Arizona sees drop in legal Mexican visitors
By Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic, August 6, 2010
NOGALES, Ariz. – Amid speculation about how many illegal immigrants may be leaving Arizona under the pressure of new enforcement laws, a reverse phenomenon has gone largely unnoticed at the Mexican border:
The number of legal visitors entering from Sonora, many of them to spend money, has plummeted.
Total cross-border visits into Arizona in the months after Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 fell 17 percent compared with the same period in 2009, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Four days after Brewer signed SB 1070 on April 23, Mexico issued a warning to its citizens about travel in Arizona.
The drop-off amounts to about 12,500 fewer people entering Arizona daily.
Across the entire southwestern border during that same time frame, lawful entries by land from Mexico fell less than 7 percent.
Experts emphasize that the decline is not solely a result of Arizona politics: Recession and increased wait times at ports of entry also play a role, although there is no way to calculate which factors are most important.
In fact, the drop in tourism is a trend that has spanned the length of the border for several years. In fiscal 2007-08, according to the CBP data, nearly 209 million people came into the United States legally via Mexican land ports. The number dropped 10 percent last fiscal year – even before Arizona's illegal-immigration controversy.
Erik Lee, associate director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, said that reduced tourism can be blamed on 'a little bit of everything' but that the net result is a financial hit.
'Southern Arizona's economy really depends on the relentless Mexican shoppers,' he said.
A study issued in January by the University of Arizona's Economic and Business Research Center said the more than 24 million legal foreign visitors to the state in 2007-08 spent about $2.7 billion at stores, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
'Almost 23,400 wage-and-salary jobs in Arizona are directly attributable to Mexican-visitor spending,' the report said.
'Don't go to Arizona'
After Brewer signed SB 1070, a law aimed at driving illegal immigrants out of the state, calls for a boycott of Arizona spread not only across America but also south of the border. Under a headline that said, 'Don't go to Arizona,' one Sonora-based website urged Mexicans to keep their pesos at home.
'We must carry out an economic boycott against Arizona, and we ask that during this summer vacation season you abstain from visiting,' the website said.
Another Mexican blog announced that the campaign already is hurting Arizona merchants, especially in Nogales. On May 14, business in the city's shopping core went flat after social-networking groups organized a 'Day Without A Mexican' event.
Olivia Ainza-Kramer, executive director of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, did not respond to phone inquiries about the economic losses.
Along Morley Avenue, a border shopping district in Nogales that caters to Sonoran customers, Ernesto Chavez sat this week behind the counter of his empty stationery store, reading a newspaper. Business is down 70 percent, he said, the worst in the 50 years he has been at the location.
Although Chavez primarily blames former President George W. Bush for the recession, he said Arizona politicians compounded problems.
'This used to be like the Gaza Strip,' Chavez said. 'Business was so good that real estate was more expensive here than in downtown Phoenix.'
Across the street, Noemi Lee, co-owner of Casa Noemi, said business at her apparel store dropped mostly because of border lines and SB 1070.
'The people just don't come anymore,' she said. 'They believe there is discrimination. They're angry.'
Sentiments south of the border are so strong that, earlier this summer, governors of Mexico's border states decided to shun a meeting in Arizona with their U.S. counterparts. Brewer, who chairs the Border Governors Conference, responded by canceling the event.
Enrique Franco, Sonora's liaison to Arizona, said many of his countrymen are upset about SB 1070.
'They see it as a racist law, and they take offense at that,' he said.
Margie Emmermann, Arizona-Mexico Commission director and Brewer's policy adviser on Mexico, said in an e-mail that hard feelings south of the border 'are in great part fueled by inaccurate information.'
She blamed the media and some government officials, adding that economic and cultural ties binding Arizona with Sonora are stronger than disagreements over SB 1070.
'Regardless of how they feel about the law, they are our friends and neighbors, and they are also smart businesspeople who recognize the circularity of our economies,' Emmermann wrote.