Donald Trump’s hesitation in hiring immigration hard-liner Kris Kobach reflects the next president’s indecision on how to approach the biggest issue of his presidential campaign.
As a candidate, Trump promised to build a wall on the southern border, deport 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, ban all Muslims from entering the country and even enact additional hurdles for immigrants coming into the country legally.
Now some aides are lobbying Trump to steer clear of Kobach and to take a more moderate stance on immigration, according to a senior transition official with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and architect of one of the nation’s toughest immigration laws, has met with Trump at least twice since Election Day as the president-elect considered him for attorney general or secretary of homeland security, but he was not offered a job.
Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for tighter restrictions on immigration, said he was initially worried about Trump’s seemingly contradictory language until he realized “that’s just his way of talking.”
Still, Beck said, he would would be less concerned if Trump found Kobach a role in the administration. Some anti-immigration groups cheered Trump’s appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., for attorney general, but were disappointed that Trump tapped retired Marine Gen. John Kelly to head Homeland Security.
“Given the importance and his promises . . . you really need to have somebody in administration that understands what the law says and what you can do,” Beck said.
Groups that want Trump to make good on his campaign promise to rein in illegal immigration are hoping he will immediately rescind President Barack Obama’s executive actions that halted the deportation of some immigrants in the United States illegally, secure the border and establish a better system to check the status of those employed in the United States.
“We would expect he would carry out pledges he made in campaign,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman with the Federation for American Reform, which advocates for increased border security and stopping illegal immigration.
Mehlman’s group is also lobbying Trump and his aides to hire Kobach, saying it “would send a clear signal to the American people that the rule of law will be restored to our nation’s immigration system.” Kobach has done legal work for the Federation for American Reform, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a “hate group,” a label it disputes.
Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said he thought Kobach remained under consideration for a role in the Trump administration. But he said Kobach had remained quiet about his talks with Trump’s team.
It’s possible that Kobach has not been appointed because he wants to run for governor in 2018 or possibly wait to run for a U.S. Senate seat.
Trump tapped Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Wichita, Kansas, Republican, as CIA director. That removed one of the strongest possible contenders from the race for governor, leaving Kobach as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination. He is also a potential contender to succeed Sen. Pat Roberts, who faced a tough re-election challenge in 2014 and will be 84 when his seat is up again in 2020.
Trump’s advisers also could be worried that the Senate wouldn’t confirm Kobach.
Some Republicans senators – possibly John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Dean Heller of Nevada or Ben Sasse of Nebraska – might vote against Kobach.
“He is certainly controversial and so if you hire a person like him he’ll bring all that baggage with him,” said Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, who once called Kobach the most racist politician in the nation. “I think you can make a pretty compelling case against his confirmation based on his background.”
Trump might still offer Kobach a role at the Department of Homeland Security or the Justice Department, but Kobach supporters suggest that Trump appoint him to a newly created position – immigration czar – that would not need Senate confirmation.
Kobach advised Trump on immigration policy throughout the campaign and added Trump’s promise to build a wall along the Southern border to the Republican Party’s national platform.
As a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kobach wrote an Arizona law that mandates police officers see documentation from those they think might be in the United States illegally. The controversial law wound up in court, and some parts of it have since been thrown out. As secretary of state, Kobach secured the authority to prosecute election crimes and enacted new voting restrictions.
Kobach hosts a weekly talk-radio show in Kansas City, Missouri. In 2014, a caller asked Kobach whether he thought that Obama’s executive action to halt the deportation of 5 million immigrants living illegally in the United States would result in ethnic cleansing of whites. He said he did not think ethnic cleansing would happen but he did not rule out the possibility, telling the man that “things are strange and they are happening.”
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, said it was normal for an administration to debate how to tackle an issue but that it didn’t mean they were debating whether to do anything at all.
“That the debate is on how hard-line to be isn't surprising to me,” he said. “They want to deport, drive them out of the country. They may disagree on how far and fast to go.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.
Bryan Lowry of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this article from Topeka, Kansas.