They were a mismatched pair who somehow managed to rearrange the national immigration debate and the half-shadow world in which illegal immigrants live and work in the United States.
Over the past six years, the two have become the most successful propagators of a powerful idea: that state and local governments can make life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they would choose to deport themselves.
During this year’s Republican presidential primary contest, the notion of self-deportation began to take on new legitimacy. Mitt Romney, the party’s presumed nominee, praised the idea and has pledged that he would drop the Obama administration’s challenges to state laws in places such as Alabama and Arizona.
Kobach and Hethmon have helped six states and at least seven cities and counties write tough legislation that allows local police or bureaucrats to crack down on illegal immigrants. Usually, that’s a function reserved for the federal government, but these two lawyers said they knew the “magic words” of legalese to make local laws work.
“We are constantly told that the only two options are massive roundups [of illegal immigrants] or an amnesty. But attrition through enforcement is the third way,” said Kobach, the better-known of the pair. “Change the individual decisions of particular illegal aliens, and they will decide to leave the country.”
Hethmon worries about cultural shifts that could result.
Immigration is “on track to change the demographic makeup of the entire country. You know, what they call ‘minority-majority,’ ” said Hethmon, who is general counsel at the Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, whose parent organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, was designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “How many countries have gone through a transition like that — peacefully, carefully? It’s theoretically possible, but we don’t have any examples.”
Now, however, is their time of trial. Judges have blocked some of the legislation, resulting in a pile of legal bills for the governments they helped, and on Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about the law in Arizona that has become the centerpiece achievement of the self-deportation movement.
Supporters say the idea would never have advanced this far without Kobach and Hethmon, who have been editors, advisers, ghostwriters and legal defenders for politicians nationwide.
“They’re the wizards behind the curtain,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Randy Terrill (R), whose bill they rewrote. “They were the face and the muscle behind the effort that really synthesized it into a movement. Do I think it would have happened without them? Most certainly it would not have.”
Their role behind the curtain began in 2006, with a phone call from Hazleton, Pa.
That old coal town had swelled with thousands of Latino immigrants. Then-Mayor Lou Barletta blamed illegal residents for a surge in crime, saying he was paying for the failures of the federal immigration system. That year, the United States had an estimated 11.6 million “unauthorized immigrants.” The federal system deported about 272,000 people.