Immigration Law Update

A status report on controversial measures in states across the country

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."

Georgia weighs in At the 11th hour in its session, the Georgia Legislature approved a bill similar to Arizona's SB 1070. Gov. Nathan Deal, who said during his campaign he supported passage of such laws, has 45 days from April 14 to sign or veto the bill; he is expected to sign it.
With the new law looming, William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, is ready to talk with his customers. About 60 to 70 percent of the bill, he says, deals with business issues affecting the employment of immigrants, in particular the use of the federal E-Verify system to check potential employees' eligibility to work in the United States. "Atlanta's hospitality industry already uses E-Verify," he adds. "Relative to our visitors, this bill will have very little impact."

Around the country Elsewhere, legislatures are voting yay and nay on immigration-related topics. Among recent examples:

• In March, the New Mexico Senate rejected a proposal to stop issuing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants.

• In the Kansas State House an immigration bill failed to clear its committee.

• In Oklahoma, a bill patterned on that in Arizona has been approved by a Senate committee.
• The Indiana State Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bill similar to Arizona's; the full body has yet to vote on the measure.

• A measure that was approved by the Mississippi Senate in January died quietly in March; the bill never made it out of committee in the Democrat-controlled House.

Many in the hospitality industry feel the glut of new legislation takes the heat off individual destinations, and they hope the countrywide brouhaha will goad Congress into action. "Clearly it's a national phenomenon," says Pate of the Atlanta CVB.