Mitt Romney in talks over nationwide version of tough state immigration laws | World news | guardian.co.uk
Mitt Romney has discussed the possibility of imposing a nationwide crackdown on undocumented aliens, a move that his leading immigration adviser believes could force more than a million people to quit the country every year.
Kris Kobach, the source of some of Romney’s most controversial ideas on immigration, has told the Guardian that he has been in direct discussions with the presidential candidate about possible changes to federal policy should Romney win the Republican nomination and go on to take the White House.
The changes would see “attrition through enforcement” – the state-level clampdown pioneered by Kobach in Arizona, Alabama and several other states – extended across the entire US in an attempt to winkle undocumented workers out of the country.
Kobach estimates that within the first four years of a new Republican presidency, as many as half of the current pool of undocumented aliens – some 5.5 million – could be made to flee by introducing much more aggressive enforcement of immigration documents.
The idea is to make the legal environment so hostile to undocumented families, and work so hard to come by, that they will choose to depart of their own volition – “self-deportation”, as Kobach calls it.
Kobach, who has been dubbed the “dark lord of the anti-illegal immigration movement”, was co-author of tough new laws in Arizona, Alabama, Missouri and Oklahoma. He has also advised Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia on how to toughen up their policies.
The aggressive nature of these immigration measures has pitted the federal government against the states, with the justice department intervening directly by suing Arizona to halt its law. The case will be decided by the US supreme court this summer.
Despite these legal battles, Kobach now hopes to influence the federal approach to immigration in the event of a Romney presidency.
“I have advised Romney directly, and his close team around him, that attrition through enforcement has been working, that self-deportation has been observed in Arizona and Alabama, and that this really does need to be part of our national effort,” he said.
Kobach added that “you could reasonably expect that in the first four years of a new administration, if attrition through enforcement were made the centrepiece of national immigration policy, you could see the illegal alien population cut in half.”
The prospect of more than 5 million undocumented immigrants, mostly Mexican, quitting America within the first term of a Romney administration puts into perspective the charged nature of the immigration debate within this year’s primary season. Romney has made a hard line on immigration a central plank of his campaign for the nomination.
In Thursday night’s Republican debate in Mesa, Arizona, he praised the state’s controversial law SB 1070, calling it a “model for the nation”. SB 1070, the law currently under review by the supreme court following a challenge from the Obama administration, would require police officers to check the status of anyone they stop should they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the US without permission.
Romney also praised the 2007 law that penalises Arizonan businesses for employing unauthorised workers – a system known as E-Verify. He told the debate: “I will make sure we have an E-Verify system and require employers to check the documents of workers. If an employer hires someone that has not gone through E-Verify, they’re going to get sanctioned just like they do for not paying their taxes.”
Romney’s stance on immigration is mirrored by that of his main rival Rick Santorum. However, it is in stark contrast to that of Newt Gingrich, who has said he favours a limited amnesty for those who have lived in the US for many years, and has derided the concept of “self-deportation” as a fantasy.
Romney has aligned himself publicly with Kobach who acts as his unpaid adviser and who endorsed him in January. The two men went on the campaign trail in South Carolina last month, after which Romney hailed Kobach as “a true leader on securing our borders”.
Kobach, who is secretary of state in Kansas, has become the target in recent months of protests from Hispanic and immigration reform groups, such as America’s Voice, that have accused him of being an extremist and of waging a legal vendetta against Latino communities in the US.
“It’s not suprising you get people who engage in simplistic ad hominem attacks,” Kobach said. “They do that when they are running out of ideas.”
Kobach said he expects Romney to take the fight over immigration policy to Barack Obama should he win the Republican nomination. “I think he would take this to the campaign stump in the general election, as this is a strong point of contrast with the Obama administration.”
Asked to give his definition of a successful immigration policy, Kobach replied: “One that America solves our illegal immigration problem and restores the rule of law. One that takes specific steps to give illegal immigrants incentives to leave on their own, and that makes it very difficult for them to obtain employment.”
He pointed to Arizona’s clampdown on jobs for unauthorised workers, which prompted a 16% decline in the state’s population of undocumented families between 2008 and 2010 – more than twice the national rate.
He said that if the same policies were replicated at a federal level they could result in a mass exodus of undocumented immigrants. “If we did that on a national level it would have a massive effect – causing people to self-deport, discouraging illegal aliens from entering the country, because they would know it would be really tough to get a job.”
Kobach, who took a doctorate in politics from Brasenose college, Oxford, has a rowing oar from his 1991 Isis crew on the wall of his state office, along with the heads of two deer that he shot, he says, with a bow.
After Oxford he studied law at Yale and went on to become a law professor specialising in issues of citizenship. His interest in immigration policy deepened as a result of 9/11, when he was working in the justice department within the Bush administration.
He said he was struck by the revelation that five of the 19 hijackers had been in the US illegally, and of those three were pilots. “If our immigration system had been more effective we could have stopped three of the four pilots from taking off that day. That was a real awakening for me,” he said.
Of his many legal forays into state-level immigration rules, the most controversial has been the provision in Alabama’s HB 56 that instructs school teachers to check the legal status of their pupils. There were reports – which Kobach described as “vague” – of thousands of Hispanic parents taking their children out of school for fear of the consequences.
Kobach said that the provision would not deny education to any undocumented children. But he did admit that some children would have to be taken out of school as a consequence of “self-deportation”, even in cases where the children were born in the US and thus had US citizenship. “We want families to stay together, so obviously where a family has school-aged children their departure would also be inevitable,” he said.