a policy that his adversaries have called “evil,” “inhumane” and equivalent to child abuse or the internment of the Japanese during World War II.
“The U.S. government has a sacred, solemn, inviolable obligation to enforce the laws of the United States to stop illegal immigration and to secure and protect the borders,” Mr. Miller said in a recent interview. Asked if the images of children being taken from their parents would eventually make the president back down, Mr. Miller was adamant.
“There is no straying from that mission,” he said.
On Monday, as an audio recording became public of children crying for their parents after being separated at the border, Mr. Sessions vigorously defended his zero-tolerance policy. “We cannot and will not encourage people to bring children by giving them blanket immunity from our laws,” Mr. Sessions declared in a speech to law enforcement officers.
The partnership between Mr. Sessions and Mr. Miller began in 2009, when Mr. Miller, a conservative rabble rouser and contrarian who emerged from the left-leaning Santa Monica, became a spokesman for the senator. He sported sideburns and skinny ties as he often delivered long and passionate lectures to reporters, and anyone else who would listen, about the dangers of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Mr. Sessions, 71, had strong views shaped by his experience as a young politician in rural Alabama, where he saw immigrants take jobs at a poultry plant away from poor, unskilled Americans.
During more than a decade as a federal prosecutor and state attorney general, and 20 years in the Senate, Mr. Sessions came to believe that immigrants, whether here legally or illegally, posed a direct threat to the country by depressing wages, committing crimes and competing for welfare benefits. He was deeply influenced by the work of George Borjas, a Harvard economist who has said that immigrants have an adverse impact on the economy.
Mr. Miller, 32, had gone from California to Duke University. While a student, he met David Horowitz, a right-wing provocateur and the founder of Students for Academic Freedom, which opposed progressive thought on college campuses. After Mr. Miller graduated, Mr. Horowitz helped him get a job with Michele Bachmann, then a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, and recommended him highly to Mr. Sessions.
Together Mr. Miller and Mr. Sessions often drew on the work of anti-immigration groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies — some of which are derided as hate groups by immigration activists and civil rights organizations.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks white nationalists and other hate groups, describes FAIR as having “a veneer of legitimacy” that “hides much ugliness.”
By 2013, Stephen K. Bannon, then the head of Breitbart News, invited Mr. Miller and Mr. Sessions to a dinner at the Capitol Hill townhouse that served as the headquarters for the conservative news outlet. The three bonded over an article titled “The Case of the Missing White Voters,” foreshadowing the case they would help Mr. Trump build during his presidential campaign.
Later that year, Mr. Sessions and Mr. Miller worked tirelessly to defeat a bipartisan immigration bill. The senator spent hours on the floor arguing with his colleagues while Mr. Miller churned out a nonstop flurry of news releases. He cast the fight against immigration in dramatic terms, with the future of the nation at stake.
The bill passed the Senate, but Mr. Sessions worked with conservatives in the House to ultimately defeat it.
In 2014, Mr. Miller presented Mr. Sessions with an award at the Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Fla., as part of the ceremony held by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Mr. Bannon was there as well.
But it was Mr. Trump who pulled Mr. Miller and Mr. Sessions — and their views about immigration — out of the political shadows. In January 2015, when few were watching, Mr. Sessions wrote a 23-page memo that predicted that the next president would most likely be a Republican who spoke to the working class about how immigrants had stolen their jobs.
Most mainstream politicians ignored the memo, but its contents influenced Mr. Trump. At a raucous 2015 rally in Mobile, Ala., he sensed the power of the immigration issue as a crowd of 30,000 supporters roared with approval at his promise to build a wall across the southern border and crack down on illegal immigration.
By then Mr. Sessions and Mr. Miller were the architects of the immigration agenda of the long-shot Trump campaign. In 2016, Mr. Sessions endorsed Mr. Trump for president — his first ever endorsement of a candidate in a primary — and Mr. Miller did as well.
Both men have something else in common: They are largely unfazed by criticism or bad press.
Mr. Sessions is known for proudly holding opinions thought to be retrograde. Under his high school yearbook photo was the caption: “He is a host of debaters in himself.” While serving as Alabama’s attorney general, he supported reviving chain gangs of volunteer inmates and tighter identification requirements for Alabama voters.
Mr. Miller is similarly immune to critiques from establishment Republicans, who often view his immigration positions as far out of the mainstream and politically dangerous. In the recent interview, Mr. Miller dismissed as ignorant the hand-wringing of Republicans about the family separation controversy.
“You have one party that’s in favor of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border,” Mr. Miller said. “And all day long the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit. Not 55-45. 60-40. 70-30. 80-20. I’m talking 90-10 on that.”
On Monday, as Mr. Trump vowed that “the United States will not be a migrant camp and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” he continued to falsely blame congressional Democrats for a policy driven by Mr. Miller and Mr. Sessions. He once again called for legislation that would crack down on immigrants and decrease the need to separate families at the border, even though there is no law that requires families to be separated.
Echoing the president, Mr. Sessions urged lawmakers to pass legislation to build a wall along the southern border and impose new restrictions on immigration that he said would end legal “loopholes” that let illegal immigrants in.
“If we build the wall, if we pass legislation to end the lawlessness,” Mr. Sessions said, “we won’t face these terrible choices.”