A new immigration bill, S.B. 1070, which was signed into law in Arizona on April 23, has thrust the state into the center of a controversy and provoked local protests as well as a national call for convention boycotts.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association announced on Friday that it will relocate its fall conference, scheduled for September 23–24 at the Camelback Inn, a JW Marriott Resort & Spa, Scottsdale, to another state. The National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc., which has its annual conference booked in Phoenix this fall, will “monitor developments” as it decides whether or not to cancel or move that meeting, according to a statement released by the association on Monday.

AILA Executive Director Crystal Williams said in a phone interview on April 26 that the association canceled because the enactment of an anti-immigration law ”goes to the very core of our mission.” The cancellation fees estimated as liquidated damages—usually based on a percentage of anticipated room revenue—would total about $92,000. But the association is “in talks with the hotel,” hoping to negotiate those fees, she said.

S.B. 1070 is being called the toughest anti-immigration law in the country. The bill gives local law enforcement license to stop any individual, including U.S. residents, to check immigration status based simply on “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is in the country without proof of citizenship and makes it a state crime to be an illegal alien. (The federal government has exclusive power to regulate U.S. borders, and with very few exceptions, states are not free to create their own laws regulating immigration, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.)

The law opens the door to indiscriminate use of “racial profiling,” said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., among other stipulations as outlined in the Arizona Republic. Governor Jan Brewer signed the law on April 23. Barring any legal challenges, it will go into effect in 90 days. (Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is considering suing the state legislature to overturn the law because he believes it is unconstitutional and unenforceable, according to another article in the paper.

In a statement released April 22, Grijalva called for national groups not to book conventions in the state until the law is overturned. “If state lawmakers don’t realize or don’t care how detrimental this will be, we need to make them understand somehow. We are calling on organizations not to schedule conventions or conferences in the state until it reverses this decision. This is a specifically targeted call for action, not a blanket rejection of the state economy. Conventions are a large source of visitors and revenue, and targeting them is the most effective way to make this point before it’s too late," stated Grijalva.

AILA’s board of governors seemed to agree when ”almost all of our board—which has 95 members” voted to move the meeting shortly after the governor signed the bill into law on Friday, said Williams. “We cannot in good conscience spend association dollars in a state that dehumanizes the people we represent and fight for,” said Bernie Wolfsdorf, AILA president, in a statement.

The meeting venue was contracted about six months ago and chosen for its competitive bid and attractive setting. AILA’s event was to be a three-day quarterly meeting, not the association’s annual meeting, and would typically draw about 350 people, Williams said.

The National Minority Supplier Development Council, which is scheduled to hold its annual conference October 24–27, selected Phoenix as the site several years ago. “S.B. 1070 creates a unique situation for our organization and the constituents we serve,” President Harriet R. Michel said in a statement. “As an organization dedicated to the economic development of minority communities through the growth of Asian-, Black-, Hispanic-, and Native American–owned businesses, we deplore this clearly discriminatory action. The law does not take effect for 90 days. There will be many court challenges during that time, and there is a good possibility it will never go into effect. NMSDC will continue to monitor developments.”

Convention Bureaus, Legal Experts React
Asked for a reaction to the cancellation of AILA’s meeting in Scottsdale, Laura McMurchie, vice president of communications, Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in an e-mail to MeetingsNet, “We are extremely concerned about the negative ramifications the recent passage of 1070 will have on the tourism industry. While 1070 wasn’t crafted to have a negative affect on tourism, nor did we have a seat at the table when the legislation was being considered, we’re already seeing unintended, damaging consequences on this industry sector that has a $3.6 billion economic impact on the city of Scottsdale.

”Scottsdale's tourism industry is fighting hard to weather the storm. We've been confronted with reduced state tourism funding, attacks on the meetings industry, and we’re at the mercy of the volatile airline industry. It’s unfortunate that in the wake of our small signs of recovery, with Scottsdale's March occupancy and RevPAR looking promising, we face yet another set back.”

The Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau issued this statement on April 23: “This issue clearly demonstrates the volatility of the convention and visitor industry. In this economy it is more important than ever that we do everything we can to attract visitors to Arizona, not discourage them. Like conventions, visitors also have choices, and we will never know the full impact critical issues have on those choices.”

The state is no stranger to national controversy. What makes this particularly difficult for bureaus such as Phoenix is that it began courting multi-racial and minority meetings back in 1995. The bureau had to overcome the Martin Luther King Day “debacle,” said a bureau spokesperson in a MeetingsNet article written in 2003, referring to the state legislature's 1987 refusal to make the day a state holiday. “The city was boycotted by many associations and corporations,” he recalls. “It was sad because we knew we were truly a multicultural destination.”

Phoenix-based attorney Lisa Sommer Devlin, Devlin Law Firm, P.C., who has concentrated in hospitality law since the early 1990s, said hotels rarely sign any kind of contract that includes canceling a meeting without penalty due to political reasons. “A group does have the right to cancel for whatever reason, but in 99 percent of hotel contracts, liquidated damages come into play.”

What if an association’s membership, and therefore meeting attendees, are Hispanic, or feel particularly targeted by a law, such as the one passed in Arizona? “Saying some of my people won’t attend,” is insufficient grounds for cancellation, she said. “That’s where attrition clauses come into play.”

Dallas-based hospitality attorney Steve Rudner, Rudner Law Offices, who represents Marriott Hotels & Resorts, agrees. “If a group wants to take a political stand, and in good conscience cancels a meeting, they can’t ask someone else to pay for it. These cases will always end with liquidated damages being owed.”

Washington, D.C.–based attorney James M. Goldberg, Goldberg & Associates, PLC, who often represents associations, said he has had clients who have successfully included a clause in their hotel contracts that allows them to cancel meetings without liability due to political situations. “I have one client, who has a high percentage of gay and lesbian members, who puts in hotel contracts an out if a state or local legislature enacts anti-gay legislation,” said Goldberg. “If there’s pushback, the organization says it’s a dealbreaker. Hotels hate to sign those,” he added. “They have no control over the state legislatures.”

Devlin pointed out that hotels never want to see a meeting cancel because “the repercussions are enormous. The hotel cannot make itself whole and would much rather host the event.

“If groups decide to cancel, it will have a sweeping impact on the state and penalize people who don’t deserve to be penalized, including hotel service workers, taxi drivers, the trickle-down effect,” Devlin added. “We were just starting to see the economy turn around. The whole state shouldn’t be punished. I hope cooler heads will prevail.”

And where will AILA find a home for its 350-person meeting just five months out? “We will hold the meeting, and we are looking at other locations,” said Williams. “Given how close we are, we are not too particular. We’re open to any non-Arizona location. It doesn’t have to be in the Southwest.”