On Immigration, Conservative Mastermind Kris Kobach Is Not Backing Down

Kobach, the architect of Arizona's SB 1070, opposes amnesty for undocumented workers.

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Kris Kobach stands outside the United States Courthouse in Dallas, Texas, in June, 2009.
ALLISON SMITH / The New York Times / Redux

Kris Kobach stands outside the United States Courthouse in Dallas, Texas, in June, 2009.

Beltway Republicans who think an immigration-reform bill is going to bring Latino voters to the GOP need to think again, says Kris Kobach—not that the insiders are in much of a mood to listen to him these days. The Kansas conservative is a driving force behind efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants, and some analysts blame him and his movement for the shellacking Mitt Romney received as the party’s standard bearer in November. Is this the man who got Barack Obama re-elected?

“It is a gross oversimplification of the issue to say that Republicans just need to be in favor of amnesty and suddenly we will win half the Latino vote,” Kobach said during a recent interview with TIME in the spacious office he occupies as Kansas’ Secretary of State. “And it’s an insult to Latino voters, who actually make their decisions for all sorts of complex reasons: the economy, social policy, the way the party’s message is conveyed.”

But if Democrats “have done a masterful job of conveying the idea that Republicans are hostile to immigrants,” as Kobach puts it, his work on tighter enforcement of immigration laws has given them much of their ammunition. As a consultant to various state governments, Kobach is the mastermind of bills like Arizona’s SB 1070, which gives authority to state and local police officers to check the immigration status of people they encounter in their daily rounds. Critics of the laws say they amount to racial profiling—though last year that provision of the Arizona law survived a Supreme Court challenge.

(MORE: Q&A: Kris Kobach, the Legal Mind Behind Arizona’s Immigration Law)

Now the 46-year-old lawyer, educated at Harvard, Oxford and Yale, is pursuing a lawsuit in his spare time on behalf of 10 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who are challenging the Obama Administration’s authority to allow children of unlawful immigrants to remain in the country by Executive Order. A U.S. district court in Texas recently ruled that the suit can move forward; a hearing on the merits of the challenge is expected to be held by mid-March.

In other words, politicians in Washington may talk as if the immigration issue is headed to a solution, but in the trenches, the fight continues. Kobach says he hears nothing but encouragement from conservative legislators, activists and strategists as he pushes ahead with his agenda. He gives the formal package endorsed by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio and others a “less than 50% chance” of passage—if nothing else, the sheer cost of adding millions of newly legal residents to the already strained government safety net would sink the proposed compromise, Kobach says. And he predicts that the President will watch with dry eyes as it gurgles, preferring to keep the controversy over immigration as a weapon for the 2014 elections.

As the economy continues to struggle for traction, Kobach advises his fellow Republicans to focus on the American workers whose wages are undercut by undocumented labor willing to work for less. He also sees an opportunity to reach legions of recent college graduates who are competing with the children of undocumented immigrants for scarce jobs.

(MORE: Will Immigration Reform Work This Time?)

The son of a Topeka car dealer, Kobach blends the body of a linebacker with the brains of a college professor. (He gave up tenure at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law to serve in statewide elected office.) A protégé of the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, he was serving as a counsel to then U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft when the 9/11 attacks were launched. His interest in immigration law intensified when he realized that three of the four pilots of the hijacked airplanes had been stopped by police while in the country illegally. “If just one of those officers had immigration information at his fingertips, it might have led to questioning that could have unraveled the plot,” he explains.

In the years since, Kobach says, there have been sporadic efforts to enforce immigration laws more strictly, and where enforcement has been tried—Arizona, for instance—thousands of undocumented residents have chosen to leave the jurisdiction. “People leave if we make it harder for them to break the law,” he says. “Americans should not apologize for believing in the rule of law.”

That includes law-abiding Americans from Hispanic and Asian families who support consistent enforcement of immigration rules, Kobach believes. “Not all voters from immigrant families support amnesty,” he says. “They have a strong sense of ‘Hey—my family had to follow the law. We did it the hard way.’” The challenge for Republicans, he says, is to persuade these voters that the party welcomes their energy and supports their entrepreneurial dreams.

MORE: Jose Antonio Vargas’ Life as an Undocumented Immigrant