Kris Kobach and Michael Hethmon have become the most successful propagators of a powerful idea: State and local governments can make life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they would choose to deport themselves.

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WASHINGTON — They were a mismatched pair who have rearranged the national immigration debate and the half-shadow world where illegal immigrants live and work in America.

One, Kris Kobach, was a law professor who was worried about foreign terrorists. The other, Michael Hethmon, was a bookish lawyer afraid that immigrants would overburden the environment.

The two men have become the most successful propagators of a powerful idea: State and local governments can make life so miserable for illegal immigrants that those people would choose to deport themselves.

The self-deportation idea took on a new legitimacy during the GOP presidential primary. Mitt Romney, the presumed nominee, praised the idea and has pledged that — as president — he would drop the Obama administration’s challenges to state-level laws in places such as Arizona and Alabama.

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Kobach and Hethmon have helped six states and at least seven cities and counties write tough laws that allow local police or bureaucrats to crack down on illegal immigrants. That’s usually a function reserved for the federal government, but these two 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 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 changes if that doesn’t happen.

Immigration is “on track to change the demographic makeup of the entire country. You know, what they call ‘minority-majority,’ ” he said. “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 their laws, resulting in a pile of legal bills for the governments they helped, and the Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments about the Arizona law, which has become the centerpiece achievement of the self-deportation movement.

Supporters say the idea never would have gone this far without Kobach and Hethmon, who have been editors, advisers, ghostwriters and legal defenders for politicians across the United States.

“They’re the wizards behind the curtain,” said Randy Terrill, an Oklahoma Republican state legislator whose bill they rewrote.

Their role behind that curtain began in earnest in 2006, with a phone call from Hazleton, Pa.

The old coal town had swelled with thousands of Latino immigrants. 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, there were an estimated 11.6 million “unauthorized immigrants” in the United States. The federal system deported about 272,000 people.

Barletta wrote an ordinance, punishing people who hired illegal immigrants or rented them apartments. In the furor that followed, he noticed a supportive quote in the newspaper from a law professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

His secretary placed the call. Kobach picked up: “What took you so long?”

Kobach, now 46, says his focus on immigration came from working in the Justice Department on Sept. 11, 2001. He fixated on the fact that some hijackers had been living in the United States illegally.

While in the job, he had connected with Hethmon — a very different man with the same goals. Hethmon, 58, is a former hippie who left the United States during the Vietnam War. He now works for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a group that opposes large-scale immigration: It believes that, given how much food, fuel and space the average American consumes, the environment can’t take many more Americans.

The two complemented each other. Kobach was astounded at Hethmon’s intricate knowledge of law and precedent. Hethmon, whose group had been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was delighted to have an influential ally.

Barletta had called the right people, but he had the wrong law.

“We can definitely win in court,” Kobach told him. “But the ordinance is going to need to be redrafted.”

It needed the magic words. Illegal immigration generally is a federal matter, so the mayor didn’t have power to go hunting for people without papers. But there was a loophole: The law allows towns to control “licensing” matters.

So Hazleton decreed everybody in town needed a license to rent an apartment. Using these licenses, the city could find illegal immigrants — and order landlords to evict them.

The lesson: It wasn’t necessary to catch illegal immigrants, just make them uncomfortable.

The movement grew from there. Hethmon helped write an ordinance that passed in Prince William County, Va., in 2007. The two helped write laws that made it harder to hire illegal immigrants: Alabama said businesses could lose their licenses.

And they helped with laws on police powers, such as the one that required Arizona officers to check immigration status during a “lawful stop.”

The laws created avoided zones. More than 2,000 illegal immigrants left Prince William County, the University of Virginia found. In Georgia, which passed a tough law last May, there was a 30 to 40 percent drop in migrant farm labor. An estimated $140 million was lost as fruit rotted in the fields.

The Pew Hispanic Center on Monday reported that the number of illegal immigrants of Mexican descent living in the United States declined from nearly 6 million in 2007 to 5.1 million in 2011.

Immigrant groups say the laws created dangers of police misconduct and racial profiling. In many places, however, politicians have seen the results they wanted. Barletta became a congressman. Kobach, a Republican, was elected to be Kansas’ secretary of state.

“People’s neighborhoods have gotten better, and the improvement in the neighborhoods has been most dramatic in the parts of the county that have heavier concentrations of minorities,” said Republican Corey Stewart, a champion of the Prince William law, who now chairs the board of supervisors and wants to be lieutenant governor.

Still, in court, the duo’s magic words sometimes began to fail them.

“We conclude that the ordinance’s sole purpose is not to regulate housing but to exclude undocumented aliens,” wrote Thomas Reavley, a federal appellate judge, in blocking a 2008 license-to-rent law in Farmers Branch, Texas. “It is an impermissible regulation of regulation.”

The duo has won some legal victories: The Supreme Court last year upheld an Arizona law limiting employment of illegal immigrants. But judges have blocked all or parts of immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, as well as several cities.

Now, it all hangs on the Supreme Court. After Wednesday’s oral arguments, it could take weeks to decide whether Arizona’s broader immigration law is an unlawful overstep onto federal turf.

If they win, “copycat legislation will explode,” Hethmon said. “This is the classic environment for sort of, if you will, nativist-type sentiment. … It should explode in the states or — even better — (Congress) will be provoked to take action.”

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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