Welcome to an American Town Where Trump Hate Could Cripple the Economy


Mayor David Smith has lived in Bisbee, Arizona, a historic mining town 20 minutes from the Mexican border, for more than a decade. To Smith and most people in Bisbee, the border is little more than a technicality standing between them and cheap dental care, good tequila, and late-night tacos. Smith often drives across the border to have lunch in one of his favorite restaurants in Cananea, a Sonoran mining town about an hour away. But when he travels to other cities in the U.S. and explains that to friends, he finds they often have wild, alarming ideas about what his life near the border is like.

“People say, ‘Aren’t you afraid of the cartels and being kidnapped?’” he recalls. “I try to tell them it’s a lot safer here than it is in most American cities.”

Mexicans worry about safety, too, Smith says. “They’re hesitant [to come here] because of the news about the president’s border policies. Some are afraid that they aren’t going to get back across the border, or that they’re not going to be let into the U.S. in the first place.”

On this weekend in June, combating misinformation and fearmongering is at the top of Smith’s agenda. The town is hosting an event called “Sonorafest,” a first-of-its-kind collaboration that’s brought 48 vendors and businesses from the neighboring state of Sonora, Mexico to showcase their wares in Bisbee. The town has bet big on the event, spending around $70,000 to organize and host the Sonorans. It’s also one of the busiest weekends of the year, and they’ve closed down Tombstone Canyon, the town’s Main Street, for the occasion.

Sonorafest makes explicit what’s been true for years: Southern Arizona needs Mexico’s business. Since the 1970s, when the mine closed, Bisbee has relied on tourism. And a significant piece of its commerce comes from Mexicans attracted by its proximity and its restaurants, breweries, and shops.

For all the Americans who cross the border for visits to trendy Mexico City or Cancun parties, there are far more Mexicans who come north, spend money, and pay sales taxes that go right back into the local economy. Mexicans spend about $186 million a year in Cochise County, where Bisbee is located, and create about 1,500 jobs. In 2016, Mexicans spent $2.6 billion in the state of Arizona. In the state tourism department’s most recent study, they represented by far the largest number of international visitors. Last year, Mexicans legally crossed the Arizona border 24 million times. That’s roughly the same number of total Americans who visited Mexico in all of 2015.

Those are facts yet to be recognized by the White House. As Trump rose to power on an anti-immigrant platform, he developed an unbridled habit of insulting Mexico and its people. “They are not our friend, believe me,” he said on one infamous occasion in June 2015. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

The chill on U.S.-Mexico relations has extended beyond the presidential mansions.

Understandably, citizens living south of the border took offense. In January, the Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto canceled his first meeting with Trump after weeks of Trump promising that Mexico would pay for a new border wall and threatening to impose a 20% tax on imports to the U.S. When Trump and Nieto convened for a meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany last week, Trump stated that Mexico would “absolutely” pay for the wall, ignoring Nieto’s repeated statements that the opposite was true.

The chill on U.S.-Mexico relations has extended beyond the presidential mansions.

“In central Mexico especially, a lot of people have decided not to travel to the U.S. lately,” says Felipe Garcia, who works for Tucson’s visitor bureau and is in charge of selling the city as a destination to Mexico and other countries. “There were chambers of commerce there taking advantage of it and saying, ‘They don’t want us there—stay in Mexico, spend your money here’…Sometimes I start talking about Arizona to Mexicans and they say, ‘Isn’t that where they hunt Mexicans?’”

Messages like that worry Garcia, and he does what he can to beat them back. He tweets. He posts coupons, travel incentives, and promo videos to Vamos a Tucson (“Let’s go to Tucson”), the city’s Spanish- language Facebook page. He also volunteers at a Mexican TV station and gives a weekly news update on events from the U.S. side of the border.

And Bisbee? It has Sonorafest.

Outside in Bisbee, speakers are set up between the tall Victorian-era buildings raised with money from the city’s old copper mine. Mexican music fills the street. Uphill, beyond the long row of vendor tents, the street widens and a stage is being raised. Later, it will be filled with teenage boys in charro suits and girls twirling wide pink skirts as they dance the Jarabe. After that, boys dressed in buckskin and antlers will perform an arresting dance inspired by the final moments of a deer in flight and the hunter chasing him.

Deborah Grier, who owns Finders Keepers shop downtown, thinks Sonorafest “sucks” because “our regulars can’t park.” But even though she’s having a bad business day, Grier wants Mexican tourists in Bisbee. She regularly places advertisements in Mexican publications, hoping to draw people north to her specialty store. Meanwhile, other businesses, like Pussycat Gelato down the street, report record sales that they credit to the event, organizers say.

As the morning sun rises higher in a clear blue sky, the visitors and locals wander among the stalls. A dressmaker sells a modern spin off traditional attire, with embroidered formal wear in rich reds and emeralds that bursts with flowers; a couple sells glazed, metal sculptures of suns; a caffeine-high coffee peddler brightly gushes about his home city while he sips his third cup of the day. Smith says he wishes there had been more vendors at Sonorafest (they had planned for more than 60, instead of the 46 that came), but some Mexicans were scared to leave, even after being invited for an official, city-sponsored event.

Near a booth selling cement and another selling cakes, Claudia Jimenez, a woman who looks like well-dressed, upper-middle class mother in a white shirt and pearls, is promoting her husband’s Hermosillo-based business, Diazlab, where Americans can get hyperbaric treatments for a fraction of what they’d pay in the U.S. The lab doesn’t have many American customers yet, but they’re hoping to attract them.

“Free trade was invented by you guys, not by us. You made the rules, and now you don’t like them.”

Jimenez tells me she and and her friends used to visit the U.S. for fun. They’d travel to Seattle or New York for vacation, or cross the border to go shopping at the malls. But these days, they’ve mostly stayed on their side of the fence.

“I don’t go anymore. I don’t feel like it,” she says. “Everyone used to go there, but we’re traveling more in Mexico now…In part, it’s about solidarity with other Mexicans, especially the immigrants.” But Jimenez also feels afraid of violence in the U.S.

“It’s happening a lot now that they break our windows, people who don’t like us, when we drive to an American mall with the license plate from Mexico.” So she’s stayed home. But she says, for the moment, she feels safe in Bisbee.

Raul Holguin Atondo, who’s selling furniture and wood work made in Hermosillo, likes Trump, but tells me it’s become harder to cross the border since Trump got into office.

“I think he’s going to take out all the narco traffickers and the guys who make problems,” he says. “But I’ve been doing business in the U.S. for more than 25 years, and now I have more trouble getting through customs. Now they check everything. It takes 30 or 40 minutes for the checks every time.”

He believes the longer checks are part of the border crackdown that Trump has promised will make the border region, and America, safer.

Nearby, a guy named Gerardo Campillo Sugich is offering samples of bottled salsa that promises flavor without the heat that burns American stomachs. He tells me he once owned the Latin America franchise of Playboy, and just ran into a woman on the street in Bisbee who recognized him and identified herself as Miss November 1982. Small world. Now, through a random series of events, he’s the rep for a large salsa distributor. He says if Trump becomes even more extreme in his positions and shuts down trade with Mexico, it’s not himself he’s concerned for.

“I was speaking to a friend at the FDA who works with us on our salsas, and he asked me, ‘What will happen if the border is closed and you can’t bring your product in?’ And I said, ‘Hey man, I have two masters degrees—I’ll be fine. What will you do if the border closes?’”

When the subject turns to the presidential election, Campillo laughs and shakes his head.

“I get it, you know? Americans were tired of seeing the same three names in the White House for the last 20 years.” And yet Campillo says he finds it ironic that Trump has promised to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1995 treaty that allows for tariff-free trade between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

“Free trade [between the U.S. and Mexico] was invented by you guys, not by us,” he says. “You made the rules, and now you don’t like them.”

Throughout Sonorafest, people seem to go out of their way to smile at each other. The American smiles appear to say: “It’s not me—I don’t think you’re a criminal.” The Mexicans’ smiles: “Whoever Trump is talking about, it’s not me.”

This mutual acceptance is critical not just to Bisbee, but to the entire state. Garcia, who has been looking at the economics of the Mexico-Arizona trade relationship for years, tells me about a Tucson-based company called Sargent Aerospace & Defense. When they opened a plant in Mexico a few years ago, people were concerned they’d be closing their Tucson branch, and the city would lose jobs. Instead, the company confirmed, they expanded their Tucson operations and built an entire new wing to accommodate the growth.

Mexico has trade agreements with countries that the U.S. doesn’t, Garcia says, so in many cases, opening a Mexico plant helps U.S. companies expand. Manufacturing is cheaper in Mexico. Companies often make parts in the U.S. and ship them to Mexico for assembly.

“We stole this land from the Mexicans and the Indians. And anyway, we’re all the same species.”

It’s not as if Trump is the only one who’s criticized NAFTA. Business success stories aside, policymakers from all over the political spectrum have taken globalization to task. Bernie Sanders, for instance, wrote in 1993 that NAFTA allows companies to exploit low-wage workers and pollute south of the border, when they would otherwise be paying a living wage and operating under stricter environmental guidelines in the U.S.

Trump has largely blamed Mexico and China for the disappearance of manufacturing jobs in America (in 1960, almost one in 4 Americans worked in manufacturing, that has now dropped to less than one in 10). But most economists also note that automation—when machines do jobs people used to do—is responsible for much of the change, regardless of trade policy.

“Trump’s talk on trade is bluster,” economist Charles Ballard of Michigan State University told CNN Money. “Even if you did [what Trump says], you wouldn’t reverse the technology, which is a very big part of the picture.”

But it can be hard to explain that to people, especially if they’ve absorbed statements like those made by Trump, who took an incredibly complex, decades-old trade relationship and winnowed it down to an “unbelievably bad” deal for the U.S. that results in a $63 billion trade deficit. Once a half-digested truth is spoken, it takes on a life of its own, where fear and confusion affect not just multinational corporations, but small vendors and individual travelers.

It’s the same thing that happened, on a smaller scale, with a news story of questionable veracity that went viral on social media a few weeks ago.

According to an alleged first-hand account, a U.S.-bound Mexican traveler had been going through an inspection at the border when the agent asked to see her cellphone. On it, the agent found a meme making fun of Trump. The Mexican, who had all the appropriate paperwork to travel to the U.S., according to the reports, was immediately denied entry and turned away.

Garcia, who saw the story and feared it would deter Mexican travelers, called the state department to ask if they were turning people away because of memes. They claimed they weren’t.

Back in Bisbee, the Mexican and American flag have been raised side by side while a children’s choral group sing the national anthem. At a press conference of Bisbee and Sonoran officials, one of the Mexican delegates says, “I am really enjoying your city, especially your many, lovely bars,” and everyone laughs.

Lawmakers in Washington “don’t know anything about our relationships,” Enrique Franco, the Sonoran representative to Arizona, says.

“The people at the top can do what they will [about the border],” Mayor Smith agrees. “It’s an artificial barrier, and we want to show the world that it doesn’t keep us from being brothers, sisters and friends.”

Outside the Mining and Historical Museum, I meet Raul Berrious, an American who’s lived in the area for 20 years. In the early 2000s, he worked as a contractor and rebuilt a seven-mile section of the border wall. Berrious says that during the time he’s worked and lived by the border, he’s perceived a decrease in illegal immigration and thinks the issue is overblown.

“I could tell because I was out in that border area all the time, and you knew when people had been trying to cross, because you’d find their campsites or the backpacks they’d left behind when the border patrol found them,” he says. “And over the years, I just saw less and less of their things left behind.” (It’s not just him: Illegal immigration from Mexico has been dropping since its peak in 2007.)

Berrious says building the wall was decent work, but the concept of it never sat well with him.

“It went against the grain for me,” he says. “I don’t even feel like there should be a wall. We stole this land from the Mexicans and the Indians. And anyway, we’re all the same species.”

Breena Kerr is a journalist and essayist living (mostly) in San Francisco, CA.

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