Alabama and Arizona have some of the toughest immigration laws in the country. Behind both states' laws, and many others, is Kris Kobach, a constitutional lawyer and the Kansas secretary of state.
Kobach has helped several other states shape immigration legislation, and he says there's more to come in 2012.
Many national stories have called the 45-year-old conservative a "movie star," handsome and loaded with charisma. He looked the part greeting some 60 guests during a recent address to the Pachyderm Club in Topeka, Kan.
A graduate of Harvard, Oxford and Yale, he was a White House fellow and chief immigration adviser to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft after the Sept. 11 attacks. His credentials undoubtedly make him the most famous Kansas secretary of state — and deified by supporters.
"He's gonna save America with what he's done in Arizona," says Pachyderm member Jim Taylor.
After 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. The Sept. 11 attacks energized him around the issue.
"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," Kobach said.
What put Kobach on the national radar was Arizona law SB 1070, which he helped draft. It allows police to demand citizenship papers if there is "reasonable suspicion" of illegal status during routine arrests.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that most states have immigration bills or resolutions. Kobach has worked with several states to craft them, including Georgia, Texas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Missouri.
A Driving Force
At a campaign event before the 2010 elections, candidate Kobach brought in Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who's enforcing immigration law. Rallies outside the event in a Kansas City suburb showed how both had become lightning rods because of it.
"My name is Myrna Orosko, and I came to the United States when I was 4 years old. I came legally with a visa, however like for many immigrants, it expired. I have to refuse to let men like Kris Kobach and Arpaio continue to spread a message of hate and intolerance for our immigrants around the country," Orosko said.
Kobach was elected in November 2010, and now he says he spends only five to 10 hours a week — on nights and weekends — on immigration issues. He has said he wrote a draft of the Alabama law — most of which a federal judge recently upheld — on his laptop in a turkey blind.
It's a lucrative avocation: Official documents from Arizona indicate that he made $300 an hour with a $1,500 monthly retainer, plus expenses.
"Kris Kobach is the driving force, really, behind the tactics we're seeing out of the anti-immigrant lobby right now," says Heidi Beirich with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Beirich says Kobach's ideology has created the political space for extremism to grow.
Even with this week'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.
"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 take that to the state level, shifted the entire terms of the debate," Beirich says.
Kobach says he simply wants immigrants to come to the country legally.
"There is no question that respect for a nation's immigration laws is something every sovereign nation on the face of planet demands. There is nothing racially motivated about saying, 'We have our immigration laws, and we would like them enforced,' " Kobach says.
Meanwhile, he says, watch for more immigration legislation in swing states in 2012.