De Leon: La Raza Calls Off Arizona Boycott – What Next?

Tens of Thousands March in Phoenix Against SB 1070 - Photo: José Muñoz

Tens of Thousands March in Phoenix Against SB 1070. (Photo: José Muñoz)

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR), America’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group, has called off the boycott it initiated against Arizona in May 2010, much to the disappointment of immigrant advocates in the state. NCLR and other immigrant advocates had initially called for the action in protest of the harsh and discriminatory immigration law Arizona enacted last year.

The boycott is estimated to have cost the state hundreds of millions in lost revenue from cancelled conventions and tourism. SB 1070 earned Arizona a reputation for being hostile to immigrants and Latinos in general.

La Raza rationalized its cancellation of the boycott, claiming that it achieved its goal—that other states were discouraged from enacting similar immigration laws.

ImmigrationWorks USA points out however, that this year, “three states – Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina – followed Arizona almost to the letter in authorizing local law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they stop in the course of other, routine police work.”

A look at the numbers reported by the National Conference of State Legislatures also challenges NCLR’s assertion that the Arizona boycott stemmed the tide of anti-immigrant legislation. In the first half of this year alone, state lawmakers introduced 1,592 bills and resolutions relating to immigrants, a 16 percent increase from the same period last year. 151 laws have been enacted and 95 resolutions adopted, mostly around enforcement and employment issues which tend to disadvantage immigrants and their families.

La Raza did give a more plausible reason for ending the boycott. In a letter to the Real Arizona Coalition of businesses, interfaith groups and community organizations, NCLR admitted that it was aware “of the hardship it has imposed on many of the workers, businesses and organizations whose interests we seek to advance” and as such decided to “suspend the boycott and cease all efforts to discourage conventions or meetings in Arizona, or to discourage our partners from participating in such meetings.”

The Arizona boycott may have failed to stop Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina from pursuing their own versions of Arizona’s law but it did raise the consciousness of sympathetic people nationwide. And it may yet succeed in other states, especially when business interests get involved. Arizona’s lost revenue and damaged reputation “frightened business leaders in many states,” argues ImmigrationWorks USA, which is working with 25 state-based business coalitions to overhaul the U.S. immigration system.

In terms of reforming the national immigration system, the boycott strategy is limited. It’s the narrative on immigration that needs to change.

As immigration policy expert Marc R. Rosenblum writes, “part of the issue is that the dominant frame for the immigration debate since the 1970s has been around criminality and security threats associated with unauthorized immigrants, a frame which naturally focuses attention on law enforcement solutions.”

Immigrant advocates must change the story. They need to show, along with the economic benefits of integrating immigrants, that unauthorized immigrants are not criminals but hard-working women and men who came to better the lives of their families, much like many immigrants before them. Advocates need to convince Americans that immigrants are not asking for special treatment or hand-outs, only the opportunity to prove themselves, give back, and earn a place in society.

When more rational and fair-minded Americans hear and embrace a different narrative, then perhaps there will be progress.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.