Arizona boycotted over 'Nazi' purge of migrants

The already fractious dispute over Arizona's tough new immigration law entered the realm of Punch and Judy yesterday as politicians exchanged soundbites over news that Los Angeles is to pursue an economic boycott of the state, in protest at its crackdown on undocumented workers.

Members of LA's city council compared 21st-century Phoenix to Adolf Hitler's Berlin as they voted, by a margin of 13-1, to suspend official travel to Arizona. The resolution, which passed on Tuesday, will also result in the cancellation of all the authority's future business deals with private companies based there. Existing commercial relationships may also be scrapped.

Los Angeles becomes the largest city yet to join the growing boycott. It has a total of $52m (£35m) of contracts with firms there, though only roughly $8m will be immediately affected.

Arizona has been in the firing line since last month, when its Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, signed a law requiring police to stop and question anyone they "reasonably suspect" of having entered the country illegally. If that person is unable to produce satisfactory identification papers, they will be arrested and held until their immigration status can be confirmed.

Critics of the law, which takes effect in July, say it will lead to racial profiling of Arizona's Hispanic community, who make up 30 per cent of its 6.5 million citizens but almost all of its estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants. Police will start harassing citizens who happen to look like they might have come from south of the border, they complain.

"Under the new law, as an American, I cannot go to Arizona without a passport," said Ed Reyes, a Latino member of LA council, who backed the boycott. "If I come across an officer who's having a bad day and feels that the picture on my ID is not me, I can be deported, no questions asked. That is not American."

At one point during Tuesday's debate, a councilman described the boycott as a necessary response to the most racist piece of legislation passed in America since the government sent citizens of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during the Second World War. That may be stretching things a bit, but it's nonetheless in keeping with the tone of a debate which is starting to assume totemic importance as Barack Obama prepares to deliver on his pledge to overhaul immigration laws and give some of the country's estimated 12 million illegal residents a path to citizenship.

Already, tens of thousands of people in cities across the US have joined protests against Arizona's measure, while Boston, Oakland, New York and San Diego councils this week passed resolutions promising to examine how to cut commercial ties with the state. San Francisco has already banned employee travel there.

Governor Brewer, who faces a tough re-election battle in November, has expressed bemusement at all the fuss. "What is this outcry?" she wondered yesterday. "Why do they want to damage the people that are here that are fighting to obey the laws? What is the motive? Boycotting in the name of illegal activity... where in our country has that ever taken place?"

Yet while a majority of voters currently agree with her, there is concern at the impact any boycott will have on Arizona's tourist economy. Hotels have reported a steady trickle of cancellations of private visits and business conferences since the affair erupted.

Many locals still remember a long and ugly dispute that followed the state's decision not to observe Martin Luther King day during the 1980s, which eventually saw plans for Phoenix to host the Superbowl – an event worth hundreds of millions of dollars to any major city's local economy – cancelled.

For the time being, though, the fuss appears to be shifting Ms Brewer rightwards. This week, she signed a bill prohibiting the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona schools, on the ground that it "promotes resentment" by students from minority communities towards their white counterparts.

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