December 1, 2012
by Fernanda Santos
DOUGLAS, Ariz. — When the copper smelters closed, the jobs dried up and the people who used to sustain the small shops along this border city’s commercial strips left to find work elsewhere, the Ortega family looked toward the neighbor to the south, Agua Prieta, Mexico, for a new clientele.
For decades, catering to Mexicans had been a reliable business plan for the Ortegas and many other store owners here, a multigenerational band of believers who have been around too long to give up. But the tight border enforcement prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks — and amplified by the harsh realities and language of drug violence and illegal immigration — gradually made it harder to get across the border legally, then too much of a bother, and finally a discomfiting waste of time.
Like the copper smelter workers, the Mexicans, little by little, also began to disappear.
An unforgiving blow came about two years ago, when the American government stopped issuing visas in Agua Prieta, forcing whoever wanted them to travel 115 miles to Nogales, a costly undertaking for Mexicans relying on lean monthly salaries to survive.
“I understand the need for securing our border,” said Bill Thomas, 64, who runs Thomas Home Furnishings, a store his father founded 59 years ago, 11 blocks from a port of entry now so fortified and congested that the city had to build a road to steer the lines of idling cars waiting to get across away from local streets. “But what we’ve done is, we’ve shut out the honest guy.”
The feeling is the same along much of the Mexican border in Arizona, where an imposing wall of corrugated steel disconnects main streets, shared histories and binational family ties. It has also begun to seep deeper, among business owners and elected officials inside a state known for its iron-fisted approach to illegal immigration.
The Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau has been running a media campaign in the Mexican border state of Sonora and its neighbor to the south, Sinaloa, to dispel any notions that Arizona is unwelcoming.
(After Arizona passed its strict immigration law in 2010, the Mexican government issued a warning to its citizens, telling them to assume that they could be “harassed and questioned” in Arizona “at any time.”)
On Nov. 16, Tucson’s mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, made his first official trip to Nogales, Mexico, to visit a port of entry that is under expansion and for which he has lobbied for an increase in staffing. At a meeting in October, mayors in the economic development committee at the Maricopa Association of Governments, a regional planning group based in Phoenix, embraced a unifying slogan: “We’re all border communities.”
“Mexicans spend about $2 billion a year in Arizona,” said the committee’s chairman, Thomas L. Schoaf, the mayor of Litchfield Park, a suburb of Phoenix. “They go to the Biltmore” Fashion Park, an upscale mall in Phoenix, and “they go to Flagstaff.”
About 21 million Mexicans cross legally into Arizona every year, Mr. Schoaf said; in Santa Cruz County, which runs along the border, their spending accounts for 40 percent of the sales tax revenue. “A significant part of our economic vitality is related to people who cross the border,” Mr. Schoaf said, “so we need to make the crossing more efficient.”
Erik Lee, the associate director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, said old infrastructure and inadequate staffing were largely to blame for the costly and unpredictably long waits at border crossings. While the number of Border Patrol agents has virtually doubled since 2004, to 23,306 from 11,684, the number of customs inspectors, who operate the ports of entry, increased by only 12 percent, to 21,893 from 19,525, according to federal statistics.
On average, it took 66 minutes to cross the border from Nogales, Mexico, to Nogales, Ariz., in 2008, costing the regional economy about $200 million, according to estimates compiled by Mr. Lee and Christopher E. Wilson of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Projections by the Commerce Department say the average time to get through ports of entry into the United States will rise to 99 minutes by 2017, a delay the department estimates could cost a total of $12 billion for the economies on the two sides.
Looking at his electronic ledger, Josué Lopez, who runs Casa Enrique Uniforms here, a store that his father, who was born in Agua Prieta, bought 39 years ago, said, “There’s a lot of money being lost in the name of security.”
His business depends heavily on Mexican customers: schools require uniforms, which Mr. Lopez sells, along with the uniforms used by many of the factory and medical workers on the other side of the border. Things were going well until three years ago, he said, but then a lot of his customers stopped coming as their visas expired.
In 2010, sales were down 23 percent, and though there was a small recovery last year, he said it was only because “we slimmed down the business and started focusing on the top products that we knew would move.”
In March, voters in this city of barely 18,000 residents elected Danny Ortega Jr., a third-generation Ortega running the family’s shoe and clothing stores, as mayor. He was “someone we thought could understand what we’re going through,” Mr. Lopez said.
Mr. Ortega, 50, took office in June, bent on finding a lifesaver for his and Douglas’s future. He hired a consultant from Phoenix to push the federal government for changes: an extra southbound lane at the border crossing, which opened on Nov. 16, and a dedicated lane for prescreened drivers and pedestrians, which has yet to happen.
“Let’s not be so regimented and look at every person coming in from Mexico as someone who’s going to commit a crime,” said Mr. Ortega, who left I.B.M. after 23 years to help his father and siblings run the family business. “Our financial sustainability is dependent on them.”
He hired a bilingual city manager, and he has reached out to the mayor of Agua Prieta, Irma Villalobos Terán, to figure out ways to cooperate, regardless of federal policies beyond their control.
They also joined a meeting in October hosted by the Mexican consul in Douglas, Oscar Antonio de la Torre Amezcua, to discuss ways to promote shopping tourism on both sides of the border.
“We either help ourselves,” Mr. Ortega said, “or we will die.”