By Cristina Rayas
Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – A Phoenix business leader warned Tuesday (July 19, 2011) that businesses will continue to suffer from the jumbled approach to immigration issues by states, unless the federal government steps in.
“Down the path of inaction on the federal level, we are going to continue to see the patchwork quilt of laws happen,” said Michelle Bolton, vice president of public affairs and economic development at the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s not good for businesses, especially when they are multijurisdictional,” she said.
Bolton was joined in Washington by political, business and legal leaders who said that, without federal action, the states will continue a competing approach to immigration policy and enforcement.
“The federal government has been an abject, pathetic, dismal failure in addressing this problem,” said Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble, a Republican.
One speaker at the forum, co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and ImmigrationWorks USA, predicted that federal inaction will result in chaos in the country.
Bolton said with a laugh that while the chamber might not use the same language as Bramble, it does feel Congress is not fulfilling its responsibility.
In Arizona, where immigration put the state in the national spotlight, local businesses felt that attention has been an attack on Arizona’s image, Bolton said.
“We needed to do something to repair it,” she said, but those businesses that did step up faced a backlash from the public.
She said many members experienced such a backlash — with some even receiving death threats — when the chamber became involved in discussions on immigration legislation in 2007.
“I will tell you that the fear factor always is the amount of backlash,” Bolton said.
Despite such fears, she noted that 61 Arizona CEOs signed a chamber letter in March urging state lawmakers to stop passing immigration bills, and to leave such decisions to the federal government.
“Most of those businesses that signed that letter came back and said it worked in the positive,” said Bolton. Businesses that did not sign the letter thanked those who did for speaking out in a way they admitted they were afraid to do, she said.
She said it also paid off in the form of a letter from the Mexican consulate thanking the chamber for “standing up and doing something.” Mexico is one of Phoenix’s biggest trading partners.
Other businesses in other states also said they want to put pressure on the federal government.
Mark Gerstle, a vice president of Indiana-based Cummins Inc., said it is hard enough “to recruit people from all over the world, or in the United States, to the Midwest to begin with.” That job is even harder without uniform, welcoming immigration laws.
“We knew that if these laws became like an Arizona-style law in Indiana, we simply wouldn’t be able to recruit and retain the kind of engineering workforce that we needed,” Gerstle said. “So for us it was threatening our very existence as a business because we are so multinational.”
Gerstle said that 30 percent of the employees at his power-generator company were born outside the United States, and he predicts that in five years it will be up to 50 or 60 percent. In order for American businesses to stay competitive globally, he said, they need to embrace immigrant workers.
Bramble said the current patchwork of state laws can only stand for so long.
“There will come a tipping point where there will be enough diverse immigration provisions that it will force the federal government to do the job that they should have been doing all along,” he said.
When asked what might happen if Arizona tries to enact more get-tough immigration laws, Bolton said “the business community will maintain their vigilance.”
State Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, a driving force behind Arizona immigration laws, recently wrote chamber President Todd Sanders to say he looks forward to continuing what Bolton described as a “robust conversation” in the next legislative session.
“So it’s stay tuned for more from Arizona,” said Bolton.