As Supreme Court Takes Up Arizona Law, Romney Struggles to Distance Himself From Anti-Illegal Immigrant Activists

When Kris Kobach headed to the Supreme Court today to attend the arguments over Arizona's controversial immigration law that he helped draft, Mitt Romney may have started reaching for an Etch-a-Sketch to erase Kobach from the heated debate.

Romney, the expected Republican nominee for president, has come under stinging criticism from Latinos and Democrats for his ties to Kobach, arguably the most influential anti-immigration GOP voice. In early January, as the fight for the Republican presidential nomination kicked into high gear ahead of the looming South Carolina primary, Romney touted the endorsement of Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and co-author of the Arizona law.

"I'm so proud to earn Kris's support," Romney said in a statement Jan. 11. "Kris has been a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country. We need more conservative leaders like Kris willing to stand up for the rule of law. With Kris on the team, I look forward to working with him to take forceful steps to curtail illegal immigration and to support states like South Carolina and Arizona that are stepping forward to address this problem."

Arizona's law, known as SB 1070, ordered immigrants to carry their registration documents at all times and mandated that police question them if there was reason to suspect that they were in the country illegally. No sooner had Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, launched efforts to enact the law than Latinos cried foul over it. The Obama administration soon challenged the law and notched a win in the lower courts to prevent four of the more controversial parts from taking effect. The Supreme Court will has take up the case, with Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, on the behalf of the administration, arguing that "Arizona is pursuing its own policy" of immigration control when "the Constitution vests exclusive authority over immigration matters with the national government."

At a debate in Arizona in February, Romney appeared to praise the Arizona law as "a model" for the nation, although his campaign later said he was only referring to the state's mandatory E-Verify system that makes employers check a job applicant's legal status using an electronic government database.

"I think you see a model in Arizona. They passed a law here that says that people who come here and try and find work, that the employer is required to look them up on E-Verify," Romney said. "This E-Verify system allows employers in Arizona to know who's here legally and who's not here legally. And as a result of E-Verify being put in place, the number of people in Arizona that are here illegally has dropped by some 14 percent, where the national average has only gone down 7 percent."

In addition, Romney outlined an immigration policy based on the notion of "self-deportation," a view championed by Kobach and a central part of the Arizona law.

"The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here," Romney said at a January debate in Tampa.

Kobach has long backed the strategy, as he explained in an interview with Univision last month.

"The concept of self-deportation in immigration is that if people are breaking the law, we as a nation or an individual state should take steps to ratchet up the level of law enforcement incrementally so that people start thinking, 'Well, you know what? Maybe I should follow the law. It's harder to get the job illegally. It's harder to continue breaking the law, maybe using a false name or a false Social Security number, and I will therefore try to comply with the law in the future.' It's really that simple," Kobach said.

The success or failure of the "self-deportation" policy, he noted, "depends on how seriously people think the threat of law enforcement is."

By tying himself to Kobach in the primary, Romney may have impressed the anti-immigration hard-liners in his party, but he undoubtedly caused some damage among Latinos, damage that could come back to haunt him because Latinos are the nation's fastest growing voting bloc and sided with President Obama four years ago by more than a two-to-one margin. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush even warned Romney that he needs to "change the tone" with Latinos. Recent polls indicate Obama still enjoys around 67 percent support among Latinos - and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa predicted that Obama will only increase his advantage this time around.

No wonder then that, with the GOP nomination all but secured, Romney's campaign has tried to soften the rhetoric towards Latinos - and distance the ties to Kobach. Earlier this month a Romney spokesperson told Politico that Kobach was nothing more than "a supporter," a claim that called into question Kobach's standing with the campaign - and Romney's support for his policies. The campaign later clarified that Kobach is an "informal adviser."

"My relationship has always been that I've been providing advice to either Romney or to his senior campaign officials," Kobach said. "They can do with it what they wish. I have no formal role, just a person providing advice since the new year. I don't talk with Romney often. I email with his campaign quite frequently."

Some Latino Republicans such as GOP strategist Ana Navarro clearly believe the more distance between Romney and Kobach, the better the party's chances of winning the White House in November.

"Don't know if Kris Kobach is Romney 'supporter' or 'adviser,'" Navarro tweeted recently. "I do know if he doesn't want to help Obama, he better roll over [and] play dead."

"Kris Kobach should read his own playbook," she said. "It's time Kobach 'self-deports' from [the] Romney campaign."

Unfortunately for Romney, Kobach is not the only prominent anti-immigration figure that the former Massachusetts governor will have to address with Latinos. Former Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican who helped Kobach draft Arizona's law, said Tuesday that despite the Romney campaign's claims that the GOP candidate did not endorse the law as "a model" for the nation, that was exactly what Romney did.

When reporters in Washington asked Pearce if Romney endorsed it as "a model," Pearce replied, "Absolutely."

"I'm not going to get into specifics because I can tell you the folks [who are] his advisers on this, I've worked with for years. I have great confidence and trust in them," he said. "I know Romney is a compassionate guy. Most of us, I'd like to think, are. But I also think he understands the crisis and the damage to this republic and the need to enforce our laws and secure our borders - and I admire that."

If that wasn't enough, Pearce told the Washington Post, "His immigration policy is identical to mine: attrition by enforcement."

It all adds up to an uncomfortable stretch for Romney as the Supreme Court takes up the Arizona case and Kobach and Pearce make the rounds in the nation's capital. At a time when he is trying to improve his standing among Latinos, the last thing Romney needs are any reminders of his ties to some of the most controversial and polarizing anti-immigrant hard-liners in the country. As the saying goes, with friends like these …  

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.

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