Analysis: Protesters of Arizona's new immigration law try to focus boycotts

In response to a new immigration law, activists chanted "Reform, Not Racism" outside Chicago's Wrigley Field on Thursday as the Cubs opened a 4-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; 9:23 AM

Remember Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona?" It was released in 1991, when the state was at the center of another racial debate. The song -- part social commentary, part threat -- captured the collective will behind an effective boycott of Arizona in the early 1990s that groups opposed to the state's harsh new immigration law would like to repeat.

That boycott began in 1987 when then-Gov. Evan Mecham rescinded a newly created holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., just a week before its inaugural celebration. But it was not until 1992 that the state's voters -- after rejecting a ballot measure to create the holiday two years earlier -- approved it and joined the every other state in recognizing the day.

In those five intervening years, Arizona was the subject of a series of convention and sports boycotts.

What made the boycott for the King holiday work was the broad support it received from a wide range of groups, and its focus on big-money industries. The final push came from the NFL Player's Association, which urged the league's owners to pull the 1993 Super Bowl from the state when it failed to approve the holiday. In that five-year period, Arizona lost more than 100 conventions and hundreds of millions of dollars, according to news reports.

The calls this week for new boycotts of Arizona, which has given the police broad power to stop people on suspicion of being in the state illegally, so far have been disparate and unorganized.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome has directed city employees to avoid business travel to the state, and city officials are contemplating ending all contracts with Arizona-based companies. The Mexican state of Sonora canceled a cross-border meeting that was to be held in Phoenix in June. A group of independent truckers from California have launched a five-day boycott of the state and refused to transport goods in or out. The National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators said Thursday that they are pulling out of a conference they had planned to hold in Scottsdale.

"We want to send a message," San Francisco Supervisor David Campos told supporters at a rally there Monday. "There are consequences when you target a whole people."

The question remains: Who are boycotters targeting? Politicians? Business owners?

So far the biggest civil rights groups, including the National Council of La Raza -- which have been working hard though not successfully to lobby President Obama and Congress on the issue of immigration reform -- have not weighed in. They are busy making important calculations. Boycotts, while effective (see: the 1960s civil rights movement), can be difficult to pull off and have the secondary effect of laying down broad economic pain.

Responding to calls for a boycott, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer told a call-in radio show in Tempe this week that she can't understand why boycott supporters would "want to hurt the legal citizens." The pullout of conventions will hit Arizona's bottom line hard, but it will also affect workers in the tourism industry.

Arizona is home to more than 2 million Hispanics -- about 30 percent of its population -- and an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Nearly 20 percent of its workforce is foreign-born, according to 2007 American Community Survey, including one in four workers in tourism-related industries.

"We do not take this lightly. We are being very thoughtful about it," said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, the director of immigration and national campaigns at La Raza. "We are trying to figure out if there is a way to be surgical about this. But the general response so far has been that this crosses the line in a major way and some response is necessary."

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