Arizona Struggles To Gain Cross-Border Trade With Mexico

In 2010, Arizona passed laws aimed at undocumented immigrants. As a result, business relations with Mexico — Arizona's biggest trading partner — began to suffer.

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STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: The other day, a man named Jaime Chamberlin walked into a loading dock full of vegetable crates - hundreds of crates, each with hundreds of vegetables. He reached in, pulled one out...

JAIME CHAMBERLIN: These are cucumbers.

INSKEEP: ...and took a bite.

CHAMBERLIN: These are good.

INSKEEP: We met Jaime Chamberlin as we traveled the U.S.-Mexico border. His warehouse stands in the border city of Nogales, Arizona, and his business is all about cross-border trade. Arizona firms gather in vegetables grown in Mexico.

CHAMBERLIN: Tomatoes, cukes, bells, beans, squashes...

INSKEEP: And they're sent to the U.S. through Arizona. On the afternoon we visited, workers were rolling little vehicles called pallet jacks through the warehouse, racing across each other's paths as if conducting a mechanical ballet. They were swiftly assembling loads destined for every part of the United States. For example, the pickling cucumbers Jaime sampled.

CHAMBERLIN: So, these pickles were picked and packed and sent up yesterday morning, unloaded here, and they'll probably get loaded either tonight or tomorrow morning for their three-day trip to Woodstock, Illinois. And they'll probably start processing those sometime this weekend.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: And we should say: This is one of dozens and dozens of similar warehouses right within our surrounding area.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ted Robbins, who covers the Southwest. He was the one who brought us to this warehouse and introduced us to Jaime Chamberlin.

INSKEEP: So, Ted Robbins, you wanted us to hear a story about how Arizona is struggling to gain and preserve more of that cross-border trade.

ROBBINS: That's right. And Arizona has some catching up to do. It may have shot itself in the foot, economically. You'll remember how, if we go back four years to 2010.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) (unintelligible) You're hurting my state. Stop 1070.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And boycotts of Arizona are spreading, Mexico issuing a travel advisory, warning its residence about visiting Arizona.

ROBBINS: In 2010, Arizona was suffering backlash from passing a number of laws aimed at undocumented immigrants. The best known: SB-1070. It required local police to question the status of anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally - the Show Me Your Papers law. Republicans pushed it to force the undocumented to leave Arizona. The result, though, was fear among Latino citizens and legal residents. Some left, others resisted.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We're not going to put up with this. This is not going to happen.

ROBBINS: Relations with Mexico, Arizona's biggest trading partner, grew cold.

MAYOR JONATHAN ROTHSCHILD: There was damage done.

ROBBINS: Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild says shoppers from Mexico stopped coming, sales tax revenue dropped and new business relationships stalled. Then, the mayor recalls exactly when the damage stopped: in 2011, as the Arizona legislature debated more immigration enforcement.

ROTHSCHILD: Presidents or CEOs of the 60 largest corporations in Arizona signed a letter to the state legislature, sent it to the governor, and said stop.

ROBBINS: The state hasn't passed another immigration law since. The Supreme Court ended up striking down some parts of SB-1070. A judge found Joe Arpaio, the outspoken Phoenix-area sheriff, guilty of racial profiling. Voters even recalled the law's chief author. And leaders in Arizona's cities began repairing the damaged relationship with Mexico.

MAYOR GREG STANTON: We're trying to catch up as quickly as possible.

ROBBINS: That's Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. Arizona is trying to catch up with Texas. As politically conservative as Texas can be, it's never passed strict immigration laws, and it kept pursuing business. Texas doubled its trade with Mexico over the last decade.

STANTON: Texas has definitely done a better job with ports of entry, transportation routes, etc.

ROBBINS: Texas maintains trade offices in Mexico City. Arizona closed its office three years ago. Mayor Stanton wants to open a new office there. A lot is at stake. More than six million jobs all over the U.S. depend on trade with Mexico. Nearly a half million in Texas and 100,000 jobs in Arizona are linked to exports to Mexico or tourism from Mexico.

STANTON: We have a massive growing economic giant to ourselves and shame on us here in Phoenix and in Arizona if we don't take full advantage of that to create jobs in our city and region.

ROBBINS: Stanton is a Democrat, but the state's Republicans support his efforts. Four years ago, Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin voted for SB-1070. Last year, Tobin went to Mexico to talk trade.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE ANDY TOBIN: I said, well, you know, listen, I get it. I don't like a lot of your laws here, either, but we have a lot in common.

ROBBINS: History, culture, deep economic roots. Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed SB-1070. A month ago, she and Sonora Governor Guillermo Padres announced a joint visit to Israel to recruit companies to the border region. There are new partnerships to promote better north-south highways and railroads. Arizona State University Economics Professor Dennis Hoffman says it's almost as though Arizona officials have rediscovered Mexico.

DENNIS HOFFMAN: I think there's an awakening, an about-turn and an awakening as to the importance of rekindling this commerce relationship that we lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

ROBBINS: Last year alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection processed almost two-and-a-half trillion dollars in trade through ports of entry, including this one in Nogales. The port is being expanded with federal money. That means shorter wait times. Remember Jaime Chamberlin, the Nogales produce distributor? He hopes that'll help him grow his company. Of course, as a businessman, his attitude towards Mexico is the same now as it's ever been.

CHAMBERLIN: We are here. We are open for trade. And we welcome your dollars. We welcome you as our counterparts and as our real partners.

ROBBINS: Stress the positive, forget the past: That's the message Arizona wants Mexico to hear now. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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