Chamber Executive Article Archive

Immigration: A Business and Chamber Issue

Chaaron Pearson

In 2010, Arizona thrust the state immigration reform debate back into the national spotlight by passing Arizona SB 1070. The Arizona act makes it a state misdemeanor for an immigrant to be in Arizona without carrying the required documents and makes it a felony to shelter, hire and transport illegal aliens knowingly or unknowingly. Legislators in at least seventeen states have introduced bills similar to the Arizona law this year. With no sign of federal immigration reform on the horizon, more states may follow.

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Across the country, chambers are attempting to get ahead of the immigration issue. Taking a stance on this complex, highly politicized matter isn’t easy, but the real threat of a piecemeal, state-by-state immigration policy makes action an imperative. This article recaps the recent developments in this contagious issue and highlights how and why other chambers are addressing immigration.

Arizona the trendsetter

The Arizona immigration law has been under fire since it was signed by Governor Jan Brewer last April, and the state is still at the center of this issue. Last July, federal Judge Susan Bolton blocked the controversial bill’s core aspects, including part of the “reasonable suspicion” provision allowing police to detain and arrest suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant. Her ruling is currently under appeal, and there are at least seven additional pending lawsuits alleging that the law is unconstitutional and will lead to racial profiling.

Despite the swirling controversy and legal challenges to the Arizona law, other states are pushing forward with similar immigration reform proposals. Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Florida, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas and South Carolina are among the states where Arizona copycat bills have been filed. Others could follow suit depending on the federal court ruling.

Arizona policymakers and political candidates continue to take a strong stance on immigration with even more aggressive proposals. Last summer, the Arizona Department of Education announced that it would begin removing teachers with heavy accents from classrooms. In late June, Barry Wong, an unsuccessful candidate for the Arizona utilities commission, vowed to cut off power and gas to illegal immigrants if elected. Earlier this year, State Rep. John Kavanaugh filed a bill that challenges automatic U.S. citizenship for children of illegal immigrants by clarifying the reading of the 14th amendment. Kavanaugh is not the first lawmaker to seek revision or clarification of this amendment. A similar proposal was filed in the Indiana General Assembly, and legislators in at least twelve additional states have agreed to push comparable legislation.

For Tucson (AZ) Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jack Camper, IOM, CCE, the immigration position is simple. He states: “We believe that protecting our national borders is a federal, not a state, responsibility. Period.”  The Tucson Metropolitan Chamber created a Federal Immigration Reform Policy that was distributed to every member of Congress. The plan offers suggestions for border security as well as the establishment of a guest worker program.

Camper hopes that Congress will consider the proposal and work swiftly to enact comprehensive immigration reform. He also urges other chambers to make immigration reform a top priority in their federal policy agenda. “If you believe that this issue will not affect your community, guess again,” he says.

Defining core principles in Utah

Utah State Representative Stephen Sandstrom proposed a bill that is nearly identical to Arizona’s, sparking debate across the state. Tensions ran so high last November that highway patrol officers were called in to calm clashing protestors at the state capitol.

Recognizing the need for leadership, the Salt Lake (UT) Chamber, along with other state leaders from business, law enforcement, education and the religious community, has spoken out on the immigration proposal by releasing the Utah Compact.  The Compact, a declaration of five principles to guide Utah’s immigration discussion, declares immigration a federal issue and urges legislators to focus resources on local crime. It also calls on widely held values such as strong families, free society and open markets to focus the immigration debate.  

At a public announcement of the Utah Compact, Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Lane Beattie said: “There is no simple solution with an issue like immigration. Any immigration legislation will have a ripple effect that touches the economy, families and the perception of our state across the world. Crafting a solution that adheres to these five principles will ensure those consequences are considered and that changes to immigration law reflect the values of our state.”

The five guiding principles of the Utah Compact:

Federal Solution: Immigration is a federal policy issue between the U.S. government and other countries — not Utah and other countries. We urge Utah’s congressional delegation, and others, to lead efforts to strengthen federal laws and protect our national borders. We urge state leaders to adopt reasonable policies addressing immigrants in Utah. 

Law Enforcement: We respect the rule of law and support law enforcement’s professional judgment and discretion. Local law enforcement resources should focus on criminal activities, not civil violations of federal code.

Families: Strong families are the foundation of successful communities. We oppose policies that unnecessarily separate families. We champion policies that support families and improve the health, education and well-being of all Utah children.

Economy: Utah is best served by a free-market philosophy that maximizes individual freedom and opportunity. We acknowledge the economic role immigrants play as workers and taxpayers.  Utah’s immigration policies must reaffirm our global reputation as a welcoming and business-friendly state.

Free Society: Immigrants are integrated into communities across Utah. The way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of goodwill.

The Salt Lake Chamber is pushing a federal immigration solution and the creation of a guest worker program as part of its 2011 public policy positions.

Clarifying the business position in Kentucky

The immigration issue has also affected Kentucky, where three controversial immigration bills are under consideration by the General Assembly. Senate Bill 6 is modeled after the Arizona law; House Bill 3 requires companies to use the federal E-Verify system; and House Bill 111 would suspend or deny business licenses for companies that hire illegal immigrants.

The Kentucky State Chamber has adopted the simplest message in opposition to these immigration proposals. Along with a number of state and federal business association co-signers, it released a brief explaining why a patchwork of different state-bystate immigration standards is not in the best interest of business.

In an op-ed piece, Dave Adkisson, CCE, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber and immediate past-chair of ACCE, cautions lawmakers against pushing ahead with immigration reform, saying: “Kentucky’s employers are already heavily burdened by government regulation. Creating a set of unique requirements that exceed those of the federal government will create undue — and unfair — financial and administrative burdens for Kentucky’s employers, particularly small businesses.” By focusing on simple concepts like parity on regulation and competitiveness for the state, Kentucky has delicately stated its opposition without trotting on landmines.

The risk of inaction

Regardless of your position on immigration, Oklahoma can serve as a cautionary tale of the danger of not getting involved. Most chambers in Oklahoma chose to remain neutral on a 2008 immigration bill, not realizing the impact that it would have on the business community until after it was passed. The effects on the business community in Oklahoma would have been so great that the  Tulsa Metro Chamber  decided it would be irresponsible not to join with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, the U.S. Chamber and other Oklahoma business associations to file a lawsuit to halt the enforcement of the employer-related portions of the law. The Tulsa Metro Chamber experienced a strong and polarized reaction from their community. They were forced to put the security in their building on alert and monitor social media sites for defaming language.

The delayed stance damaged the Chamber’s relationship with members of the state house and senate for quite some time. Additionally, the Chamber’s mission got lost in the outcry. It was easy for their members to forget that pushing for federal immigration legislation is on the top of the Chamber’s agenda every year.

Sheila Curley, vice president of communications for the Tulsa Metro Chamber, recommends that chambers “do their research on proposed immigration legislation and be as proactive as possible. Engage your federal representatives and push for federal immigration reform.” She notes that Oklahoma will likely revisit the immigration debate within the next two years, and many other states should expect to see immigration on their legislative dockets as well. Curley recommends that chambers have a strong communications plan in place before a state bill is passed to convey the business reaction to immigration legislation.

Immigration is every one’s concern

No longer confined to border states and ports of entry, immigration is among the foremost concerns for communities across the country. Your members are probably talking about immigration. Some may be anxious about their workforce, while others are worried that their tax dollars support health care and education for illegal immigrants. Public sentiment about the primacy of the immigration issue shows no signs of waning, and thus far, federal attempts to address this problem have been futile. State and local lawmakers are tackling immigration on their own. The added cost of E-Verify compliance and reduction in workforce are only two of the far-reaching consequences for businesses.

As Adkisson argues, if each state listed above passes a different law, the American business community will be forced to navigate through piecemeal rules and regulations regarding immigration. Camper urges his chamber peers to take action and push their lawmakers to adopt a comprehensive immigration plan immediately.

“Immigration is one of the most important issues facing our communities and our nation,” says Camper. “Acting as catalysts to resolve the immigration issue would reinforce the relevance and influence of chambers across our nation.”


Chaaron Pearson is the manager of public policy at the American Chamber of Commerce Executives. She can be reached at (703) 998-3540 or

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