Stephen Miller hurled the insult at a CNN correspondent. But it’s likely not the slight he intended.
With Sean Spicer killing time before his official departure as White House communications director at the end of the month—and with his replacement Anthony Scaramucci out before his tenure even began—it fell on senior policy advisor Stephen Miller to address the White House press corps on Wednesday. His daily briefing went swimmingly. So well, in fact, that the acrimony that has characterized relations between the executive branch and the media already seems like a thing of the distant past.
Kidding! Miller wasted no time in attacking the press, opening a new front in the White House’s long campaign against the media. In an effort to bury a reporter’s question, Miller accused him of holding a “cosmopolitan bias.” Here’s a new White House watch-word for the lying, fake-news media.
In a rapid-fire exchange, Miller sparred with Jim Acosta, senior White House correspondent for CNN, over the Trump administration’s new approach to legal immigration. The White House just announced its support for a bill that would scale back immigration and tilt it toward merit-based admissions. Acosta asked Miller how an immigration policy based on skills comports with the line from The New Colossus. (You know the one: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”) The poem “doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer,” Acosta said.
Miller first observed that the poem was added to the Statue of Liberty much later than its construction, a parry on both the potent symbolism of the poem and the policy at hand. Then, in an act of willful misreading and pearl-clutching, Miller seized on an opening in Acosta’s line of reasoning.
Their back-and-forth follows:
Acosta: This whole notion, they have to learn English before they get to the United States—are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?
Miller: Jim, actually, I have to honestly say: I am shocked at your statement, that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree, that in your mind—this is an amazing moment—that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants from all over the world. Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?
Now, it’s disingenuous to say that Acosta, a Cuban-American reporter with broadcast experience in Dallas, Chicago, and Knoxville, has never met an English-speaking immigrant who wasn’t British or Australian. The point of this line was to redirect a question about the White House’s philosophy of America into an attack on the media. Attacking the media may in fact be this White House’s philosophy of America.
But even if Acosta held such shocking beliefs, he would not be guilty of a cosmopolitan bias. It would be quite the opposite.
According to the Pew Research Center, the nation’s foreign-born population lives predominantly in large metropolitan areas. Just five counties, all of them cosmopolitan, account for 19 percent of the immigrant population in the U.S. as of 2015. It would be hard for a resident of Houston, L.A., Chicago, Miami, or New York City to harbor the belief that the only English-speaking immigrants in the U.S. hail from Her Majesty’s empire.
The immigrant population is more dispersed today than it was just a few decades ago. In 1990, the top five immigrant counties—Los Angeles County; Miami–Dade County; Cook County, Illinois; Harris County, Texas; and Queens County, New York—accounted for fully 30 percent of the U.S. immigrant population. Back then, it might be an exclusively cosmopolitan bias to believe that people other than Anglo white foreigners spoke English.
Today, a heart-felt belief that immigrants from around the world can’t or won’t speak English is a decidedly non-cosmopolitan view. The same Pew research finds that 51 percent of foreign-born residents in the U.S. speak English “at least very well.” Immigrants still live primarily in major metro areas, but that center is shifting.
So what is Miller talking about? One answer may be nothing—Acosta’s alleged “cosmopolitan bias” is neither cosmopolitan nor a bias. Rather, the White House and its allies in the Senate (Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia) are affirming a white-identity bias. Or maybe just a bullshit bias.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” reads Emma Lazarus’s storied poem. America’s cosmopolitan bias has always meant favoring immigrants, and not just wealthy Britons.