In the days since Donald Trump secured his seat in the Oval Office, America has witnessed what feels like a bizzaro Republican beauty pageant. Sarah Palin as secretary of the interior? Rudy Giuliani as secretary of state? Rumors about who would fill which cabinet posts have abounded, but few people seem to know what's actually happening inside the White House transition team. As Trump himself tweeted on Tuesday, "Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!"
But one of the leading contenders gunning for a top spot in the White House is a far-right darling whose potential appointment as attorney general is keeping liberals up at night: Kris Kobach.
Kobach is the Kansas secretary of state, a post that belies how involved he has been in some of the most controversial policies of the conservative movement. Perhaps his most famous résumé item is his work as the leading architect of Arizona's notorious SB-1070, which is considered to be, by far, the strictest anti-illegal immigration law in America. Passed in 2010, it allowed police officers to pull over undocumented immigrants—or anyone they had a "reasonable suspicion" of being undocumented—to check if they had their papers, and detain, or even deport, them if they didn't.
This soon landed on the desk of the Supreme Court, which, in a 5–3 ruling in 2012, said that while federal law preempted Arizona doling out such harsh punishments, officers could still ask about someone's immigration status when pulling them over. But in the meantime, the law created an environment of paranoia in the Hispanic community, with businesses dependent on migrants closing up shops as their customers fled the state.
That sort of outcome may be exactly what Kobach wants. In the last week, he said on FOX News that a Trump administration would make sure that "no person living here illegally gets a free pass, like they did under the Obama administration… The jobs are going to dry up, the welfare benefits are going to dry up, and a lot of people who may not be criminal illegal aliens may decide, hey, it's getting hard to disobey federal law, and may leave on their own."
This is the idea of "self-deportation," where federal and state governments make it so hard for immigrants to live in America that they simply just leave on their own. This was advocated for by Mitt Romney (Kobach was an adviser on his 2012 campaign), but the Trump administration may take things much further.
According to Reuters, Kobach and his team have discussed drafting an arsenal of executive orders for the president-elect, "so that Trump and the Department of Homeland Security hit the ground running." This would mean starting construction on Trump's much-ballyhooed border wall even without congressional approval. Kobach told Reuters that the transition team is also "mulling" over the idea of a national registry for Muslims entering America from countries deemed "higher risk" by the Trump administration.
The registry—known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS)—is a byproduct of the Bush years, and was shut down in 2011 after national security officials said it was redundant; one critic called it "a proxy to target Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities." Per ThinkProgress, when still in existence, NSEERS "registered 93,000 people, of whom 13,740 immigrants were placed in deportation proceedings." And the number of people who were prosecuted on terrorism charges under the program? Zero.
Last October, Kobach reportedly spoke at an event put on by the Social Contract Press, a known racially tinged publishing house whose editor is a member of Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization that inspired Dylann Roof, the Charleston massacre shooter. According to the Southern Law Poverty Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups and crimes, the publishing house's creator, the anti–illegal immigration activist John Tanton, has said, "I've come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that."
Kobach's connection to Tanton runs deeper than a single appearance at one of his group's events. Kobach currently serves as a lawyer for the legal arm of one of Tanton's organizations, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which the SPLC has listed as a hate group since 2007. That organization's president, Dan Stein, has said things like, "Immigrants don't come all church-loving, freedom-loving, God-fearing… Many of them hate America, hate everything that the United States stands for." Stein also thinks that the Immigration Act of 1965, which helped do away with decades of xenophobic measures, "was a great way to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance and hubris."
"Kris Kobach has showed that he is an extremist," Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC, told me. "An extreme nativist, and a fear monger."
He has done that, Potok explained, by suing his own state (twice) for granting in-state college tuition for children of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the state for three years and graduated high school. Kobach also accused the Human Rights Campaign of promoting "homosexual pedophilia" during an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2004.
Potok then pointed to a 2002 legal memo Kobach wrote while working at the Justice Department that stated cops should be able to arrest any undocumented immigrant they pull over for civil rights violations. The George W. Bush White House quickly distanced itself from the memo, but it served as a blueprint for the Arizona bill that would come years later, as well as similar ordinances in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and Farmers Branch, Texas—both of which Kobach and his associates at FAIR authored. (Since then, those ordinances have been struck down, but not before costing the towns millions of dollars in legal fees.)
Kobach is not singularly focused on immigration. He has also been at the forefront of a Republican battle to restrict access to the ballot box that has been underway ever since the Supreme Court gutted an integral part of the Voting Rights Act, in 2013.
According to the Washington Post, Kobach's former colleague, Brian Newby, is the head of the federal Election Assistance Commission, a small agency charged with helping out with election logistics. The agency was sued by civil rights groups because Newby changed the rules without consulting commissioners, making it harder to vote in Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas through requiring voters to show documents proving citizenship in order to register to vote. Kobach supported Newby, and helped pass a law in Kansas in 2013 that had the same effects—before this election, 37,000 people found themselves frozen out of the voting rolls until they provided proof of citizenship. (A Reuters analysis later showed that the list was disproportionately populated by younger Democratic and unaffiliated voters.)
"Kris Kobach has been actively involved in trying to stop immigration," Potok told me. "He has hurt kids of immigrants. He has suppressed voters, even though there's been no evidence of fraud."
And his reward: He could soon hold one of the most powerful offices in America.
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