TOPEKA, Kan. — When politicians and police across the country want to crack down on illegal immigration, they often reach out to the same man: a little-known Kansas attorney with an Ivy League education who is the architect behind many of the nation's most controversial immigration laws.
Kris Kobach could not attend West Point because of diabetes, but he regards his efforts on immigration as a substitute for military service.
"They can't call him trailer park trash, which is the kind of comment you hear about advocates on our side," said Michael Hethmon, director of the Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute.
Kobach helps draft proposed laws and, after they are adopted, trains officers to enforce them. If the laws are challenged, he goes to court to defend them.
His most recent project was advising Arizona officials on a new law that empowers police to question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. Critics say it violates the Constitution's provisions against unreasonable search and seizure by allowing police to engage in racial profiling.
But Kobach insists an officer stopping a crowded van for a traffic violation has a reasonable suspicion its occupants are illegal immigrants if none of them has an ID, the van is traveling a known smuggling route and the driver is evasive.
"I could not care less whether they come from Mexico or Germany or Japan or China," said Kobach, who speaks with the affable air of a college professor, even when making cutting political remarks. "An alien who also is here with terrorist intentions can carry any passport. This isn't about race or national origin."
Before the law was passed last month, Kobach spent several years consulting with its main sponsor. And he has a $300-an-hour contract to teach deputies in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, to enforce immigration policies.
Detractors are not impressed by Kobach's degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, or the coveted White House fellowship he served during George W. Bush's first term.
While at the White House, he created a post-9/11 Justice Department program requiring immigrants from 25 mostly Muslim nations who were already in the U.S. to re-register with the federal government. Civil libertarians argued that it led to unwarranted detentions of law-abiding immigrants.
"He promotes himself as absolutely, positively being a constitutional scholar on these issues, and he's just wrong," said Bill Brewer, a Dallas attorney who has faced off with Kobach in court over immigration laws in Farmers Branch, Texas.
Kobach's focus on immigration developed after Sept. 11, when as an aide to Attorney General John Ashcroft, he and other Justice Department officials learned some of the 9/11 attackers had lived in the U.S. illegally. "It was a missed opportunity of tragic dimensions," Kobach said. "That realization struck home with me. People were saying, 'How could we have prevented this?' "
After leaving Washington, he returned to Kansas and to a job on the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school faculty that he'd had since 1996, then launched a campaign for Congress. He lost.
Kobach challenged a Kansas law that reduced tuition rates for illegal immigrants. The law survived, but conservatives took note of his work. Mayor Lou Barletta, of Hazleton, Pa., called Kobach in 2006 to discuss a proposal to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and to deny permits to businesses hiring them. Kobach later defended the law in federal court.
The mayor said he contacted Kobach after a news report quoted him saying Hazleton had the authority to enact such an ordinance, contradicting other legal scholars.
"It really only took one conversation to realize that he truly knew what he was talking about," Barletta recalled. Kobach largely wrote and then defended a similar ordinance in Valley Park, Mo., that was upheld by a federal appeals court.
Last year, he defended Farmers Branch, Texas, in a federal lawsuit targeting its landlord law. And this year, he represented residents of Fremont, Neb., outside Omaha, as they forced a vote on their own immigration proposals.
Federal judges struck down the Farmers Branch and Hazleton ordinances, but both are on appeal.Kobach also wrote sections of a 2008 Missouri law cracking down on illegal immigration and this year drafted an unsuccessful proposal in Idaho requiring employers to screen workers.
Kobach said he's consulted with legislators in at least six other states on various measures.
"I would say he is the brain behind most of them," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at the New York University School of Law.
Kobach, elected Kansas state GOP chairman in 2007, quit early last year to launch a campaign for secretary of state. His first proposal for legislators: require new voters to prove citizenship when they register and make all voters show photo IDs at the polls.
"You can take steps to address the national security issues and still be left with the problem of millions of people here illegally taking jobs in a recession from lawful residents," he said.
Critics suggest Kobach's immigration work is designed to boost his political career. A "Krazy Kris Kobach" website features an anonymous blogger who exhorts followers to end Kobach's career.
Arizona state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat and attorney who voted against her state's new law, said Kobach is not to be underestimated.
"What I'm concerned about," she said, "is there are all these legislators in all these states who think he's a good guy and want to take his advice."