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The Man Behind The Illegal-Immigration Crackdown

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The Man Behind The Illegal-Immigration Crackdown

Politics

The Man Behind The Illegal-Immigration Crackdown

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Alabama and Arizona have the toughest immigration laws in the country. And this week, a federal judge upheld much of the controversial Alabama measure. Behind both states' laws, and many others, is one man, Kris Kobach. He's a constitutional lawyer and the Secretary of State of Kansas.

Kobach helped several states shape immigration legislation and he says there's more to come in 2012.

Laura Ziegler, of member station KCUR, has this profile of the man behind a movement.

LAURA ZIEGLER: The typically punctual Kris Kobach is running late for his address to the Topeka Pachyderm Republican Club, and dashes into the dining room.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Kris Kobach just walked in.

ZIEGLER: Many national stories have called the 45-year-old conservative Kansas Secretary of State movie star handsome and loaded with charisma. He looked the part greeting guests some 60 guests.

KRIS KOBACH: Make it all the way around the table. Can you tell me where you live, exactly?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I Iive on the wrap around porch, south...

ZIEGLER: A graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, he was a White House Fellow and chief immigration advisor to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft right after 9/11. His credentials undoubtedly make him the most famous Kansas Secretary of State and deified by his supporters.

Here's Pachyderm Jim Taylor.

JIM TAYLOR: He's going to save America with what he's done in Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE)

ZIEGLER: Following opening ceremonies, Kobach told the crowd about the strict voter fraud law he helped get passed in Kansas. Later, he talked about his interest in illegal immigration, which he traces back to the time with his mentor, Ashcroft. 9/11, he says, energized him around the issue.

KOBACH: That's when things really went into high gear for me. And we discovered that five of the 19 hijackers had been in the country illegally prior to the attacks. They all entered legally on visas but became illegally present during the time they were here.

ZIEGLER: What put Kobach on the national radar was Arizona law SB 1070, which he helped draft. The law allows police to demand citizenship papers if there is a reasonable suspicion of illegal status during routine arrests.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports most states have immigration bills or resolutions. Kobach has worked with several states to craft them, including Georgia, Texas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ZIEGLER: At a campaign event before the 2010 elections, candidate Kobach brought in Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Arizona, who's enforcing the immigration law there. Rallies outside the event, in a Kansas City suburb, showed how both had become lightning rods because of it.

MYRNA OROSKO: My name is Myrna Orosko and I came to the United States when I was four years old. And I came legally with a visa. However, like for many immigrants, it expired. I have to, you know, refuse to let men like Kris Kobach and Arpaio continue to spread a message of hate and intolerance for our immigrants around the country.

ZIEGLER: Kobach, of course, was elected in November 2010. And now, he says he spends about five to 10 hours a week on immigration issues, and only on nights and weekends. He's said he wrote a draft of the Alabama law on his laptop in a turkey blind.

It's lucrative avocation. Official documents from Arizona indicate he made $300 an hour with a $1,500 monthly retainer, plus expenses.

HEIDI BEIRICH: Kris Kobach is the driving force, really, behind the tactics that we're seeing out of the anti- immigrant lobby right now.

ZIEGLER: The Southern Poverty Law Center's Director of Research, Heidi Beirich, says Kobach's ideology has created the political space for extremism to grow. Even with Wednesday's ruling blocking some provisions, the Alabama law is still considered the strictest in the nation.

Beirich says Kobach is leading a strategic anti-immigrant crusade, which she says has a racial element.

BEIRICH: His decision to first start at the local level with laws in towns that were going through some strife over growing immigrant populations and then to take that to the state level shifted the entire terms of the debate.

ZIEGLER: Kris Kobach says he simply wants immigrants to come to the country legally.

KOBACH: There is no question that respect for a nation's immigration laws is something that every sovereign nation on the face of the planet demands. And there's nothing racially motivated about saying, you know, we have our immigration laws and we would like them to be enforced.

ZIEGLER: Meanwhile, the Kansas Secretary of State says watch for more immigration legislation in swing states in 2012.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Ziegler.

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