Kris Kobach describes Kansas as a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, encourages police to detain aliens from high-risk areas and promises to make the state less inviting if elected governor.
Other candidates in a crowded field see higher priorities than immigration and complain about his divisive rhetoric.
Kobach's recent remarks, which include references to protecting American families and respecting the rule of law, follow the secretary of state's years of defending controversial laws he says are needed to prevent illegal immigrants from voting. Last month, he struggled in federal court to prove claims of widespread voter fraud and angered a judge who lashed out over his resistance to comply with her orders.
A day after conclusion of the trial and a contempt hearing, Kobach announced Wink Hartman would be his running mate as they seek the Republican nomination and launched a statewide tour that included several immigration-related talking points.
"This is a wonderful part of America," Kobach said, "and we have to act to preserve all that is good in Kansas."
Several Democratic candidates for governor condemned the use of immigration-themed hyperbole to win votes.
Jim Ward, the House Minority Leader, said one of Kobach's few talents is "polarizing, divisive rhetoric."
"If you had a really poor performance in court and were facing a citation for contempt, it might be a good way to turn the page when rolling out your lieutenant governor," Ward said, "but it’s not a way to find a solution to serious problems."
Josh Svaty, a Democrat and former agriculture secretary, said he would rather focus on creating "an open environment for anyone willing to work."
"Since before statehood, immigrants have been an important part of Kansas communities and the Kansas workforce," Svaty said. "Using charged political rhetoric, like the phrase 'sanctuary state,' dehumanizes the issue."
Kobach explained his sanctuary state narrative and outlined desired policy changes.
"Kansas is the only state in the five-state area that not only gives in-state tuition to illegal aliens but also provides public benefits to those here illegally," Kobach said. "All four states around us deny benefits to illegal aliens. Kansas does nothing to discourage illegal immigration."
One of Kobach's proposals involves enabling police to arrest illegal immigrants who might pose a threat. If authorities had access to software that identifies immigrants' place of origin, Kobach said, officers could prevent a terrorist strike by arresting those from high-risk areas.
"They’re all arrestable," Kobach said, "but you have to decide which of your law enforcement resources you’ll deploy against illegal aliens.”
The federal government determines high-risk areas, typically resulting from an active presence of terrorist groups, Kobach said.
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, a Democrat who is black, described the approach as racial profiling. Threats to immigrant communities, he said, can prompt workers to leave jobs where they are needed, like building roads and harvesting crops.
"Looking to seek out illegal immigrants leads to a serious problem in racial profiling, something I’ve not just seen but personally experienced," Brewer said. "Once you start enforcing and incarcerating people, you’ve created an additional financial burden on our community and taxpayers.
"Law enforcement and our courts are already stretched to the limit. If you arrest someone who has a job, the burden to care for their family could fall to the state and taxpayers of Kansas."
Greg Orman, an independent challenger, said immigration policy should be tough, practical and fair. The first step, he said, should be securing the border to reduce the flow of immigrants into the United States.
"Rounding up millions of people for deportation and tearing families apart would result in unprecedented costs in terms of dollars and the impact it would have on our communities," he said.
Instead, Orman said, those who pay taxes and obey laws should be allowed to stay and work.
Kara Fullmer, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer said he opposes sanctuary city policies and supports cooperation between local law enforcement and federal authorities. Colyer also believes the first step is securing the country's borders.
"Gov. Colyer looks forward to working with the federal delegation as they work to constructively solve this problem," Fullmer said.
Several other candidates stressed the issue is a federal problem.
Arden Andersen, a physician seeking the Democratic nomination, said Kansas isn't financially equipped to tackle immigration.
"As such," Andersen said, "it is not high on my list of priorities because we must address first education funding, health care, economic growth, public safety and prison reform, infrastructure, child protective services and balancing the state budget."
State Sen. Laura Kelly, another Democrat, said Congress should "do its job" and fix a broken system. She referenced Kobach's support for abolishing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Before President Donald Trump spiked the policy, DACA shielded immigrants who were brought to the United States as young children from being deported. In September, Kobach said his message to so-called "dreamers" would be to "go home and get in line."
"Most Kansans agree that we shouldn’t punish children who were brought to this country by their parents," Kelly said. "It’s disappointing that Kris Kobach is attacking vulnerable kids to advance his extreme political agenda."