White House

Kansas’ Kris Kobach helped Trump revive feared immigration-enforcement program

Then-President-elect Donald Trump greets Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J.
Then-President-elect Donald Trump greets Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach at the clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. The Washington Post

Kansas hard-liner Kris Kobach says he helped write a get-tough executive order for President Donald Trump that clears the way for state and local law enforcement officers to put into deportation proceedings immigrants they apprehend who are in the U.S. illegally.

Now Kobach wants to make that the law in Kansas.

Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who served on the Trump transition team, told McClatchy’s Kansas City Star that he helped craft a little-noticed directive in Trump’s Jan. 25 immigration order to revive one of the most controversial federal immigration initiatives of the the last decade.

The program, which President Barack Obama rolled back in 2012, gives police, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers the authority to help get immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally out of the country. It had led to the deportation of thousands of immigrants for minor offenses and provoked accusations of racial profiling.

The White House would not comment on Kobach’s role in revitalizing the program.

"President Trump has done more in one week to improve the security of the United States of America than Barack Obama did in eight years,” Kobach said.

Trump’s order does not in itself give law enforcement officials the authority to detain immigrants. But it kicks open the door for state and local jurisdictions to enter into agreements with the federal government that would empower them to do so, under the supervision of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

A week after Trump issued his order, Republican lawmakers in the Kansas House and Senate introduced a bill in the state Legislature on Kobach’s behalf. The bill would require the Kansas Highway Patrol to seek an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that would deputize state troopers to enforce immigration laws.

Kobach is a staunch conservative who was considered for a Trump administration post. He previously has convinced the Kansas Legislature to pass some of the strictest voting restrictions in the country. But after moderate Republicans and Democrats gained seats in the Kansas Legislature in 2016, he could face more difficulty shepherding bills into law this year.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has yet to stake out a position on Kobach’s bill, and the Kansas Highway Patrol says it was not consulted.

Civil rights groups warn that bills such as Kobach’s, combined with Trump’s executive order, could unleash chaos in immigrant communities.

“What it does, basically, is set the stage for a scorched-earth approach for immigrants in this country,” said Clarissa Martinez, deputy vice president of National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights advocacy group.

Kobach told the Star that he was not aware of any coordinated effort to push similar bills in other states but that he expects more to emerge around the country following Trump’s executive order.

“Now that there is an invitation from the Trump order for states to come forward, I expect that more states will,” Kobach said.

In 2012, the Obama administration, under fire from liberal and minority communities, stopped signing or renewing certain agreements that gave patrol officers in local and state law enforcement agencies the authority to enforce immigration law.

The agreements were part of a program, known as 287(g), that continues in local jails but not on street patrols. There are 38 287(g) agreements with jails in 16 states, including Florida, North Carolina and Texas.

Thousands were deported under the 287(g) program during the administrations of Obama and President George W. Bush, many for minor offenses such as traffic tickets.

Local law enforcement officers carrying out immigration enforcement under 287(g) authority led to a federal racial-profiling case against Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, a Trump surrogate who delivered one of the opening speeches at the Republican National Convention. The Department of Justice found that the sheriff's office engaged in systemic racial profiling of Latinos. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security limited Arpaio’s authority under 287(g) and revised national guidelines.

Trump promised during his presidential campaign to bring back the program.

“We will expand and revitalize the popular 287(g) partnerships, which will help to identify hundreds of thousands of deportable aliens in local jails that we don’t even know about,” Trump said during a campaign visit in Phoenix on Aug. 31. He said the program had worked but had been “recklessly gutted” by the Obama administration.

Kobach told the Star that he served on the team that crafted Trump’s order. “I certainly had some input,” he said when asked whether he had helped push for the program’s revival.

The White House would not comment on Kobach’s role.

Kobach said that members of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ staff were involved, as were other Capitol Hill staffers. The Senate is debating the Alabama Republican’s nomination as attorney general. A confirmation vote is expected late Wednesday.

Kobach’s aim in drafting the Kansas bill is to make permanent the role of state troopers in enforcing immigration laws through 287(g).

The Kansas governor already has the authority to instruct the Kansas Highway Patrol to enter a 287(g) agreement to enforce immigration law, but Kobach said he didn’t want any such agreement to be subject to the whims of a governor.

“Governors come and go,” Kobach said. “This puts it in Kansas law and says that the people of Kansas want it to be done.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a hard-line group that Kobach has collaborated with in the past, cheered Kobach’s bill and expressed hope that similar legislation would follow in other states.

“I have not heard of any other bills at this time, but we may see some of these come up now that there’s a new administration . . . with a different attitude about this,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the group.

National Council of La Raza’s Martinez said there was a reason that police departments and law enforcement jurisdictions in many places had declined to be an extension of immigration enforcement.

It’s been well-documented, she said, that in communities where immigrants live, people are going to be reluctant to interact with police if they see them as an extension of immigration enforcement.

“The line here is detaining and arresting somebody simply because of immigration and not because they committed a crime or pose a threat of any kind,” she said. “And that’s why many law enforcement agents have chosen not to be deputized as an immigration agents, because they have seen that it undermines their number one goal of protecting and serving.”

Kobach’s bill likely is just the beginning, Martinez said.

“That is their strategy,” she said. “They create a template, then they spread it like an infection. They are so focused on creating a deportation force that they’re willing to overrule law enforcement’s approach to policing their communities.”

Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star contributed to this report from Topeka, Kansas.

Lowry reports for The Kansas City Star.