Reconsidering the Grand Canyon State

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Learning that the National League of Cities will hold the fall “Congress of Cities” meeting later this week in Phoenix (meeting sites are selected four years in advance) has prompted me to think about what I’ve learned in the almost year and a half since I pushed forward a resolution calling for the City of Seattle to boycott travel to Arizona and purchasing from Arizona-based companies. This was after Arizona state lawmakers passed SB1070, effectively making immigration enforcement a local law enforcement function and instilling fear into documented and paper-less immigrants alike.

I had hoped the leadership of Seattle and dozens of other cities would prompt the federal government to recognize that state-by-state immigration policies are tearing apart families, communities and economies. Local authorities running immigration control puts whole communities at risk as families become afraid to call for police and fire when they need help and less likely to visit a clinic or hospital when they are sick, all for fear of being arrested rather than assisted.  While some pieces of SB1070 were blocked by the courts and some were reworked, other states, like Alabama, have pressed forward with even more strict and destructive laws — and on into the court system.

In September the National Council of La Raza called for an end to the Arizona boycott. The NCLR, the nation’s largest civil rights advocacy group for Hispanic people, said the boycott had fulfilled its purpose – other anti-immigrant proposals in Arizona were turned back and registration of Latino voters has surged. NCLR noted, also, that the boycott caused hardship for low-wage workers (many of whom are Latinos) in the hospitality industry due to the state’s lost convention and tourism business, with losses estimated by the Center for American Progress to be around $140 million over three years. Rational reform of immigration policies is still needed, but Arizona is no longer the single focus of debate and, arguably, no longer merits the focus of a boycott. The debate field has widened, though not improved.

So, what have I learned?

1.     Immigration law in the United States is still a patch-work mess. While Alabama, Utah, North Carolina and other states take matters into their own hands – and into expensive, protracted legal battles – we could instead have a national policy that builds a rational path to citizenship, a path that supports families and our workforce realities. We need Congress to step up.

2.     Starting a boycott is relatively easier than ending one when you don’t have an obvious victory. The NLC meeting this week has put a lot of city leaders on the spot. Looking at the NLC program, it’s a great chance to hear speakers, attend workshops on supporting struggling families in urban areas, and support progressive policy positions, including resolutions relating to immigration. While city councilmembers from Seattle and Tacoma will attend (my resolution had a clause stating that its implementation would be “to the extent practicable”), city councilmembers from Los Angeles are sticking by their boycott despite the NCLR action to drop the boycott.

3.     Boycotts are, frankly, difficult to maintain. Even though Los Angeles councilmembers will skip the NLC Congress of Cities in Phoenix, Los Angeles still purchases millions of dollars worth of goods and services from vendors in Arizona because they are the best vendor with the best deal. Seattle has faced the same challenges, although on a much smaller dollar scale. If you need to buy red light cameras and the leading vendor makes its headquarters in Arizona, do you buy the cameras or wait for a non-Arizona-based competitor to pop onto the scene? (If you hate red light cameras, I imagine the answer is “wait.”)

In this economy and political climate, cities have far more in common than in difference. All cities are struggling with the effects of unemployment, diminished dollars from the federal government, more “devolution” of responsibilities from other levels of government. We’re all looking for creative class jobs, money for infrastructure, and ways to grow the tax base in order to fund parks, libraries, police officers and fire fighters. Even when people aren’t struggling, boycotting another city or state is a big step. In this case, if I had the decision to make again I’d still side with the boycott (though, I’d give a heads-up to the Convention and Visitors Bureau – sorry about that). With NCLR calling off the boycott and the National League of Cities choosing Phoenix, it seems the boycott is over. Unfortunately our immigration problems are not.