Skip to main content Accessibility

Kris Kobach: Lawyer for America's Nativist Movement

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has been a central figure in the nativist movement for more than a decade and is the architect of Arizona’s notorious “papers please” law as well as a series of other anti-immigrant statutes enacted by states and municipalities in the past decade. 

A Yale-trained lawyer, Kobach has served as counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) since 2004. IRLI is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group whose leaders have historical ties to white supremacists and eugenicists and who have made numerous racist statements.[1] He joined IRLI after a two-year stint as a White House fellow working in the U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft during the Bush administration.

In consultation with former Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce in 2010, Kobach authored the infamous SB 1070 in Arizona, which the Supreme Court found largely unconstitutional in 2012. He was also instrumental in the passage of similar laws in other towns and states, including Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The laws varied in scope but generally encouraged racial profiling of Latinos by local and state law enforcement and criminalized many aspects of undocumented immigrants’ lives. Most provisions of those laws have been overturned by federal courts or gutted by settlements in lawsuits filed by civil rights groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

For nearly 15 years, Kobach has worked to enact a nativist agenda, often from within the government. As secretary of state in Kansas since 2010, he has continued to serve as legal counsel to IRLI. Here are highlights of his anti-immigrant activism:

  • As a White House fellow working in the Justice Department beginning in 2001, Kobach shepherded a program requiring tens of thousands of Muslim and Middle Eastern visa holders to register with the government and be fingerprinted. The program, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) was operational until 2011, when it was shut down after drawing broad criticism for its racial profiling.


  • In 2002, Kobach wrote a memo for Ashcroft essentially outlining the policies that would become Arizona’s SB 1070. He argued that local and state police have the power to arrest undocumented immigrants for civil violations of immigration law.


  • The Justice Department in 2002 reduced the number of Board of Immigration Appeals judges from 19 to 11, creating a backlog of cases that had disastrous consequences for immigrants. Kobach took credit.


  • Kobach ran for Congress in Kansas in 2004, receiving $10,000 in campaign contributions from U.S. Immigration PAC, which was operated by FAIR founder John Tanton’s wife. Kobach had joined IRLI,  FAIR’s legal arm, that year. Kobach lost the election in part because his opponent attacked him for his ties to FAIR, calling him a racist.


  • As senior counsel to the IRLI, Kobach sued the state of Kansas in 2004 over a law passed that year granting in-state tuition to high school graduates born to undocumented immigrant parents. The court rejected Kobach’s claims in 2006.


  • Kobach co-wrote Arizona’s SB 1070 with former Arizona Senate leader Russell Pearce. The law passed in 2010 and, like bills in other places also drafted by Kobach, cost those states and cities millions in taxpayer funds and lost revenue. Arizona voters recalled Pearce, not only because of SB 1070’s failures but also for circulating racist emails among legislators.


  • Kobach embraced birtherism in 2010 while campaigning for secretary of state in Kansas. Questions about President Obama’s birthplace are fair, he said at a rally, as long as Obama failed to release his “long-form” birth certificate.


  • In 2012, Kobach proposed banning “foreign law” as a policy position for the Republican National Convention, which adopted the language into its platform. As justification, Kobach claimed that “in cases involving either spousal abuse or assault or other crimes against persons, sometimes defenses are raised that are based in Shariah law."


  • In 2014, Kobach spearheaded a program to purge voter rolls. The program, called Interstate Crosscheck, compiled a master list that included the names of one-seventh of all African-American voters in 27 states, whom officials alleged were under suspicion for voting twice in the same election, according to Al Jazeera America. Millions of the names were mismatched and the program ignored discrepancies.


  • Kobach lobbied the Kansas Legislature in 2015 to give his office the power to prosecute voter fraud, making Kansas the only state in the U.S. to grant its secretary of state such powers. Kobach promised to stop “illegal” voters; after originally claiming he knew of 100 cases of double voting, he filed only six cases as of May 2016. Regardless, he told the Washington Post: “The reason we have to do this is a significant problem in Kansas and in the rest of the country of aliens getting on our voting rolls.”


  • In October 2015, Kobach was a featured speaker at a “writers’ workshop” put on by The Social Contract Press, a racist publishing house that regularly publishes the writings of white nationalists. TSCP is a project of another foundation, U.S. Inc., created by FAIR’s Tanton.


  • In 2012, Kobach claimed he had not done any legal work for any organization that “expresses or supports racial discrimination.” However, FAIR has received $1.2 million from the Pioneer Fund, an organization founded in 1937 by Nazi sympathizers. FAIR’s current president, Dan Stein, said in 1994 that immigration reform in the 1960s was “revengism” against whites and that its supporters wanted to “retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance.” He has claimed immigrants are “getting into competitive breeding.”

[1] The SPLC has listed FAIR as a hate group since 2007. It was founded by Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton, the founder and principal ideologue of the modern anti-immigrant movement in the United States. Tanton spent decades at the heart of the white nationalist movement and corresponded with former Klan lawyers, Holocaust deniers and leading white nationalist intellectuals. He also founded and operated The Social Contract Press, a racist publishing company. FAIR has accepted more than $1 million from the Pioneer Fund, a foundation devoted to proving a connection between race and intelligence. FAIR also has hired as key officials men who were active in white supremacist groups.

Cover Image: Getty Images/Christopher Smith for the Washington Post