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Business beats bigotry

Posted: April 4, 2011 - 8:14pm

Conservative Utah has bucked the national GOP trend of embracing hard-line — and arguably inhumane — laws meant to make states inhospitable to illegal immigrants. Two weeks ago, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed into law a bill that will grant work permits, and a path to legal residence, to undocumented immigrants and their immediate families.

And conservative Arizona, which last year passed the anti-immigrant law known as SB 1070, defeated a second slate of such measures, including one that sought to deny birthright citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. There’s nothing inherently conservative about taking a punitive line against illegal immigrants. Instead, as these votes in Utah and Arizona show, old-school conservatism — that of employers and business interests — just might be the key to finally dealing justly with the 11 million people living within our borders without papers.

Business’ first loyalty is to the bottom line. That tends to make businesspeople seem indifferent to social issues; they concentrate on balancing their books and staying afloat, not on saving the world. For the politically liberal, that smacks of meanness and greed. But cool pragmatism is the right antidote for passionate bigotry. In fact, despite all the time and energy Americans spend praising the wonders of tolerance and the virtues of inclusion, bottom-line values have throughout our history done about as much to fight bigotry as has any particular brand of high-minded moralism.

In the 18th century, the French political thinker Montesquieu, whose writings influenced the founders, concluded that “commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices.” As a rule, he wrote, business flourished wherever one found “agreeable manners.”

Indeed, the United States owes much of its belief in religious tolerance to the capitalist legacy of Dutch New Amsterdam. When Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of what would become New York, tried to legalize discrimination against Quakers and Jews, it was the Dutch West India Co. that forced him to stop. In the case of Quakers, the merchants agreed that the sect was an aberration but that persecuting a minority in a polyglot colony was simply bad for business.

More recently, the profit motive helped undermine racial restrictions that were used to keep blacks out of certain neighborhoods. In her 2010 book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the migration of African-Americans to the North, Isabel Wilkerson argues that efforts to keep blacks out of Harlem, and later some parts of L.A., failed “not because anti-black forces gave up or grew more tolerant” but because property owners had a choice to either maintain a whites-only policy in a market being deserted by whites or to take advantage of the rising black demand. Most wound up taking the pragmatic route.

As Jonathan Koppell, dean of the public policy school at Arizona State University, says, “Most businesses are hard-pressed to let visceral emotions drive decisions to the point where the balance sheet suffers. In the marketplace, alienating a significant segment of the population is never a good strategy. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the political arena.”

So how did business meet politics in Utah and Arizona?

Utah saw the economic damage Arizona did to itself with SB 1070. The law, which prods police to question those they stop about their immigration status, drew boycotts and cost the state millions of dollars in tourism and convention business. Pushed by business leaders and the Mormon Church, politicians didn’t repeat the mistake.

As for Arizona, with five more virulently anti-immigrant measures up for consideration, 60 state business leaders sent a letter to the Legislature asking them to not make matters worse.

None of this suggests that Republicans or most voters in these states are suddenly pro-illegal immigration. What it may mean, however, is that the pragmatism of pro-business conservatism is finally standing its ground against the emotionalism of social conservatism.

That’s a good thing, because emotion is no substitute for problem solving. When it comes to immigration, and so much more, America needs the bottom line now more than ever.

• Rodriguez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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