Push for Arizona boycotts unlikely to hurt tech

Experts say any economic effect from boycotts would likely be short-term

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is so critical of Arizona's new immigration law that he has barred official city travel to the state and created an "Arizona Boycott Workgroup" to determine what goods and services produced in Arizona can feasibly be boycotted.

The immigration law has been widely criticized because of the power it gives local police to question anyone they reasonably suspect may be an illegal alien, and to detain them if they aren't carrying the right paperwork. Those responsibilities have historically belonged to the federal government.

A boycott plan could limit San Francisco's choices of PCs and servers -- or anything with a semiconductor in it. And that may go for Los Angeles, Oakland, and Washington and some of the other cities considering a boycott in response to the immigration legislation signed into law last week by Gov. Jan Brewer.

Arizona remains a major center for semiconductor manufacturing in the United States, employing 21,000 people in 2008, the most recent data available, according to TechAmerica, an industry group. Intel says it has 10,000 employees in Arizona alone, according to an undated post on its Web site. Overall, Arizona's tech industry employs some 116,400 workers, according to TechAmerica.

Steven Zylstra, president and CEO Arizona Technology Council, said the immigration debate "is a dramatically important issue for Arizona," but speculated that the impact of any boycotts on the state's technology firms would likely be short term. "For the most part, people are overreacting to what's happened and not focusing on the real issue, which is that we need comprehensive immigration reform in the United States," he said.

Tom Rex, associate director of the Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research at Arizona State University, added that civic boycotts don't tend to affect private sector companies, except perhaps when conventions are moved, but agreed that any impact is "usually relatively short-term."

Both Rex and Zylstra, though, said the the law's implications for foreign workers in Arizona are a genuine concern.

Immigration attorneys warn that the law could cause problems for some legal H-1B workers, particularly if U.S. immigration authorities are behind in processing their immigration documents. Such potential problems could cause talented H-1B workers to turn to other states for employment.

Rex said that if enough workers decline to relocate to Arizona because of issues surrounding the immigration law, "a company [will] really consider the factors that are keeping people from moving here."

Zylstra said that he is hopeful that H-1B workers are "not going to buy into the Kool-Aid that the national media is apparently selling about what a horrible place this - because it's not."

Brijesh Nair, a civil engineer from India who has works on an H-1B in Arizona, said that among visa holders he knows, "none of us really understand the real impact of the bills. The very thought of carrying visa document with you every time is both scary and painful." He explained that "you can have an expired visa but have other documents (like the I-797 form) that allow you to stay in the country ."

"As long as police are trained to understand all those complexities associated with identifying the legal status I don't see any real issue for people from India who came here in H1B visa," said Nair. The "only difference will be that along with the drivers license we may have to carry one more document all the time," he said.

Nair plans to return to India to work. He wrote about his decision on his blog.

An Intel spokesman said in an e-mai that officials at his company, "just like everyone else, are continuing to assess" the law's potential impact on either foreign workers or on the company's business in the state."

Zylstra said the law was enacted as "a reaction to the fact that the federal government hasn't acted. The hope is that the national attention will mean that this issue "will now be finally dealt with on the federal level, which is where it should have been dealt with to begin with," he added.

The council didn't offer an opinion on the legislation during the debate on the issue because it tends to focus on issues of more direct impact, such as research and development tax credits, said Zylstra.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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