Why boycotts about Arizona immigration law are stalling

Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose have softened the boycotts they pledged in the wake of the Arizona immigration law's passage.

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File
A worker services a traffic light camera in Los Angeles on March 18. Los Angeles voted to made an exemption to its economic boycott stemming from the Arizona immigration law by extending its contract with a Scottsdale-based firm that operates the cameras.

When Arizona signed its new immigration law, SB 1070, on April 4, the immediate response by several cities and states was to enact economic boycotts against the state, with the aim of pressuring legislators to rethink the law.

Now, with just over a month to go until the law takes effect July 28, maintaining those embargoes appears to have been tough going for most – especially in the wider economic downturn – and several have watered down their actions.

The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday granted itself an exemption to the city’s boycott of Arizona to keep a red light photo enforcement program operating. The program generates about $3.6 million in annual ticket revenue for the city. The day before, Oakland voted to approve a $1 million contract with a multinational advertising company with corporate offices in Phoenix.

San Jose, which has several contracts with Arizona companies cited potential economic harm in stopping short of a full boycott, voting instead for an official denunciation of SB 1070. The Arizona law allows police officers to question anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant, and makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally.

“The comment ‘not so well’ looks to be fairly accurate,” says Jack Kyser, director of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, in describing how boycotts are progressing. From the beginning, Mr. Kyser says, an official boycott is much tougher than just getting the word out. It takes time and money for officials to go through rosters of suppliers and to analyze if another supplier costs more or not.

“Smaller cities and counties can do a boycott, but for larger areas and the state it could be difficult and somewhat embarrassing,” he says. The red light camera contract still has some time to go on it, he notes, even though Wednesday’s City Council action drew heated debate on operating costs, with some putting them higher than the ticket revenue coming in.

Kyser notes that a Los Angeles Police Department plan to send officers to Arizona for special terrorism training "was canceled due to the boycott,” but other actions have gone under the radar.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power awarded a contract for electric vehicle charging stations to a company in Arizona, Kyser says, “but nobody caught that."

Some cities have pulled back on their boycotts, claiming concern that the action hits only the businesspeople and employees involved – often Hispanic – and not the legislators who created the law. Others have gone scrambling to parse legal definitions – such as the difference between “corporate offices” and “corporate headquarters” – to rationalize which companies are subject to the intent of the boycott.

The main reasons that such boycotts are difficult are at least three fold, says Jack Pitney, Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

“First you have to figure out which goods and services come from the state. In a complex economy, that determination can be very tricky.”

Next, officials must figure out which contracts may be lawfully canceled. Attorneys have to spend lots of billable hours on such questions, Mr. Pitney says.

“Then you have to arrange for goods and services from some other state," he says. "In many cases, the locality chose an Arizona company because it was the low bidder or was otherwise superior to the alternatives," he says. "In tough economic times," he adds, "it's hard to justify such a choice.”


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