The Man: A Biography of Kris Kobach
While campaigning for Kansas secretary of state last year, Kris Kobach decided to have some fun at a Republican barbecue in Leavenworth. Lifting a joke from Rush Limbaugh, he asked his fellow conservatives what President Obama and God had in common. The punch line: neither has a birth certificate. Later, he told another rally that the questions about Obama's birthplace were fair as long as the president failed to produce a so-called "long form" birth certificate.
It's no great surprise that this hard-core conservative activist would express views from the far-right "birther" movement. Over the years, he's echoed many of the far right's themes. But in the past decade, the 44-year-old lawyer has found a lucrative legal career — and now a measure of political prominence — by specializing in one particular corner of conservative politics: anti-immigrant fervor.
The former Bush Administration official boasts a political pedigree that seems well suited to his mission.
Kris William Kobach was born March 26, 1966, in Madison, Wis. The family — Kris, his two younger sisters, and his parents — moved in 1974 to Topeka, Kan., where his father bought the local Buick dealership.
An ambitious student, Kobach was involved in more activities than most — honor society, debate team, forensics, student council, spirit club and intramurals. He went on to Harvard, where, as a lifelong conservative, he stood out on the liberal campus. He served as president of the Harvard Republican Club and found a mentor in the late Samuel Huntington, an influential political science professor who came to see Latino immigrants as a scourge on American culture.
With Huntington as his advisor, Kobach earned the Harvard prize for the best student thesis in 1989. He analyzed how the South African business community functioned within apartheid and took the unpopular position that investors should not divest their holdings in that country but rather remain as agents of change. A year later, he published the thesis as a book.
Kobach graduated in 1988 at the top of his class in Harvard's department of government, according to his website. With a Marshall Scholarship from the British government, he attended Oxford and completed a Ph.D. in political science in 1992. He then was accepted at Yale Law School, where he taught political science to undergraduates and won a Prize Teaching Fellowship in 1994. He also served as an editor at the Yale Law Journal and published his second book, The Referendum: Direct Democracy in Switzerland.
In 1995, Kobach was admitted to the Kansas bar. He served as a law clerk to Judge Deanell Reece Tacha of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals until 1996, when he was hired as a constitutional law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
He first tasted electoral success in 1999, when he won a City Council seat in Overland Park, Kan., a Kansas City suburb. Even on a council dominated by Republicans, he was viewed as an outsider. Neil Sader, who served on the council with him, said Kobach wasn't a "typical" Overland Park moderate Republican. The fact that he didn't rely on the local political structure for campaign contributions, "coupled with the energy he brought to the council," unsettled some members of the city's Republican establishment, Sader said.
"People viewed him, either rightly or wrongly, as someone who intended to try to move up the ladder very quickly, and that doesn't always go over real well," Sader told the Kansas City Star.
Kobach angered his fellow Republicans on the council when he unsuccessfully fought efforts to allow a stroke rehabilitation center to operate in a northern neighborhood. He said neighborhood residents were concerned about parking and traffic problems. When the city attorney claimed that not allowing the facility would expose Overland Park to lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kobach called that a misreading of the act and said the city didn't have "to give a disabled citizen more than what other citizens have."
Less than a year after he was elected to the council, Kobach ran for the state senate. Out of four Republicans, he placed third. But his political career was about to get a major boost from the incoming Bush Administration and from the terrorist attacks that would soon rock the country.
In 2001, Kobach was awarded a prestigious White House fellowship. He reported for duty at the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Sept. 1. Ten days later, the United States suffered the worst-ever terrorist attack on American soil. Though he was not a specialist in immigration law or policy, Kobach became Attorney General John Ashcroft's chief advisor on immigration and border security.
He stayed on with Ashcroft after his one-year fellowship expired and helped create the controversial National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which required tens of thousands of Muslim and Middle Eastern visa holders to register with the government and be fingerprinted. Outraged, civil liberties and Arab-American groups argued the policy amounted to racial and ethnic profiling.
Kobach also helped lay the legal groundwork for S.B. 1070, Arizona's recently passed anti-immigrant law. In 2002, the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel released an opinion stating that local and state police have the power to arrest undocumented immigrants for civil violations of immigration law. The opinion directly contradicted opinions issued by the same office in 1989 and 1996, which stated that only federal agents have that power. The new opinion was so divisive that The New York Times warned that it "could jeopardize Mr. Bush's trust in his attorney general." Kobach was "intimately involved" in drafting it, DOJ officials said at the time.
Although the opinion — entitled "Non-preemption of the authority of state and local law enforcement officials to arrest aliens for immigration violations" — never became official policy, it continues to be cited to justify the involvement of local law enforcement in immigration matters. In a May 18, 2010, article, The Washington Post wrote that "the author of the Arizona law [Kobach] … has cited the authority granted in the 2002 memo [that he helped draft] as a basis for the legislation."
Kobach takes credit, too, for leading the DOJ's much-criticized reforms of the immigration court system, which reshaped the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in 2002 and reduced the number of judges from 19 to 11. To keep up with the increasing caseload, judges began issuing one-line opinions in response to complex legal decisions. The changes ended up clogging the federal courts with appeals from immigrants who claimed they had not been fairly heard.
By 2005, so much criticism had been leveled at the DOJ's purported streamlining and at what appeared to be "a pattern of biased and incoherent decisions" that DOJ started proposing to boost the number of judges and to mandate full opinions instead of one-line decisions, effectively reversing Kobach's reforms.
By then, Kobach had left the administration. In 2003, he returned to his teaching position in Kansas. In addition to constitutional law, he began teaching immigration law. A syllabus for one course included his former professor Huntington's anti-immigrant book Who Are We?, as well as material from the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, a group that was founded as part of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
In 2004, Kobach became senior counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), the legal arm of FAIR. In concert with IRLI Director Michael Hethmon, Kobach filed suit against Kansas, which had passed a law that year to grant in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants who had attended a state high school for at least three years and graduated. The Kansas challenge was thrown out in 2006. A similar case, filed by Kobach in California, ended last November, when the state Supreme Court rejected his claims.
Kobach had his hands full in 2004. Not only was he fighting the legal battle in Kansas, he was running for Congress against a Democrat who painted his opponent as an extremist because of his views on immigration and criticized his ties to FAIR. In addition to his work for IRLI, Kobach had accepted a $10,000 donation from U.S. Immigration PAC, which is run by the wife of FAIR's founder. Kobach lost the race by 36,000 votes and still bristles at what he calls "deceptive allegations" raised by his opponent.
By 2005, as IRLI's attorney, Kobach would find himself deeply enmeshed in promoting — and defending — the use of local and state ordinances to punish undocumented immigrants.
In Arizona, he worked with state Senator Russell Pearce to draft S.B. 1070, and he was also retained by Maricopa County in 2006 to defend a law that made immigrant-smuggling a state crime. That measure was spearheaded by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose heavy-handed tactics against prisoners and immigrants have been the target of numerous lawsuits and a DOJ investigation. Kobach successfully defended the measure in court, then went on to train Arpaio's deputies in federal immigration enforcement. In June 2010, Kobach's consulting contract with Maricopa was cancelled when County Attorney Andrew Thomas, a nativist ally, left his position to run for state attorney general.
As a candidate for Kansas secretary of state last year, Kris Kobach associated himself with many conservative ideas. Here, he enthuses about the 10th Amendment, which delineates states’ rights.
In 2010, Kobach was elected secretary of state in Kansas after campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform that included unsubstantiated claims that undocumented immigrants were committing rampant voter fraud.
Prior to the election, the Kansas Democratic Party lodged an ethics complaint alleging he had accepted campaign donations that exceeded limits in Kansas law. It wasn't the first time Kobach has come under fire for allegedly questionable financial dealings.
A Federal Election Commission audit revealed that when he was chair of the Kansas GOP from 2007 to 2009, rent went unpaid for four months, bank statements were unopened, invoices and receipts were missing, state monies paid for things that federal money should have, taxes were unpaid and corporate contributions weren't accounted for correctly. When he left the post, there was less than $5,000 in the party's accounts but more than $100,000 in what the incoming chairwoman called "operational debt."
Kobach and party Executive Director Christian Morgan blamed each other for the problems. Morgan said that financial oversight suffered after Kobach fired office manager Margie Canfield and finance director Chad Lawton. Morgan claimed that Canfield was dismissed because Kobach thought she was too politically moderate. He wasn't sure why Kobach got rid of Lawton. "I disagreed with both firings," Morgan told the Topeka Capital-Journal. "I recommended to Kobach that we needed to hire more staff, and he refused."
During his tenure as Kansas GOP chair, Kobach also created a "loyalty committee," with himself as chair. In November 2008, he stripped several GOP officers of voting rights in party organization races because they had given campaign contributions to Democrats. One of the state's most senior Republican officeholders, U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, expressed misgivings about the committee, worrying that it would be perceived negatively by voters as an effort to create a "loyalty test."
When the state GOP approached Kobach for help raising money to pay tax liabilities, he refused to cooperate and instead claimed he had tried to generate contributions to the state party after resigning as chairman.
Now he serves as that state's secretary of state. As a result, he was forced to step aside from his law professor position, but his work with IRLI continues, if not as a full-time job.