Businesses speaking out, observers say
In the heated days that followed the enactment of Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070 last year, illegal-immigration foes predicted that other Republican-led legislatures around the country would quickly follow suit and pass their own versions.
The GOP, after all, had made significant “tea party”-fueled gains in the 2010 elections, seizing control of 26 state legislatures, in many cases on anti-immigration platforms.
Twenty-eight states have introduced 45 immigration bills this year, according to the latest tally by the National Council of State Legislatures.
But so far, the predictions of a tidal wave of state immigration-enforcement laws haven’t panned out.
Some immigration bills are continuing to move around the country and may yet pass, particularly in Southern states such as Georgia and South Carolina, opponents of the measures said. But in Arizona and elsewhere, illegal-immigration foes in state legislatures have run into unexpectedly stiff resistance from business interests, particularly the hospitality and agricultural industries, and other political realities such as budget crises.
After Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 in April, Arizona became the target of boycotts and the state’s reputation took a beating around the nation and the world. Executives in other states, particularly those struggling to emerge from the U.S. economy’s lingering downturn, have taken notice of the ramifications.
“Finally, business has started talking,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer who monitors state and local immigration laws for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “The economic impact of this punitive legislation is beginning to weigh heavily on influential businesspeople in these states. And they are basically saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ “
Utah, the state that has produced the most significant legislative results on the issue this year, passed a modified, Arizona-style immigration-enforcement bill. But it was only in conjunction with other more-moderate reform measures, including a state guest-worker program for immigrants.
A high-profile push in several states to force a reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment’s birthright-citizenship clause – announced with great fanfare Jan. 5 at the National Press Club in Washington – likewise has yet to gain much traction.
The goal is to trigger a lawsuit that would determine whether the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants are automatic citizens. Lawmakers from at least nine states have introduced bills, and the effort already appears dead in Arizona, Mississippi and South Dakota, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is keeping tabs on the issue.
Nowhere have the failures been as stunning as in Arizona, widely viewed nationally as the petri dish of hard-line enforcement measures. The GOP-run Arizona Senate on March 17 soundly rejected five major immigration bills, including two related to birthright citizenship, in defiance of state Senate President Russell Pearce, the Mesa Republican and chief sponsor of SB 1070.
Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy group, said states, many of which are struggling with budget problems, are coming to realize that the negative economic consequences of immigration crackdowns outweigh any short-term political gains.
“We have already seen sort of a turning of the tide in Arizona, but we’ve also seen copycat proposals fail in Colorado, in Iowa, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Wyoming, Kentucky,” Johnson said last week during a telephone conference call with reporters.
A report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, says Arizona’s economy would take a $49 billion hit if all undocumented workers left the state as a result of SB 1070′s attrition-through- enforcement policy or deportation. State revenue would shrink by 10.1 percent and 581,000 jobs held by both immigrants and U.S.-born workers would disappear, the report said.
Arizona business executives say their companies already have been hurt by the economic backlash from SB 1070.
The controversial law would have made it a state crime to be in the country illegally. President Barack Obama’s administration sued, and a federal judge last year blocked key parts of it from going into effect.
“Nearly one year after Arizona has passed SB 1070, we see that Arizona has lost population, businesses and business investment,” said Nan Stockholm Walden, vice president and general counsel for Farmers Investment Co. and the Green Valley Pecan Co. in southern Arizona. “What we’ve gained, if you can call it that, are residential and commercial vacancy rates, increased social and political divisions and, really, a destabilized state government and business climate that is not healthy for attracting new businesses. That is not the Arizona that we know and love.”
Arizona’s five immigration-related bills were voted down in the state Senate after 60 top Arizona business leaders made the case in a joint letter to Pearce that “unintended consequences inevitably occur” when Arizona goes it alone on immigration.
The failed bills sought to ban illegal immigrants from attending state universities or driving vehicles and to force hospitals and school districts to check the legal status of patients and students.
“It is an undeniable fact that each of our companies and our employees were impacted by the boycotts and the coincident negative image,” the 60 business leaders wrote.
Signatories included John Zidich, The Arizona Republic‘s CEO and publisher.
The engagement by the Arizona business leaders was crucial to stopping Pearce’s push because it gave wavering Senate Republicans a way to justify voting against the bills, said state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix.
“I don’t think that letter changed anyone’s mind. What that letter did was provide cover,” she said. “That’s really important. Last year, the business community didn’t do anything.”
State Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, who voted for SB 1070, said she supported the sentiment behind the latest bills “100 percent” but voted against them because she didn’t think the measures would be effective.
Reagan said she doubts that the immigration issue has lost momentum in Arizona or anywhere else, but she agreed that “concern about the economy and people having jobs has gained steam.”
Had this year’s crop of Arizona immigration proposals become law, “life as we know it, unfortunately, wouldn’t change regarding the illegal population and the problems that we have,” Reagan said. “So what’s the downside? A mass hysteria around the country and the loss of business when we are just starting to pick up.”
Supporters of immigration crackdowns said it is premature to write off the nationwide efforts, noting that there is still opportunity for some states such as Florida and Indiana to act. Other states may be waiting to see how SB 1070 plays out in the courts.
“It probably was an over-expectation that all of a sudden everybody was going to be passing SB 1070 laws all over the country,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for stricter immigration enforcement. “The legislative process is slow and deliberative for a reason. So if it doesn’t happen this year, we’ll probably be looking at it next year or the year after.”
Reagan suggested Arizona would welcome a breather from constantly being at the forefront of the state immigration-enforcement movement.
“It would be nice if there were other states that were also passing this legislation so that it could be a group effort, or a national effort, instead of just Arizona going it alone and taking all the flak,” she said.