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Illegal Immigration: Crackdown mustn’t cost us our visitors  | ajc.com.

Opinion 6:02 p.m. Friday, May 6, 2011

Illegal Immigration: Crackdown mustn’t cost us our visitors

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board’s Opinion: Lawmakers should set up a working group to ensure metro hospitality and tourism industries don’t incur collateral damage from immigration control.

It’s said that Georgia’s new immigration bill is focused on the state’s bottom line. In our view, protecting the top line — money coming into the state — is at least as important.

That can’t happen if the immigration law has the potential to harm the important hospitality and tourism sector. Metro Atlanta and the state have spent too many years polishing our “y’all come” brand to let any harmful tarnish set in now.

Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign into law as soon as this week House Bill 87, a measure intended to curtail what state officials say are the burdensome costs to government of serving those who are in Georgia illegally.

Given that timetable, Georgia must fast-track ways to successfully guard against the risk of inadvertent economic harm that would hinder Georgia’s already-slow journey away from recession. We can’t afford setbacks — not when state and local governments are still scrambling to pay for even basic services.

Taxpayers need conventions large and small to fill the Atlanta region’s hotels, meeting halls and eateries. We need families to continue vacationing in Georgia.

We also don’t want to lose any of Atlanta’s cachet as a low-cost international business capital.

Again, it’s all about our brand. Having the world’s-busiest airport won’t help us as much if the rest of the nation and world come to view us in an unflattering light. That’s what happened in Arizona after it made the history books by passing a tough immigration law. That drew a mix of criticism, boycotts, court challenges and, yes, even support. What it didn’t draw was more visitors.

We really don’t want to go there. Not when tourism is the No. 2 industry in Georgia, ginning up $6.3 billion in wages and $1.6 billion in tax revenue, according to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. The numbers are equally significant in Atlanta. This region saw more than 34 million visitors in 2009, according to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. Our guests made use of 94,000 metro hotel rooms and supported about 223,000 jobs.

That’s not business we want to risk losing — not with unemployment rates still near record highs. Even relatively low hospitality industry wages beat the unemployment line.

Supporters of HB 87 contend the legislation seeks only to control illegal immigration and doesn’t come anywhere near slapping up “Go Away” signs at our borders. And, in some respects, this law isn’t as stringent as Arizona’s. That’s good.

Perception can trump reality, however. Once Deal signs the bill, it’s unrealistic to expect that we won’t draw much criticism. And being enmeshed in a ruckus is one thing that convention planners and ordinary vacationers alike don’t want to deal with.

Georgia doesn’t need to learn this costly lesson the hard way. Arizona’s already done that for us.

An analysis published last week in The Arizona Daily Star concluded that the state and its cities continue to suffer a year after the passage of its immigration law. The newspaper found that, “The state’s resorts and hotels are still having trouble landing lucrative meetings of national associations, which often avoid controversy to ensure maximum attendance from their diverse memberships.” The University of Arizona’s had difficulty recruiting some top professors and graduate students who cite the law as a good reason to say away from the state. Business recruitment has been harmed.

Richard Vaughan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “There’s no doubt that there’s a lingering effect. Anything that detracts from visitors having a positive image of our state hurts the brand.”

Forcing businesses to practice saying “we’re not Arizona” is not where we want to be. Averting this potential economic detriment may require remedial action by the General Assembly. Gov. Deal should add that to the agenda for this summer’s legislative special session.

HB 87 already directs the state Department of Agriculture to examine how immigration problems affect this large industry in Georgia and recommend solutions.

With the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Atlanta City Council having both warned of possible harm from the law, at minimum, lawmakers should set up a working group to similarly assess this issue. It should focus on safeguards or changes needed to ensure hospitality and tourism don’t incur collateral damage from immigration control efforts.

We can’t let the world’s visitors begin to view Georgia and its many attractions as flyover country.

Andre Jackson, 
for the Editorial Board

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