Calls to boycott Arizona over immigration law divide Democrats

Calls for an economic boycott of Arizona are dividing Democrats, who disagree on the best strategy to fight Arizona’s restrictive immigration law.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) began pushing for a limited boycott of his home state even before Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law, arguing that economic sanctions have historically been an effective means of protest, particularly in Arizona.

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He recalled the outrage over Arizona’s decision not to recognize the Martin Luther King Day holiday in the early 1990s, which led the NFL – under pressure from its players – to move the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix to Los Angeles. In 1992, two years after the NFL’s decision, Arizona voters approved a measure to recognize the King holiday.

Grijalva’s boycott call has been joined by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), and several city legislatures are considering resolutions supporting economic sanctions, including L.A., San Francisco, New York and the District of Columbia.

“We need to explore all of our opportunities and avenues” to fight the law, said Christine Quinn (D), the speaker of the New York City Council. She said she would support a boycott of Arizona if it could fix a law that she called “unacceptable and un-American.” 

Legislation to reform the nation’s immigration laws and provide a path to citizenship for the country’s illegal immigrants has picked up steam since the Arizona law was signed.

But national groups advocating that approach have not taken up the boycott call, and other Democratic leaders have said the move against Arizona’s economy would be a step too far.

“I don’t think that boycotts or things of that nature really help. They just polarize people,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said on Thursday. She was responding to a question asking if she supported a resolution in San Francisco calling for the city to boycott companies that do business in Arizona. “I do not think that is a smart thing to do,” said Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco.

A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman of neighboring New Mexico said the senator believed a boycott decision was up to others, but “welcomes” the tourists and businesses that “no longer feel comfortable going to Arizona.”

Critics of Arizona’s law say its requirement that authorities confront individuals they suspect of being illegal immigrants amounts to racial profiling. Supporters argue it’s a necessary step to crack down on illegal immigration in the absence of a sufficient federal presence on the border.

Tens of thousands of activists are planning to rally in 80 cities across the country Saturday, calling for comprehensive immigration legislation as well as denouncing Arizona’s new law.

While Democrats nationwide have criticized the law, a consensus has yet to emerge about how to respond to it.

The Obama administration is considering suing the state to block enforcement. Another proposal gaining steam is for Major League Baseball to abandon plans to hold the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, an effort spearheaded by Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.).

Seizing on the Super Bowl incident, Serrano said in a statement that the MLB “has a very loud megaphone, and their rejection of Arizona’s action would be an important demonstration to Arizona that we do not tolerate such displays of intolerance in our nation.”

The issue has particular resonance in baseball, where nearly a third of the players hail from foreign countries.

The MLB Players Association released a statement on Friday calling for the Arizona law to be repealed or modified. The law “could have a negative impact on hundreds of Major League players who are citizens of countries other than the United States,” union executive director Michael Weiner said in a statement.

He did not mention the All-Star Game, but he said that if the law takes effect, the union “will consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members.”

Democrats in Arizona also disagree over the boycott call.

Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) released a statement criticizing threats made against Grijalva over the issue, but she pointedly disagreed with his position.

“I believe that a boycott would hurt Arizona’s families and businesses at a time when our state’s economy is taking the first steps toward recovery after a devastating recession,” Giffords said.

The National Council of La Raza, which supports granting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, is discussing the idea of a boycott with its members and partner groups, said Clarissa Martinez, its director of immigration and national campaigns. “A boycott is not something we take lightly,” Martinez said, while emphasizing that the group believes the Arizona law “goes beyond the pale.”

In Arizona, the focus was on the events Saturday, where clergy from across the state are planning a vigil at the state capitol to protest the law. The message of the day will not be a boycott, said Ian Danley, a youth pastor with Neighborhood Ministries who is helping to organize the event.

“Personally, I think those things are a little further down the road than we are now,” he said.

Yet Danley said a boycott might ultimately be the most effective form of protest. “I wish we could talk to people’s hearts,” he said. “Sometimes it’s faster to go through their pocketbooks.”