Laws Targeting Immigrants Are Coming to a State Near You


The Southern Poverty Law Center has released a new report on the wave of anti-immigrant laws being passed by states and localities around the United States.

Researchers looked at four municipalities and one state that have passed anti-immigrant laws since 2006. The laws were all likely to be found unconstitutional, and local governments spent millions of dollars defending them in federal courts. Racial divisions in all the areas studied increased, as did anti-Latino bias incidents.

With all the divisions these laws stirred, there was one unifying factor, a lawyer named Kris Kobach.

Kobach wrote Arizona’s SB 1070. He has created a lucrative side business in promoting anti-immigrant ordinances. How lucrative? Sherriff Joe Arpaio had him on retainer for $300 per hour.

Kobach was just elected Kansas secretary of state, but he apparently doesn’t believe in states handling their own problems since he has been jetting from state to state stirring up legislators against immigrants.

The Southern Poverty Law Center gives some telling details about Mr. Kobach’s actions:

For the better part of the last six years, Kobach has been chief legal counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). He helped to write and defend in court the laws in Hazleton, Valley Park, Farmers Branch, Fremont and Arizona, and he is seeking to do even more.

Kobach’s affiliation with FAIR is important. For most of the last three decades, FAIR has been working, as its founder John Tanton once wrote, to preserve “a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” Although the organization is typically less than candid about its motives, its president, Dan Stein, has sounded similar notes. In a heretofore unknown oral history housed in a university library, Stein expressed his anger at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which sought to end a longstanding and racist system of quotas. President Lyndon B. Johnson, in signing the act, had celebrated the demise of the old racist system, saying that “it will never again shadow the gate to the American nation with …  prejudice.” Stein didn’t see it that way. The act, he said, was a “key mistake” in American policy forced by people who sought “to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance” and create “chaos.”

Even if the motives of Kobach are otherwise, the experience of those towns that have collaborated with him should serve as a stark warning. After the city of Albertville, Ala., decided against working with Kobach based on his track record, the publisher of the local Sand Mountain Reporter summed it up like this: “I fear Mr. Kobach targets towns like ours, and towns like Hazleton, Pa., Valley Park, Mo., and Farmers Branch, Texas, as financial windfalls. I think he preys on the legitimate concerns, the irrational fears and even some bigoted attitudes to convince cities to hire him to represent their interests in lawsuits that may not be winnable.”

Kobach associates himself with the birther wing of the conservative movement. Last year, he joked at a fundraiser that God and Obama had one thing in common: Neither had a birth certificate.

Kobach was a disciple of Samuel Huntington at Harvard University. Huntington saw Latino immigration as part of a culture war against the United States. Kobach stirred controversy in college when he wrote his student thesis on the need for businesses to invest in South Africa while the apartheid regime was in power, in defiance of a worldwide call to divest by Nelson Mandela.

In 2001, Kobach went to work for the Bush Justice Department where he helped design a program that racially profiled Muslim immigrants living in the United States in the wake of 9/11.

Kobach left the Justice Department to work for the Immigration Reform Law Institute. While he now portrays himself as a defender of states’ rights, his first big case was a suit filed against Kansas trying to strike down its law allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges. He lost.

The lawyer really hit his stride when Kobach tapped into deep anti-immigrant sentiments in Arizona, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center:

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.

The governments that have followed Kobach’s advice have not gotten much for their money. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports:

The record of Kris Kobach and his colleagues at IRLI and FAIR has not been a stellar one. Kobach was the principal architect of anti-immigrant ordinances in four towns. Even after repeatedly modifying their laws to withstand legal challenges and spending small fortunes to do so, only one had even a part of its ordinance upheld. Kobach’s Arizona law, meanwhile, is also stuck in the courts, where many scholars predict it will ultimately be struck down. And his latest effort, attacking the 14th Amendment, is very likely doomed to failure as well.

We know that the work of FAIR inspired Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy in his campaign against immigrants, and we know the damage that was done to our community. Kris Kobach and his ilk have taken the mistakes of Levyism and made them national.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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