On a December day in 2015, presidential candidate Donald Trump rallied his supporters in Mesa amid cheers for building a giant wall on the southern border and kicking out undocumented immigrants.
The day before, Gov. Doug Ducey held a holiday reception and joint press conference with his Sonoran counterpart, Claudia Pavlovich. The joint event speaks to the strong relationship budding between Arizona and Sonora, and perhaps Mexico at large, as the relationships between the two federal governments fracture.
But it also underscores the difficulty of building relationships as a border state. No matter how much local officials work to find opportunities with Mexico, their actions could be undermined by Trump’s language or actions.
There are obviously big limitations to locals’ abilities. For example, they can’t write or vote on federal laws, so they can’t change a broken immigration system or keep trade agreements intact.
Still, knowing the limitations, Ducey started broadcasting his interest in Mexico before he even took office. In December 2014, he tweeted a photo with Mexican General Consul Roberto Rodriguez Hernández, saying he looked forward to working with the Mexican official.
— Doug Ducey (@dougducey) December 20, 2014
The tweets didn’t stop once he took office. Ducey frequently sends out photos of his meetings with Mexican officials, usually with notes of gratitude or hospitality.
It’s a far cry from the tense relationship between the two states in the aftermath of SB1070, a law passed in 2010 that targeted illegal immigration as anti-immigrant sentiment took hold in Arizona.
Ducey sees Arizona’s position as a border state as a benefit, not a liability, and his perspective is largely informed by economic realities. For instance, if the North American Free Trade Agreement were dismantled, as President Trump has suggested, Arizona could lose 236,000 jobs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated.
“I come from the business community. I knew who my customer was. The customer can either make you very, very successful or the customer can put you out of business,” Ducey said.
Ducey isn’t alone in his quest to improve relations between the two border states. He’s joined by dozens of business leaders and lawmakers at all levels, from mayors to U.S. senators. Groups routinely travel to Mexico to discuss economic and social issues, and Mexican dignitaries now frequently make stops in Arizona to glad-hand with elected officials here.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a Democrat who started as mayor soon after SB1070 passed, said it seemed like “our state government really turned our back on Mexico.”
Stanton has gone to Mexico 18 times since then. The city has opened two trade offices in Mexico, and Mexico opened a trade office in Phoenix, a sign of how far the relationship has come since then, the mayor said.
The governor himself has traveled to Mexico five times since taking office, according to the Arizona-Mexico Commission, including his first international trip as governor to Mexico City, something that hadn’t happened in a decade. He has also hosted Pavlovich in Arizona six times.
Angel Bours, vice president of the Sonora-Arizona Commission, said it’s clear the two governors have a strong relationship based on trust and a mutual understanding the states need to get along for the sake of the region’s economic health.
He said leaders on both sides of the border have been working on issues all over the spectrum, from trade to border wait times to water to education to social services.
“The relationship between the states goes beyond what the president does or says,” Bours said in Spanish.
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry has focused intently on growing the business relationships between the two states and came out against ending NAFTA and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
These days, Arizona delegations are received “very, very warmly” in Mexico, chamber President Glenn Hamer said. National rhetoric hasn’t played heavily into talks between business leaders because the local folks are “operating in a different airspace,” he said.
Jessica Pacheco, president of the Arizona-Mexico Commission’s board and an Arizona Public Service executive, said the national rhetoric hasn’t popped up in meetings she has had with her Mexican counterparts. Instead, the binational meetings have swelled in attendance, and the groups have focused on their day-to-day realities, she said.
“The relationship between Arizona and Sonora, I don’t think it’s ever been better than it is right now,” Pacheco said.
Roots of discontent
Most sources for this story pointed to a common low point in the Arizona-Sonora relationship: SB1070, known colloquially as the “show me your papers” law.
The most controversial provision of SB1070 required law enforcement to check the legal status of people they suspected were in the country illegally, a provision critics said led to racial profiling.
The backlash from SB1070 was almost immediate, and the effort to repair the reputational damage to the state’s image is still in progress. Groups from around the country announced bans on travel to Arizona for conferences, some of which still remain intact.
In 2010, the year SB1070 passed, the governors of Arizona and Sonora held no joint meetings, according to the Arizona-Mexico Commission.
Couple the backlash from SB1070 with the notoriety of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s slogan as “America’s toughest sheriff” and his roundups of immigrants, and there’s a lot for the two sides of the border to overcome.
Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said the pendulum has largely swung back in Arizona’s favor since SB1070 because of efforts that began at the state level before Trump took office.
But there’s a strong lesson to be learned from the SB1070 backlash, Wilson said.
“Tone matters. Business relationships are hard to form when the perception is totally negative,” he said.
After SB1070 became law, Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, anchored in Nogales, Arizona, said Arizonans became “persona non grata” in Mexico quickly.
“And we’ve been fighting it ever since,” he added.
The tide started turning in 2014, as pointed out by a National Public Radio story at the time, when Republicans, including then-Gov. Jan Brewer, who had signed SB1070 into law, sought to work with Mexican officials, and aggressive anti-immigration legislation at the state level had mostly dried up. The change of direction came after many dozens of CEOs of financial giants impressed upon the state’s leaders that they were squandering an opportunity.
Ducey didn’t want to discuss SB1070’s impact on the ability for the two states’ to communicate. He said he came into office and moved forward instead of focusing on the past.
“That’s the beauty of being an outsider and a newcomer to politics. I was able to go to Mexico City and pull out my business card and say, ‘Let me introduce myself, I’m the new governor, and I’m looking forward to a fresh start.’ And we erased and moved forward from that day,” Ducey said.
It’s a stark reversal from the recent past. During the Obama administration, Mexico and the U.S shared a congenial relationship while Arizona and Sonora were at odds.
Now, as the Arizona-Sonora relationship bloomed in recent years, the U.S.-Mexico relationship has eroded. Trump ran for office on a wave of border security fever, economic protectionism and isolationism. During the campaign, he said Mexican immigrants were rapists. As president, he floated the idea of adding a 20 percent tariff to goods coming to the U.S. from Mexico. He said the U.S. would build a “big, beautiful” border wall and Mexico would pay for it (Mexico disagrees with this idea).
— Doug Ducey (@dougducey) July 22, 2015
For longstanding, trust-filled relationships, the president’s words don’t have a big impact, Jungmeyer said. But his words do sometimes require a response.
“Whoever you’ve been interacting with in Mexico, you kind of have to show them that I’m still the same person, our relationship is still the same. That may be a theme going on in American politics, but that doesn’t reflect what you and I have built together,” Jungmeyer said.
So much of the U.S-Mexico cooperation comes from local relationships, where the heart of the ties that bind the two nations are most obvious, said Shannon O’Neil, an immigration and trade expert at the foreign policy think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations.
Only in the past three decades has Mexico come to view the United States as a partner rather than an imperialist threat, O’Neil said. And the harsher, more nationalistic rhetoric coming from the White House could affect the way our southern neighbor views us and spark a nationalist response from Mexico, she said.
But local officials can counteract the national noise by making their voices heard in discussions with people in Mexico and with leaders in the U.S., O’Neil said.
“Stand up for Mexico. They will notice that, and that will go a long way to help build that relationship,” she said.
As for Ducey, he doesn’t think he should get involved in Mexican politics, and he appreciates that the people he works with in Sonora don’t try to get involved in American politics. And he recognizes big issues like comprehensive immigration reform and NAFTA renegotiation are out of his hands, though he can make it known to his federal friends what Arizona wants to see.
Still, the resiliency of the Arizona-Sonora relationship stood the test of a tumultuous election, and it became a true friendship, Ducey said.
“I do think that our relationship has grown stronger and more trusting because we never blinked during the entire campaign. We never cancelled or delayed a meeting,” he said.
Limits to the relationship
Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, who traveled with a bipartisan group of state lawmakers to Mexico in August, said Ducey has done well at improving the relationship with Mexico. But at the state level, the powers-that-be should be looking at ways to help Dreamers with tuition and licenses, something Ducey has largely avoided, Espinoza said.
While the governor has publicly said he wants Congress to pass legislation to allow Dreamers to stay in the U.S. permanently, he hasn’t taken steps to address the in-state tuition or driver’s license issues and has instead shied away from state policy related to the group of young immigrants.
“I just think he should include a bit more of the Latino caucus and the Democrats in general,” Espinoza said.
Stanton said improving conditions for Latinos in Arizona through policies that help Dreamers, for instance, can assist the state’s reputation south of the border.
For something like NAFTA, Bours, of the Sonora-Arizona Commission, said Sonoran and Arizonan officials may not be able to directly vote, but they can impress upon federal lawmakers the importance of trade and its financial impacts on states.
It’s up to those working in the field to show why investing in and collaborating with Mexico is wise, he said, and that’s where the local groups choose to focus.
The economic arguments only comprise part of the picture of the Arizona-Sonora relationship, though, O’Neil said. There are so many cultural and personal ties between the states that create a much deeper connection, she said.
“This is the future of your state. What is Arizona going to be 20 or 30 years from now? That will depend on the education and integration of many of these families that can make Arizona a much stronger place,” she said.