It may be the best known — and most controversial state statute — in years.
The Arizona law that permits local and state police officers to check out the immigration status of individuals they believe might be undocumented has been criticized by President Barack Obama, civil rights groups and immigrants’ advocates from all around the country. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has ordered his employees not to travel to Arizona on business. The Mexican government has warned its citizens to steer clear of Arizona if possible.
One law professor proudly takes credit for helping formulate the statute — Dr. Kris Kobach, an archconservative, political operative who teaches at the University of Missouri- Kansas City.
The Arizona statute is just one of a long string of anti-illegal immigration activism by Kobach, the former chair of the Kansas State Republican Party who has become one of the nation’s leading voices and activists of anti-illegal immigration. Civil rights leaders say he’s involved with organizations that promote discriminatory policies, with one advocate calling him “a chauffeur for a racist cause.”
Traveling around the country to undo laws benefiting undocumented immigrants, Kobach, 43, is to the in-state tuition for undocumented student movement what Ward Connerly is to affirmative action in college admissions. Kobach is the plaintiffs’ attorney for a lawsuit filed in January against the state of Nebraska and the University of Nebraska to repeal a law that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities and community colleges. The lawsuit mirrors one he was involved with in Kansas from 2004 that was later dismissed at both the trial and appellate levels.
Kobach’s crusade has not been limited to education. He has also gone to court in Texas, Nebraska and Pennsylvania to try to uphold ordinances that would forbid landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants.
Kobach, who holds bachelor’s, doctoral and law degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale universities, respectively, is an attorney for Immigration Law Reform Institute (ILRI), a Washington, D.C. public interest law firm that specializes in attacking illegal immigration and — in the opinion of many civil rights leaders —undocumented immigrants.
Kobach has been featured in The New York Times, made a guest appearance on The Colbert Report and regularly writes opinion columns for The Washington Times and The New York Post.
“He brings both a very deep knowledge of the constitution and a debater’s personality,” says Mike Hethmon and director and general counsel of IRLI. “You don’t see that much with constitutional scholars. They tend to be more academic. Kobach is more competent within that area and he’s a very good trial lawyer. He’s a good litigator and a strong constitutional scholar in an academic sense.”
Before the Arizona law sparked outrage, Kobach’s high profile put him on the radar of several civil rights organizations that accuse him and his supporters of fraternizing with racist organizations that target undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom are people of color. They say his agenda seeks to penalize young people who are not here legally but found themselves in this situation through no fault of their own.
Kobach says he’s largely driven by a mission to enforce the law. He cites a 1996 act of Congress that he claims forbids states from offering in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants even if they live in that state.
“These tuition laws are a direct affront to the U.S Constitution,” he says. “If I have something to add to re-establish rule of law I’ll do it. If the law were changed and Congress repealed this 1996 act, I would have less motivation to act in the first place.”
It is a claim that draws sneers from civil rights groups that say the courts have so far not supported Kobach’s interpretation of that law. Besides, they ask, if he’s so concerned about the following the law why just focus on illegal immigration?
“I think there are lots of laws out there that may not be followed,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants Rights Project. “We see him picking a very select few. What we basically think is that it is the federal government’s role to enforce immigration law, not cities or towns or universities. We also think penalizing young people is completely ill advised no matter what your ultimate objectives are. Our immigration system may need fixes but the way to go about it is not by passing harsh and discriminatory ordinances.”
Kobach says he views illegal immigration as an economic and national security threat. Kobach says he’s had a keen interest in the subject ever since his days as a law student at Yale. It was during the campaign for Proposition 187, which would have prohibited undocumented immigrants in California from using public services like health care and education. The ballot issue passed but was later overturned by the federal courts. Kobach’s interest in illegal immigration heightened when he went to work at the U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft, whom he considers his role model, and deepened after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“When 9/11 happened some of the federal initiatives I was involved in had to do with how terrorists can exploit loopholes in the immigration (system),” he says, adding that he and his team tried to close those loopholes by exploring or developing monitoring systems such as the National Security Entry Exit Registration System, which kept a close eye on the movement of certain foreign visitors such as when they left the country, if they left and where they stayed while they were here.
Civil rights organizations say they recognize that the nation’s immigration policies need to be tweaked.
But “we don’t want hate in the immigration debate,” says Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. She describes Kobach as “a chauffeur for a racist cause.”
She argues that Kobach’s law firm spun off from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is listed by her organization as a hate group because its founder, Dr. John Tanton, has been linked to causes perceived as racist. The Anti-Defamation League has charged in the past that the website of Tanton’s publication posts racist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant articles.
Henry Fernandez, a lawyer and senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, adds:
“There are white nationalists on staff at FAIR. IRLI started as the legal arm of FAIR. All the major anti-immigrant groups in the country were created by the same set of people and stem from one guy — John Tanton. He gave early funding to these groups and continues to give advice and money. I don’t know what his funding relationship is with IRLI but at the end of the day IRLI is a product of FAIR.”
Kobach responds caustically to criticisms that he is affiliated with groups that champion racist causes. He singles out the Southern Poverty Law Center, describing the group as “unscrupulous.”
“If I had any inkling that FAIR had any racist or hateful motivations, I would dissociate myself from them,” he says. “It’s important for me not to engage in these personal attacks. These are really serious questions about national security and the rule of law.”
“Our criticism of him is that he can say he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body but he is perfectly happy to take money from racists,” says Bierich. “It’s not like he’s been caught blindsided. I think that people who are well educated in the United States shouldn’t be hanging out with haters. A person like Kobach should be saying no.”