by Sarah J.F. Braley | May 01, 2011

It's spreading like a virus. More than 20 states now are considering immigration laws, some either mirroring or borrowing from Arizona's controversial SB 1070, which requires state and local police to determine the status of people if there is "reasonable suspicion" that they are illegal immigrants, and to arrest people who are unable to provide documentation proving they are in the country legally.

Yet, a year after the passage of the Arizona law, the Grand Canyon State's politicians in April backed away from encoding even stricter laws, influenced by direct pressure from the business community. And many in the hospitality community are sending the message that the federal government needs to take up the cause and settle the immigration question on a nationwide basis once and for all.

Here's what's happening along this controversial front.

The latest from Arizona SB 1070 still is working its way through the courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last month rejected an appeal of a lower court's finding that most elements of the law are unconstitutional. Observers now expect the state will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, "Last May, some of us quietly began to work to change the conversation to jobs and recovery vs. an immigration agenda," says Steve Moore, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau. He notes that the state hospitality industry took a neutral stance at first but has become more forceful after suffering image and business losses. (Exact amounts are hard to quantify, but some sources conservatively cite at least $10 million in lost meetings and tourism revenue since the bill's passage. Moore reports figures were up significantly in the first quarter of this year, however.)

This past March, as politicians weighed additional measures targeting, for example, educational opportunities for children of illegal immigrants, representatives of 60 organizations signed a letter urging the Legislature to take a step back. "On the day those bills were voted down, we were extremely elated to get a substantial vote to change the dialogue," says Moore.

Firmly in Moore's corner is Brian Johnson, managing director of the Loews Ventana Canyon in Tucson and chairman of the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, who has heard from unhappy business executives who have pulled their meetings from the state after being inundated with complaints from employees, many of them belonging to ethnic minorities. But in talking with state politicians in an effort to help ease the conflict, he was shocked to be told on numerous occasions that "the business community doesn't have much clout."

Both Moore and Johnson have the same advice for their hospitality colleagues facing similar challenges: Be proactive. Take a stance right away and remind politicians how important the hospitality industry is to their state's bottom line.

Utah throws down the gauntletOn March 15, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed four immigration reform bills that he called "the Utah solution." During a public ceremony, Herbert said, "Today I challenge our federal delegation and those who work alongside them in Washington, D.C.: It is time to get off the sidelines and have a meaningful dialogue about immigration in this country."

While the bills cover many of the same issues as Arizona's SB 1070, the Utah solution grants quiet harbor for illegal immigrants who are working hard and have no criminal record. This guest-worker program cannot go into effect, however, without federal waiver and approval. That's where the challenge to Congress comes in. A Utah delegation is working on getting that federal approval, possibly to be a pilot program for other states to follow. Because the final versions of the Utah bills included the guest-worker program, there has been no outcry like there was in Arizona.

Helping to drive the passage of the four bills was something called the Utah Compact, an online document that has been signed by Utah citizens from all walks of life, including leaders in the hospitality industry and the Mormon Church. Called "the declaration of five principles to guide Utah's immigration discussion," the simple document addresses federal solutions, law enforcement, families, the economy and a free society (read it here:

Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, was asked to testify numerous times as the immigration bills were put through their paces. "Instead of going and opposing legislation directly," says Beck, "we went in and supported the compact, noting how it did not follow the legislation, and there was a change in the discussion. The compact took out the screaming and yelling and finger-pointing that can become part of passionate debate."