When left-leaning activist groups, civil rights leaders and lawmakers in several cities called for a boycott of Arizona's new illegal immigration law, they did more than make a point about illegal immigration. They also set off a war -- a war that no one will win.
The boycott movement started when Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva urged businesses and other organizations to cancel conventions and conferences in his home state, where tourism is a big part of the economy. Things picked up steam when San Francisco and Los Angeles threatened to go beyond banning employee travel to Arizona and considered a boycott of virtually all business with the state. Then the activist groups, among them the Service Employees International Union, National Council of La Raza and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, urged the same thing: a total economic boycott of Arizona.
Now Los Angeles has followed up on its threat, passing a boycott measure that could affect about $8 million in city business with Arizona. Other cities are considering similar moves.
What if that happens? In addition to tourism, Arizona is a major presence in the construction, health care, manufacturing and aerospace industries. What if some cities, or even entire states, canceled their business with Arizona-based companies?
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that if that started, at any level, there would be reciprocation from Arizona," says Barry Broome, president of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. "A boycott can only lead to harm."
It's a pretty simple situation. Lots of cities in California, for instance, do business with Arizona-based companies. But Arizona also does business with lots of California-based companies. "How many Los Angeles- and San Francisco-based companies are doing hundreds of millions of dollars of work in Arizona?" Broome asks. "We have a huge construction and public works platform."If a city cuts off business in Arizona, then Arizona could find itself forced to do the same thing. The result would be insanity -- a trade war inside the United States, all over a law legitimately passed by the Arizona state legislature, signed by the governor and supported by a majority of its people.
Even Grijalva seems to understand that. Everybody knows that Hispanic-American families would be among those hurt by a boycott of Arizona. During a recent Washington Post web chat, Grijalva became defensive when a reader asked him to reconsider his stance because a boycott could "hurt the people who need help and support the most."
"I have not called for a general 'boycott' of Arizona," Grijalva answered. "I have called for a targeted ban on conventions and conferences in the state for a limited time. The idea is to send a message, not grind down the state economy." The problem is, the damage could be difficult to contain once it has started.
This tense situation is made worse by the Obama administration's continued threats to take Arizona to court over the law. Attorney General Eric Holder, who admits he has not actually read the law, says it could lead to racial profiling and become a "slippery slope to where people will be picked on because of how they look." Holder is hinting broadly that a federal lawsuit is on the way.
An overwhelming majority of those questioned -- 64 percent -- say the administration should wait and see how the law works, while just 15 percent want action now. The wait-and-see group includes huge majorities of Republicans and Independents. Even Democrats favor wait-and-see by 52 percent to 26 percent -- a two-to-one margin.
Everyone seems to have gotten the message except all those people, some of them in positions of great power, calling for court battles, economic warfare and protests in the streets. It's a state of affairs that leaves business leaders scratching their heads in amazement. "We should be talking about how to fix this problem," Broome says, "and not getting into an eye-for-an-eye strategy."