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Kris Kobach, the Kansas lawyer behind Alabama's immigration law

Published: Sunday, October 16, 2011, 9:05 AM Updated: Sunday, October 16, 2011, 9:44 PM
By George TalbotPress-Register

The architect of Alabama’s controversial immigration law is a Kansas Republican who says he wrote the bill on his laptop computer while sitting in a turkey blind.

Conservative lawyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is a clean-cut, Ivy League-educated former Eagle Scout who is emerging as a national leader in the effort to crack down on illegal immigration.

"I doubt there’s anybody in America who understands the immigration issue better than Kris Kobach," said Alabama state Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, who worked closely with Kobach to draft House Bill 56 and then sponsored it in the Legislature this spring. "As far as I’m concerned, he is a godsend."

Kobach, 45, said Alabama "has done a great service to America" by passing one of the country’s toughest immigration laws.

"I’m proud to have been a part of it, and the untold story is how successful it has already been in opening jobs for Alabama citizens," Kobach said by phone Thursday from Topeka, Kan.

"There haven’t been mass arrests. There aren’t a bunch of court proceedings. People are simply removing themselves. It’s self-deportation at no cost to the taxpayer. I’d say that’s a win."

A federal appeals court on Friday blocked a key part of Alabama’s law that requires schools to check the immigration status of students, a victory that was hailed by opponents of the law. Still, the ruling was temporary and a final decision on the law won’t likely be made for months.

Kobach predicted that the Alabama law would ultimately withstand appeal.

"It’s air-tight," he said. "Alabama achieved something very significant by approving it, and other states are taking notice."

Rising GOP star

Kobach, the son of a Buick salesman from Topeka, is a rarity in conservative politics: A pickup-driving graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities who also earned a degree from Yale Law School.

He rose to prominence as a young lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Kobach, a top aide to then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, built a reputation as an expert on immigration law and border security, and played a key role in designing some of the Justice Department’s anti-terrorism programs.

After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2004, Kobach worked as law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and later served as chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.

Kobach "had a tremendous impact" at the Justice Department, according to Ashcroft.

"He saw what needed to be done, and succeeded in making dramatic reforms quickly," Ashcroft said in a 2010 speech that helped Kobach win election as secretary of state. "His service to his country in the wake of 9/11 was extraordinary."

Additional praise has come from conservative leaders including U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, Fox News commentator Michelle Malkin and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, who hired Kobach as a policy adviser for his 2008 presidential campaign.

Not everyone is a fan. The Southern Poverty Law Center placed Kobach on its "nativist" watch list, citing his legal work on behalf of the Federation for American Immigration Reform — a Washington, D.C., non-profit organization that has been described as a hate group by the SPLC.

The Montgomery-based SPLC released a 26-page report on Kobach earlier this year, detailing his work on local and state immigration bills in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Texas.

"What we found is that, wherever he’s gone, you find communities torn apart culturally, economically and racially," said SPLC spokesman Mark Potok. "Kris Kobach comes to town and leaves strife in his wake. Our expectation is Alabama will be no different."

Written in a turkey blind

State Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, seen here at a Tea Party rally on the steps of the Alabama State House March 30, 2010. (The Birmingham News/Hal Yeager)
Kobach got his introduction to Alabama politics in 2007, through a conference hosted in Birmingham by the Eagle Forum of Alabama, a conservative think tank. There, he met state Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, who said the two developed a relationship that centered on their shared concerns about the nation’s immigration policy.

Beason, who carried the immigration bill in the Alabama Senate, said he leaned heavily on Kobach to help write it.

"I started gathering copies of immigration laws from across the country late last year, and literally spent days and days reviewing them in December," Beason said.

Kobach, he said, was instrumental in helping to weed out provisions that would be unlikely to meet approval by the courts, and in refining the bill’s language to keep it consistent with federal law.

"No question, he played a very big role," Beason said Friday. "His level of expertise was outstanding."

Final revisions to the bill, Kobach said, were made on a hunting trip to Gardner, Kan., and emailed to Beason and Hammon from his laptop computer.

"A bad day for turkeys turned out to be a good day for constitutional law," he said.

Kobach said many of the law’s critics — chiefly churches and civil rights groups — are either misinformed or purposefully misreprenting its provisions.

"Nearly all of it, to begin with, is already part of federal law," he said. "Nobody is arresting pastors for evangelical work. And there is nothing racially motivated about saying, ‘We have our immigration laws and we would like them enforced.’"

Kobach said that complaints from farmers and construction firms about the law are a sign that it is working as intended.

"We’re displacing the illegal workers. That may cause short-term pain for some, but the markets will adjust," he said. "It may be they have a season with some losses, and it may be that they have to increase their wages. But you’ve got something like 200,000 unemployed people in Alabama, and many of them are going to find jobs as a result of this."

Kobach said he was not compensated for his work on the Alabama law but may, at some point, be paid for legal work defending it in court.

"I don’t expect to see a dime," he said. "Just seeing it approved was reward enough for me."

But others said that Kobach is gaining valuable exposure for his immigration work, racking up appearances on cable talk shows and on the conservative speaking circuit.

"I think he believes in what he’s saying, but I also think he recognizes it as a way to make a name for himself on the national stage," said Benjamin Johnson, director of the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration advocacy group. Johnson has been a frequent sparring partner for Kobach, debating him over immigration as recently as Thursday as part of a panel discussion hosted by the University of Kansas.

"I can’t judge what’s in his heart, but I don’t believe his ideas are right," Johnson said. "I think he’s irresponsible, and smart enough to know it."

Related topics: HB56, immigration law, Kris Kobach, Scott Beason