Immigration reform: Glimpse of the future in Arizona and Utah?

The business community was instrumental in defeating an Arizona birthright-citizenship bill and passing a Utah guest-worker program, suggesting it could be a key force on immigration reform.

Arizona State Sen. Steve Gallardo (D), who opposes the immigration bills before the Senate Thursday, leans on his desk as proponent of the bills state Sen. Russell Pearce (R) stands in the background. The bills, including one to deny birthright citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants, were defeated.

The opposite fortunes of two sets of immigration bills this week – one in Arizona and the other in Utah – suggest that the business community can play a potentially crucial role in shaping immigration legislation in states nationwide.

In Arizona, its opposition to five anti-illegal immigration bills, including a high-profile attempt to deny children of illegal immigrants birthright citizenship, played a pivotal role in turning several Republican state senators against the bills, which failed Thursday.

Meanwhile in Utah, business groups backed a suite of bills that included a measure to offer two-year work permits to undocumented immigrants under certain conditions and another to recruit guest workers from Mexico. The bills were signed into law Tuesday.

At a time when the Republican Party has taken an increasingly strident position against illegal immigration, the two votes – both in Republican-dominated states – suggest that the path to compromise on the issue might be through the business community, which often has strong ties to GOP lawmakers.

The so-called Utah Compact, for example, “has highlighted the degree to which businesses, law enforcement agencies, and community leaders can work together to address the comprehensive realities of immigration and ultimately influence legislative debate – at both the state and national levels,” says Catherine Wilson, a political scientist at Villanova University who specializes in immigration issues.

The Utah Compact has been hailed as a potential model for compromise on illegal immigration. In addition to its provisions on undocumented workers, it also requires police to ask suspects arrested in connection with serious crimes about their immigration status.

“It was clearly the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce – and businesses more broadly – that were driving this bus,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, a group that favors restricting immigration.

In short, experts say, many businesses are wary of hardline anti-illegal immigration laws because they create controversy and deny access to cheap labor.

Arizona business rebels

Some 60 CEOs of Arizona businesses signed a letter to lawmakers begging them to stop passing harsh anti-illegal immigrant laws, says Angela Kelley, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. She estimates that the backlash against Arizona’s SB 1070 cost state businesses more than $200 million in lost convention and conference business – not including the ripple effect of lost jobs, earnings, and tax revenue.

The law required local and state law-enforcement officials to check the immigration status of those they suspected were illegal immigrants, though the most controversial aspects have never been implemented because of a legal challenge now in federal court.

The Arizona business community, which did not lobby against SB 1070, was instrumental in the defeat of the suite of bills that included the measure to deny birthright citizenship, state business leaders say.

“I think the business community here has had a long overdue impact on this,” says Todd Landfried, spokesman for the Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform. “The people in the business community finally said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and told the Senate president that moving these bills forward now is damaging us.”

“At a time when businesses are moving out of the state and people are getting laid off, this is not good for the economy or the people of Arizona,” he adds. “We have to stop this.”

Utah's 'pragmatic' approach

Some Hispanic activists say Utah is merely attempting to be more practical.

“Utah is taking a more pragmatic and economic approach to address the complex and controversial immigration debate,” says Randy Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena, Calif. “They learned from Arizona.”

Utah’s guest-worker program, for example, is a pipeline for cheap, temporary labor from Latin America.

“This will eventually benefit the Utah economy, similar to how the Bracero Program benefited the national US economy by having cheap immigrant labor to work the US agricultural fields” from 1942 to 1964, says Mr. Ertll. “Therefore, Utah is pushing the envelope and adopted George W. Bush's federal ideology of a guest-worker program to be implemented at the state level.”

Some experts claim that Utah’s plan, like SB 1070, will not pass constitutional muster because it treads on Washington’s turf: Immigration is a federal issue. But Utah’s willingness to attempt reforms like guest-worker programs, which are anathema to many conservative Republicans, is significant.

Says Ms. Kelley: “It doesn’t get any redder than Utah.”

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