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What happened to L.A.'s boycott of Arizona?

A year after the City Council approved the sanction, little has changed. There's not even an ordinance specifying how the boycott should work.

June 05, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • Activists gather outside the federal building in downtown L.A. last spring, calling on Southern Californians to boycott Arizona over its law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.
Activists gather outside the federal building in downtown L.A. last spring,… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

In May 2010, Los Angeles was a part of wave of cities that voted to boycott Arizona after lawmakers in that state passed a controversial law targeting illegal immigrants.

City Hall staffers were ordered to review contracts with Arizona companies for possible termination, and official travel to Arizona was supposed to be suspended.

But a year later, little has changed in the way Los Angeles does business with the state next door.

The city still buys street sweeper parts from one Arizona firm and has a contract for emergency sewer repairs with another, officials say. The Harbor Department alone has four contracts with Arizona companies that total nearly $26 million.

A similar pattern can be seen across California. Boycotts in Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles County made headlines last year but have since delivered little punch.

None of those jurisdictions has canceled a contract with an Arizona-based company because of the boycott — leading some immigrant-rights activists to dismiss the high-profile calls for economic sanctions as empty symbolism.

The disappointment is especially felt in Los Angeles, where Latino elected leaders strongly backed the sanctions.

"This is a moment of hypocrisy if the city of Los Angeles says one thing and does another," said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. Klein was speaking to a crowd of protesters gathered at City Hall to demand follow-through on the business ban.

Protesters have complained about several exemptions the City Council has granted in the last year, including approvals of contracts for made-in-Arizona Taser guns and red-light traffic cameras, as well as a contract with a Los Angeles International Airport shuttle provider that has offices in the state.

Councilman Ed Reyes, who wrote the boycott, voted to approve those exceptions. He said the deals were in the best interest of the city. Reyes said he, too, was disappointed with the boycott's slow progress, but he blamed City Atty. Carmen Trutanich's office for taking more than a year to draw up an ordinance specifying the terms of the ban. A spokesman for Trutanich said an ordinance is still in the works.

Despite the lack of clear guidelines, Reyes said there had been at least one boycott victory: Last year the Los Angeles Police Department opted not to send a team of helicopter pilots to a training conference in Phoenix.

Reyes also pointed to a March letter sent to the president of the Arizona state Senate by several dozen leaders of companies with headquarters or major subsidiaries in Arizona. The letter urged rejection of five proposed anti-illegal-immigration laws, saying that when controversial laws are passed, "unintended consequences inevitably occur."

Dozens of local governments across the country imposed boycotts on Arizona after the state passed SB 1070, which required police to check the status of those they suspected of being in the country illegally. Critics said the law would promote discrimination; state officials disagreed.

In their letter, the Arizona business leaders wrote that the boycotts cost the state jobs and hurt its economy, and that further anti-immigration legislation could do more harm. None of the five laws passed.

Lawrence Glickman, a boycott expert at the University of South Carolina, said boycott organizers should count that as a success. Most boycotts end more ambiguously than the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of the 1950s, which ended segregation on buses, or the grape campaign of the 1960s, which won fieldworkers contracts with growers, he said.

In the case of the Arizona boycotts, he said the target — an entire state — is less clear than a company or industry. "As an entity, a state is pretty amorphous," Glickman said.

Los Angeles city officials have struggled to define what it means for a company to be "headquartered in Arizona," the language used in the council's boycott motion.

The issue came up recently when the Board of Public Works considered a $100-million contract for a wastewater treatment plant with Honeywell, a multinational corporation that has divisions and employees based in Arizona. The board approved the contract.

The boycott movement lost some urgency last year when one of the law's most controversial provisions was struck down in federal court. That ruling, which halted the requirement that police check the status of suspected illegal immigrants, was upheld in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Several California entities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles County, voted to suspend their boycotts until the court case is decided.

More than 20 Los Angeles County contracts were approved while the boycott was active because they met certain exemptions, records show.

In one report to the Board of Supervisors, the county's chief executive said a contract with an Arizona company that makes undershirts for jail inmates was exempted because "additional cost, time and resources are required to resolicit the services or supplies."

Ellen Sandt, an L.A. County deputy chief executive, said the boycott was important even if it had produced few tangible results in the way the county spends its money. For the supervisors who passed it, "it was important for them to take a stand," she said.

The boycott has been more than symbolic for at least one city. Last year, Santa Monica officials chose not to award a $3-million contract to an Arizona-based firm to replace 20 mobile homes in a city-owned park, according to Kate Vernez in the city manager's office.

They gave the business to a California company instead.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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