Arizona's controversial immigration law was designed to keep people out—specifically, undocumented immigrants. But it may have done more than that by deterring tourism and discouraging business in the state. Now that the Supreme Court has made its ruling on the law known as SB 1070, some state business people are now hoping they can just move on.
The strict new immigration policy, signed in 2010, put Arizona front-and-center in the national news. Among other things, the law required immigrants to carry registration papers, made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to seek work, and required police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. Some thought the law trampled on civil rights, and the controversy may have driven hundreds of millions of dollars away from the state due to boycotts and a decline in tourism.
"We have since moved forward, and our tourism is rebounding. So it's impossible to tell what the response will be from the ruling, but we're hoping that we can continue to move forward in our recovery," says Kristen Jarnagin, vice president of communications for the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association, a state hospitality industry advocacy group.
In a statement made today, the association avoids coming down on one side or the other of the Supreme Court decision, which overturned several key elements of the law, but not the portion allowing police to check the immigration status of people they suspect to be in the country illegally. Rather, the group seems to want the issue finally out of the national spotlight. Jarnagin points to business travel as an area that suffered due to the SB 1070 controversy.
"People planning a meeting, typically they hope to avoid protesters," she says. "When your destination is all over the national news and being perceived as possibly unfriendly or unsafe or whatever the conversation is, perception is reality for people."
Driving all those people away hurt a state already smarting from a painful housing collapse. Meanwhile, non-tourist dollars were diverted from Arizona when organizations, people, and even some cities announced boycotts of businesses headquartered in the state, like U-Haul and Best Western.
It's tough to figure out exactly how much business the SB 1070 debacle drove away from the state, says Jarnagin—"It's impossible to know who didn't call us during that time," she says.
By one estimate, the economic effects may have been painful. A 2010 paper from liberal think tank Center for American Progress estimated that the state could lose $217 million in direct spending from a decline in conference attendees, not to mention 4,236 jobs and $388 million in economic output as a result of the law.
"You end up hurting the very people you'd like to be helping. You hurt people who had no influence on the law that was passed," says Garrick Taylor, vice president of communications at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Still, while these businesses may cheer a reprieve from the controversy, some employers may be finding themselves with a new problem on their hands—a shortage of workers.
Whether because of the immigration law, the economic collapse, or countless other factors, the state's undocumented immigrant population has shrunk dramatically in recent years. As of January 2011, there were 360,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona, down from 560,000 in 2008, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security.
Many of those undocumented workers were doing jobs that many native-born Americans don't want to do, says Doug Massey, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.
"The wages you would have to pay to get somebody to go out in the desert and harvest watermelons would make the watermelons uncompetitive in markets," he says.
Then again, fewer illegal immigrants means fewer illegal labor practices on the part of businesses, which may boost pay and conditions for other workers.