Boycotting Travel Through Arizona Isn't the Solution

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So who is hurt more by the boycott -- the workers or big business?


During a sold-out concert in Phoenix on July 31, Lady Gaga took the opportunity to voice her displeasure with Arizona's controversial immigration law, SB 1070, which aims to make illegal immigration in the state a crime.

"Tonight I want you to free yourself," said the provocative pop star, dressed in an outlandish white frock and addressing a roaring crowd, "I want you to reject any person, or any thing or any law that have ever made you feel like you don't belong."

She encouraged her fans to actively protest prejudice and injustice, and it was clear that SB 1070 was the object of Lady Gaga's ire. But one method the singer did not use to show her rejection of SB 1070 was boycotting her tour date in the state.

From city councils in St. Paul, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major metropolitan areas, to bands like Maroon 5 and individual travelers all across Facebook and the Twitterverse, boycotting travel to Arizona has become a way for those who object to the law to actively protest it beyond the state's borders.

But considering that some 200,000 people in Arizona are directly employed by tourism and rely on the industry to feed themselves and their families -- and that many of these people are minorities -- it's worth questioning whether boycotting travel to Arizona really helps the people it's intended to aid.

"More than 30 percent of our employees are Hispanics or minorities," says Kristen Jarnagin, Vice President of Communications for the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, who says that several large conventions and meetings had canceled plans to hold events in the state, wishing to avoid the controversy of SB 1070.

Just one canceled meeting, says Jarnagin, has the potential to impact workers at the affected hotel -- in particular the hourly workers such as housekeepers, bellman and servers. When workers fall below 40 hours of work per week, she says, there's the potential for employees to lose more than just wages -- they can also lose full time status, and with it, health benefits. "Oftentimes, those health benefits are for their entire families," says Jarnagin.

And while she doesn't take a stand on the boycott itself, Maureen Meyer, who directs the Washington Office on Latin America's Mexico work and handles Central America human rights and electoral issues, does take a stand on SB 1070.

The law "fails to comprehensively address migration, opting for punitive measures to address undocumented persons in the state that will lead to discrimination and racial profiling," says Meyer.

Meyer, an Arizona native, says that "the service industry, which employs many Latinos, will undoubtedly be one of the most affected" by boycotts on travel to the state.

But perhaps the most curious Arizona tourism news of late -- coinciding with news of meeting cancellations and tourism boycotts -- is that the state's tourism industry is actually doing far better this year than it was last year.

"Our leisure business, as far as this summer goes, is actually up in occupancy," says Jarnagin, "but it's important to remember that last year was basically the worst year in our industry's history, so we expected to be up."

Indeed, research showed hotel occupancies across Arizona in May to be up by 5.7 percent compared to the same time last year. And June figures were even more encouraging.

But hotel managers celebrating booming summertime business are not immune from the boycott. "My business has never been better," says Jim Hollister, General Manager of FireSky Resort & Spa, a luxury property in Scottsdale. "When I look at the effects of the economy from last year to now, my occupancy is up and my pace for the rest of the year looks very, very strong."

But SB 1070 has elicited strong emotions from past and potential guests. Hollister says he had one group cancellation for a December booking and recently received an emotional letter from a guest who had stayed at the hotel. "I received a letter from an attorney from the state of Colorado who had stayed here and said he had an excellent stay, the property was beautiful, the staff were great," recounts Hollister, "but shame on us for voting people like this into office. He said he would boycott this state until my employees and I would vote these people out of office."

And while Hollister says he understands the point the guest was making, "he [the former guest] is hurting my employees -- it's kind of a double whammy to them. They get the economic downturn and then the scare of this."

People like Hollister and Jarnagin argue that while individuals and groups choosing to boycott Arizona often see it as a symbolic move, the boycotts have real effects and hurt innocent people.

The San Francisco city council, one of the boycotters, sees it this way: "By imposing an immediate moratorium on official city travel to Arizona and convening the workgroup, we are taking specific actions to develop a smart and effective boycott that sends the appropriate message to Arizona, while protecting the city's financial interests," according to an official statement by San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom.

San Francisco's moratorium on city-funded travel to Arizona was put into effect in late April, and Mayor Newsom "also sent a letter to President Obama once again urging him to advance comprehensive federal immigration reform in the wake of the Arizona law's passage," according to the official statement.

And while the boycott's effects have been difficult to gauge thus far, there's no denying that SB 1070's economic implications in Arizona reach far beyond those in the tourism industry. Even with a federal judge's recent move to place an injunction against key parts of the law the eve before they would have gone into effect, many Arizona businesses -- from mega resorts that have lost up to $800,000 in convention revenue to mom-and-pop businesses catering to mainly locals -- are feeling SB 1070's effects.

"Accounts suggest that this has already had an impact on Mexican restaurants and other locales that cater to the Latino and immigrant population in Arizona," says Meyer.

For Eddie Martinez, the owner of Del Yaqui Mexican restaurant in the town of Guadalupe, southeast of Phoenix, business has dropped markedly in recent months. "We've lost 60 percent the past year," says Martinez, "Our clientele is 90 percent Hispanic, and 85 percent are undocumented day laborers."

The restaurant is located near a pick-up location in Guadalupe where day laborers wait to find work, and is a popular place for locals to grab a soda or lunch. And while Martinez doesn't see the tourism boycott affecting his business directly, the slow economy paired with SB 1070 have delivered a double punch.

"The majority of them [Martinez's customers] think something will happen, that they'll get sent back to Mexico," says Martinez, "They aren't spending any money; they want to save money and make sure they have enough money if they're forced to go back.

"My mom, she sits down and talks to customers -- we know 95 percent of the customers who come in, they're regulars," says Martinez, "And she's trying to let them understand that we are struggling just as much as anyone."

His mother was illegal when she first came to the U.S., says Martinez. "And she obeyed the laws. Went to school. Learned English," he says. "If you're willing to do that, I don't have a problem."



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