Immigration

A Push for Arizona-Style Immigration Laws Stalls Out


In his successful campaign to become Florida's governor last year, Rick Scott argued that his state needed an immigration law similar to the controversial statute passed in Arizona, which gives police broad powers to question people about their legal status. He skewered his opponent in the primary for calling the law too "far out." Governor Scott has since learned that a lot of his fellow Republicans agree with that assessment. The state's Republican-dominated legislature adjourned for the year on May 7 without agreeing on an immigration bill, much to the relief of business groups, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, that came out strongly against the measure.

"We did not want to see damage done to Florida's brand," says David Hart, executive vice-president of the Florida Chamber, citing the potential blow to the state's tourism industry if Florida came to be viewed as "inhospitable" to foreign visitors.

Resistance from business, along with legal challenges, have limited the spread of state immigration laws patterned after Arizona's. Bills expanding enforcement of immigration laws were introduced in 28 states this year, but passed in just three, Georgia, Utah, and Indiana—and in the Hoosier state only after legislators softened some provisions. In Florida and 22 other states, legislation failed or stalled in committee. Legislators in Alabama and South Carolina are working to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of the bills.

In Florida, business groups particularly objected to a provision that would require employers to screen prospective workers using a federal immigration database. "I truly don't think you could pick the crops in the fields" if employees' names had to be run through the federal verification system, J.D. Alexander, a Republican, told fellow state senators on May 3. Alexander is an investor in Florida citrus farms.

The potential cost of such legislation has been a constant refrain of opponents nationwide. A 2008 report commissioned by Americans for Immigration Reform argued that removing all unauthorized workers from the labor force would cut $245 billion in economic output. After Arizona's law passed last year, the Los Angeles City Council banned local agencies from doing business with companies from the state. Also, several organizations, including the Service Employees International Union, said they would not hold conventions in the state. The boycotts could cost Arizona $253 million in economic activity over two to three years, estimates the Center for American Progress. "States are saying, 'Yes, let's debate it' and then deferring until next year" while they study the potential economic and legal effects, says Ann Morse, director of the Immigrant Policy Project for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While proponents of tougher legislation took heart from a May 26 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a 2007 Arizona law that lets the state close businesses that hire undocumented migrants, legal experts say it's unclear whether that will give momentum to stalled immigration bills elsewhere. "It's a very subtle shift to the extent that we're all trying to read the tea leaves," says Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. "You can't draw too many conclusions." Last year the U.S. Justice Dept. successfully sued in an Arizona federal court to block provisions of the state's 2010 law that require police to determine the status of people stopped for questioning, arguing that these interfere with the federal government's authority to set immigration policy. That case is likely to reach the Supreme Court.

"We can't have 50 different immigration laws around the country," President Barack Obama said in an Apr. 27 interview with Atlanta TV station WSB, a few weeks after the Georgia's legislature approved one of the nation's toughest immigration laws. Southerners on New Ground, an Atlanta nonprofit that champions minority rights, is asking businesses to cancel conventions in the state. The group has also threatened to organize consumer boycotts against companies headquartered in Georgia, including Coca-Cola (KO), Delta Air Lines (DAL), and Home Depot (HD). "Calling for boycotts is not productive," Charlie Sutlive, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, said in an e-mail. "Consumer boycotts hurt the local economy, local businesses, and local employees."

Scott wants Florida's bill to be taken up again during the next legislative session. "If the federal government doesn't do their job," said the governor at a May 19 news conference, "the legislature should do theirs."

In Florida many undocumented migrants are leaving anyway. The state's unauthorized population fell 21 percent to 760,000 in 2010 from three years earlier, according to the U.S. Homeland Security Dept. Nationwide, the number of illegal residents fell by almost 1 million, or 8.7 percent, from 2007 to 2010, as the recession limited job opportunities.

The bottom line: While 28 states this year have considered legislation toughening immigration enforcement, only three have passed laws.

Baribeau is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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