For the past week, Kris Kobach has dominated headlines and drawn scorching criticism for his role helping lead President Donald Trump’s voting commission. Opponents of Kobach, who is currently Kansas’ secretary of state, say he has way too much power and will use it to make it harder for Americans to vote.
But for his backers, Kobach’s moment in the spotlight brings wistfulness for what could have been.
In the early days of the Trump administration, the Kansan was widely viewed as a top contender for a senior role in the Department of Homeland Security. Kobach has long been a favorite of immigration hawks, and Public Enemy Number One for those who want less immigration enforcement. He met with Trump just two weeks after the presidential election at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, fueling speculation that he could be in the running for any number of high-level administration positions.
Some in the White House wanted him to be deputy secretary of homeland security, as The Wall Street Journal noted in January, but Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly himself shot down the idea. Sources tell The Daily Beast Kobach’s name was also batted around as a potential director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency in DHS responsible for enforcing immigration laws.
Immigration hawks told The Daily Beast they would have loved to see Kobach get that job.
“Kobach obviously knows more about immigration than most people, and so having him in an enforcement role would have been a good move, obviously,” said Mark Krikorian, who heads the Center for Immigration Studies, adding Kobach could have had trouble getting through the Senate.
“If I were Schumer and his crowd, I’d be tempted to wage thermonuclear war to stop Kobach,” he said. “They’ve already turned him into a kind of hate figure, and I think they would go to any lengths to keep him from being confirmed.”
Dan Stein, who heads the Federation for American Immigration Reform—a powerful advocacy group that played an outsize role in keeping comprehensive immigration reform from passing in 2013—said he had hoped Kobach would formally take power in the administration.
“Kobach was an obvious candidate for running DHS, or somewhere else in the administration,” Stein said.
“We were disappointed,” he added. “We felt very strongly that the president needed Kobach in the administration for one very simple reason: Between the DOJ and DHS, you have to have a small group of people, along with White House staff, who are responsible for both regulatory changes and crafting the Trump legislative plan. And right now, there is not a Trump omnibus legislative plan.”
Kobach has drawn condemnation from civil rights advocates for pushing for voter ID laws around the country, as well as for Arizona’s “show your papers” legislation that made police officers ask for documentation from people they thought could be undocumented. The courts put the law largely on ice, but not before it generated national uproar.
For a time, Kobach seemed on the cusp of entering the Trump administration. He worked on immigration issues with the transition team, and told a Wichita TV station there was “no question the wall is going to get built.”
“The only question is how quickly will it get done and who pays for it?” added Kobach, who didn’t return a request for comment for this story.
Nearly six months into the Trump administration, the wall has yet to be paid for and Kobach is still a Washington outsider. He announced last month he is running for governor of Kansas, likely foreclosing any opportunity to take a Senate-confirmed administration position.
DHS officials point to Kelly’s lobbying as the reason Kobach doesn’t have a spot in the administration.
“Kelly has fought very hard to put people with actual experience in leadership positions in his department,” said a DHS official, adding that though the Kelly is loath to publicly question Trump, he’s used his political capital behind the scenes to try to keep far-right politicians out of the department.
Officials told The Daily Beast there was widespread speculation at ICE headquarters in southwest Washington, D.C., that Kobach could have been their new boss—and some relief when he didn’t get it.
“At the end of the day, law enforcement officers want someone who’s deeply involved in law enforcement,” an official said.
For the time being, the acting director of ICE is Tom Homan, a former Border Patrol agent who also formerly headed the component of ICE responsible for arrests, detentions, and deportations.
Homan’s time as acting ICE director came as a huge surprise, both to him and to ICE officials. In fact, according to a former senior ICE official, he was set to retire from the agency at the beginning of the Trump administration and take a gig at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the major multinational consulting firm. On Friday, Jan. 27, according to an attendee, his colleagues held a goodbye party for him at ICE headquarters that went on for more three hours.
But something happened over the weekend, and Homan reported to ICE on Monday, Jan. 30 to take over as acting director of the agency tasked with enforcing Trump’s immigration enforcement agenda.
In the time since then, Homan hasn’t been immune to controversy. Breitbart ran a story on July 1 headlined “Official who released criminal aliens into U.S. for Obama now directing ICE.” The story quoted Chris Crane—who heads the ICE officers’ union, which endorsed Trump—saying Homan “blindly followed Obama’s orders even though he knew it posed dangers to Americans.”
“It is a disgrace that the man who oversaw Obama’s effort to release criminal illegal aliens into our country is now the acting director of ICE,” Crane told the site. “Someone under Trump has been allowed too much authority in choosing the worst possible Obama-holdover to lead the vital effort of enforcing our nation’s immigration laws.”
Officials at the White House and DHS defended Homan on background.
“The ICE workforce, which Chris Crane claims to support, would be far better served if he focused his efforts on supporting ICE’s expanded enforcement priorities, instead of undermining them with false personal attacks,” said a DHS official. “Mr. Crane’s comments are strikingly out of touch with the impressive gains made in the enforcement of immigration law under the Trump administration.”
In response, Crane told The Daily Beast he thought the anonymous criticism was “unfortunate” and noted Obama gave Homan an award for his work at ICE.
“One would hope that someone lobbing such personal attacks would have the courage to put their name on their words, but cowardice is what ICE officers have come to expect from the bureaucrats in DC,” he said. “They did not attack my arguments, but rather engaged in ad hominem to smear me. Too bad Obama-holdover Homan and his circle did not have the courage to even offer anonymous criticisms during Obama’s presidency when they helped him release tens of thousands of criminal aliens into U.S. communities.”
A White House official told The Daily Beast that Homan has “tremendous respect from top immigration hawks in the administration” and only hadn’t been officially nominated because a recent Supreme Court ruling on administrative law would prevent it.
And the same hawks who love Kobach also said they’re pleased with Homan.
“There’s always tension between management and unions,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, downplaying Crane’s criticism. “Now the tension is not about policy but people and personalities.”
She added that she isn’t bothered by the delay in naming a permanent ICE director.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly urgent choice to make because Tom Homan is doing a great job,” she said.
Krikorian shared that view.
“I’m not sure who would be a better ICE director,” he said.