Topeka, Kansas – The hints that U.S. Supreme Court justices seemed to drop last week indicating support for at least some parts of Arizona's immigration enforcement law give hope to the measure's architect, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
But Kobach, who has also been a force behind the immigration enforcement laws passed by several other states, acknowledges that passing a similar law in his own state is an uphill battle.
He and his legislative allies who want laws that will crack down on undocumented immigrants must overcome opposition from influential business groups and a rift among Republicans.
The GOP's split over immigration has prevented legislation from passing -- proposals favored by Kobach and a plan from a business coalition that includes the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce to create a state program to place some undocumented immigrants in hard-to-fill jobs. Kobach and legislators don't expect the stalemate to be broken before lawmakers adjourn.
Kobach, a Republican and a former law professor known nationally for advising officials in other states on immigration, believes the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold much or all of the Arizona law and spur a wave of legislation next year. But it is this year's legislative elections that will determine whether Kansas joins the trend, he said.
"One thing we know, and that is that lots of legislators will walk their districts again," Kobach told The Associated Press during an interview. "I am absolutely 100 percent certain that immigration will be one of the top two or three things."
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week on a legal challenge to the Arizona law from President Barack Obama's administration. The 2010 law requires police officers to check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally.
When Obama's solicitor general argued that Arizona improperly infringed upon the federal government's authority to set immigration policy, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor were skeptical.
Roberts said the state simply wanted to notify federal authorities of possible undocumented immigrants, and Sotomayor commented, "You can see it's not selling very well."
A proposal for a similar law in Kansas is stuck in a House committee, along with two other measures. One would make it a crime to knowingly harbor an undocumented immigrant, and the other would require state and local government contractors to use the federal E-Verify database to check whether new employees are in the U.S. legally.
A narrower E-Verify bill cleared a committee in the House, but Speaker Mike O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican, refused to schedule a debate. He didn't think he could prevent a debate on tougher measures -- or the business coalition's proposal -- and told fellow Republicans he wanted to avoid a "bloody" dispute that would split his party's huge majority.
"If there is going to be something, I want something that gets broad support," O'Neal said last week. "There's much more to this issue than, `What part of illegal don't you understand?' "
O'Neal and Kobach said legislators will want to examine the high court's decision on the Arizona law instead of relying on justices' public comments. The Legislature expects to adjourn by mid-May, weeks before the court is expected to rule.
Rep. Anthony Brown, a Eudora Republican, said legislators should concentrate on an E-Verify bill.
"Some of the other stuff, I don't think, is going to get through the system anyway, in the current makeup of the Legislature," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, said lawmakers simply don't have enough time left in a session that's crowded with other issues, such as cutting taxes, approving a budget and redrawing political boundaries.
The Senate's GOP leaders have been cool to immigration proposals favored by Kobach, but their hold on the chamber will be tested by primary challenges. All 40 Senate seats and 125 House seats are on the ballot this year, but Kobach said immigration legislation is "entirely dependent" on what happens in the Senate races.
"Fighting pitched battles in the House is futile when everybody knows that the Senate is going to kill it anyway," Kobach said.
Kobach, who traveled to Washington to observe the arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, was confident the court will uphold most, if not all, of the Arizona law. Emler, however, believes Kobach's prediction is "pure conjecture."
Eric Stafford, a state chamber lobbyist, acknowledged that even if the court rules as Kobach expects, the secretary of state and his allies will still face concerns that their proposals will harm the economy by leaving some industries, including agriculture, with worker shortages.
"Regardless of the outcome, we need to encourage the federal government to do something," Stafford said. "Comprehensive immigration reform isn't just enforcement."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.