This past fall, Motel 6 learned a harsh lesson about the consequences of collaborating with immigration authorities. The hotel chain’s financial and public relations debacle came to a head when the public discovered that Motel 6 properties in Arizona were actively colluding with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by regularly sharing guest lists with ICE and effectively creating a customer-to-deportation pipeline. After the practice was revealed, the hotel chain faced a public relations nightmare: protests, negative media stories, and lost revenue from people who would no longer stay at Motel 6. Branding that had taken years to foster was instantly undermined as the well-known Motel 6 slogan — “We’ll leave the light on for you” — was lampooned to highlight the lack of safety and privacy that guests would face.
While the company has since reaffirmed a commitment to safety and privacy — and ceased handing over guest lists to ICE — the challenges experienced by Motel 6 are instructive for businesses operating in the current political climate. Put simply, businesses should not be in the business of immigration enforcement. The federal government has a well-established and well-resourced framework for doing this work. It doesn’t need any help from businesses. Hundreds of immigration judges are trained to wrestle with complex immigration issues, and federal enforcement agencies have an annual operating budget of approximately $20 billion. Businesses should focus on providing high-quality goods and services to consumers. Entanglement in immigration activities reduces workplace productivity by distracting and diverting employees away from legitimate business functions.
Companies face many risks — and legal consequences — when they stray into immigration enforcement. Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or national origin is illegal and businesses colluding with ICE are vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits brought by employees and customers. Businesses also risk driving away customers and significant revenue loss. As Motel 6 learned, consumers are largely opposed to immigration enforcement by private companies and will avoid businesses engaging in these practices. It takes a long time and a lot of money to rebuild trust and repair a damaged public reputation.
On the flipside, businesses that cultivate corporate social responsibility and welcome all customers stand to reap immense benefits. One noteworthy approach is to join the burgeoning “sanctuary business” movement that has started among community-based small businesses. These businesses make a public commitment to ensuring the safety and dignity of all customers. This means that — unlike Motel 6 — they will not actively participate in immigration enforcement activities. They will not invite immigration into their establishments, will not gather evidence against their clients, and will not turn over customers to ICE. In Massachusetts alone there are dozens of these “sanctuary businesses” — including successful restaurants such as Bon Me, Bread & Salt Hospitality and Jasper Hill Cafe & Bistro. The list is ever-growing. Businesses that have recognized the benefits of immigrant-friendly policies have reduced liability and are establishing their companies as leaders in the business world. While restaurants have been the primary drivers of this movement, all businesses should strongly consider adopting immigrant-friendly policies that include protections for both employees and customers.
The business community has often led the push for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Now companies can demonstrate continued leadership in social responsibility by following the success model of restaurants and becoming “sanctuary businesses.” Good companies know that exclusion is not a sound business model. That is especially true today — just ask Motel 6.
This op-ed was published in the Boston Business Journal.