Glenn Hamer

When I was a sophomore in high school, my driver’s education teacher was a big believer in the “scared straight” method of preparing teenagers to get behind the wheel. He made it a point to show his classes accident scene photos to drill into our young brains the gravity of the responsibility of operating a motor vehicle.

My teacher would show us a photo full of mangled metal and broken glass and say, referring to the victims, “This accident wasn’t their fault.” And then after a dramatic pause he’d say, “And guess what: They’re still dead.”

When I think about the immigration debate in Arizona, I can’t help but think back to that high school classroom and driver’s ed. Boycotts carried out against Arizona businesses in protest of our state’s policies on illegal immigration are wrong and they are not the fault of Arizona businesses. Yet Arizona businesses and workers are the ones that get hurt.

The state Senate right now is considering a host of immigration bills. One bill attempts to re-interpret the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which grants birthright citizenship. Another would require hospitals to determine patients’ citizenship status during the admission process. And yet another contains a number of new immigration-related measures, affecting everything from vehicle registration to public housing to employee verification to schools.

All of these measures rest on very shaky legal ground and would surely invite lawsuits.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry opposes all of these measures. But the Chamber and the business community at large is not predisposed to opposing all immigration-related legislation.

Yes, the Chamber is party to a lawsuit, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, over the state’s employer sanctions law. We did not believe it was right to treat Arizona employers differently than employers in 49 other states and to subject them to license suspension or revocation based on a federal database.

Yet the Chamber, like many other business organizations, was neutral on SB 1070 last year, believing that the bill mostly dealt with law enforcement issues and did not directly affect the workplace.

But as we watched the unintended consequences unfold, we saw that Arizona businesses were taking a direct hit to their bottom line in the midst of a deep recession. Conventions were canceled, companies lost contracts, boycotts were carried out and the state’s image took a hit. There was an economic price to pay for Arizona going it alone.

I talk to business leaders every day. They are genuinely worried about what another spate of bad publicity could mean for their business and their employees.

Over 20 chambers of commerce from across the state have signed a letter urging the Legislature to turn back legislation that would redefine the concept of citizenship.

Sixty CEOs and corporate executives signed a letter calling on the Legislature not to pass additional state-level immigration legislation and instead direct its energy to pressing Congress for meaningful immigration reform.

These chambers and executives are not part of some conspiracy to flood the U.S. workforce with cheap labor. They represent the best of Arizona’s corporate citizens who want to see our state grow and prosper. It’s rare for individuals of such prominence to take such a public stance on a controversial issue, but it’s indicative of how damaging they believe passing these laws could be to Arizona’s future.

While we believe that immigration is mostly in the domain of the federal government, Congress and numerous administrations have made a mess of the system. The border isn’t secure, despite what a former Arizona governor might say. Navigating our country’s visa system is a prescription for a headache. The administration’s decision to remove the National Guard from the Mexican border is yet another example of a Washington that’s out of touch with the plight of border states.

The frustration the public feels over the issue of immigration is real and it’s completely legitimate. Washington has given us no reason to have confidence in its ability to make any progress in immigration reform. In fact a number of chamber and business leaders traveled to Washington, D.C. earlier this year carrying the message that Congress and the administration need to secure our border and deal with all the issues surrounding immigration reform.

But voters also believe in priorities. In polling data, moves such as denying citizenship to babies fall far short of strengthening border enforcement when ranking strategies for combating illegal immigration. Voters also reject placing the onus of immigration enforcement on private business. For example, a candidate’s proposal last year to require utility companies to determine customers’ immigration status was rightly pilloried as inhumane, unworkable and just plain wrong. According to polling data, it is clear why such a proposal did not move voters in a positive direction.

And in this economy, voters believe that lawmakers should concentrate on job creation over illegal immigration. When asked whether Congress should pursue a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced federal budget or if it should concentrate on one that would deny birthright citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, the balanced budget option won overwhelmingly. The Senate president should be applauded for guiding a once-in-a-generation economic competitiveness package through his chamber and to the governor’s desk. With the new law, Arizona has rolled out the red carpet for business to locate and expand here.

But the positive headlines the state has earned could be quickly forgotten if these latest immigration proposals become law. The boycotts and other ill-conceived efforts to harm Arizona businesses and workers will return. The state will face more costly lawsuits. It makes little sense to take up these issues months before the U.S. Supreme Court will provide a ruling that could be relevant to a number of the issues raised in these bills. Arizona companies will lose business. And like those victims from my driver’s ed course, Arizona workers will get hurt – and it won’t be their fault.

Glenn Hamer is president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry