Nogales maintains community despite economic, image problems
Bracker's Department Store sits 250 feet away from the U.S.-Mexico border. It's been in business since 1924.
Inside is a wide range of designer apparel including $850 leather jackets, $1,600 hats and $360 sunglasses. Owner Bruce Bracker greets customers in a Tommy Bahama shirt, Lucky Brand jeans and Rockport shoes.
How do the people of Nogales, where the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the median household income is $22,000 a year, keep this store stocked with expensive, upscale merchandise running? They don't.
"The wealth that affords what I'm selling comes from northern Mexico," said Bracker, who represents the third generation of family members to run the store and another that sells discounted merchandise. "Physically we're in the United States; economically I'm in northern Mexico."
He estimates that over 80 percent of his business comes from south of the border.
Bracker's story is just one of the many that represents the unique relationship between the U.S. and Mexico in the border town of Nogales. It's a relationship that not only impacts local merchants like Bracker but residents throughout the United States since nearly half of the nation's winter fresh fruits and vegetables are imported from Mexico through the Nogales port of entry.
Nogales is also living with the notoriety of its twin city across the border, Nogales, Sonora, where at mid-year 2o10 police had reported 126 drug-related murders. But the story is much different in this Nogales; there has been one murder in the past three years, none in the past two.
In fact Nogales defies many stereotypes and public perceptions of what life is like on the border. Immigrants and imports drive the economy. The city's revenue is solely derived from sales tax, much of which is collected from Mexican shoppers who can get permits to cross the border for day trips. People from both sides of the border mingle easily, casually and bilingually. Around 45 percent of residents are foreign born, and 93 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino and speak a language other than or in addition to English at home, according to the Census Bureau.
The large contingent of U.S. Border Patrol and customs agents, local police and the National Guard are insurance against rising crime.
And often when violence does break out, it involves clashes between the Border Patrol and bandits or undocumented immigrants.
The relative calm of the area was tragically broken Dec. 14, when Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry died after a gun battle with bandits in a canyon 13 miles north of Nogales. Less than a month later, Border Patrol agents shot and killed 17-year-old Ramses Barron Torres of Nogales, Sonora, as he tried to scale the fence into Nogales.
Even though violent crime remains low in Nogales, the impact of drug trafficking has spilled over. Police report weekly seizures of significant amounts of marijuana. And in November, the Arizona Department of Agriculture decided that it would pull produce inspectors from Mexico because of the violence on the Mexican side, a move that agriculture industry says could cut revenues by 25 percent.
That is another economic blow to a city where merchants like Bracker say they've already suffered economically from the passage of anti-illegal immigration bills like SB 1070, which makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant in Arizona. And while that law, which is tied up in the courts, has widespread support in Arizona, in Nogales, it is tearing the city's economic base apart.
"When you have people writing laws like this that don't really have an understanding of what the problem is, they're just out there to make a name for themselves, that's the impact of what happens," said Bracker.
The city of Nogales has a population of about 21,000. It is the largest port of entry in Arizona.
According to a 2008 study from the University of Arizona, Nogales accounts for about 47 percent of all legal border crossings in the state.
The study, which interviewed over 3,000 visitors from Mexico at six Arizona ports of entry over one year, found that two-thirds of the visitors listed their primary reason for coming to the U.S. as shopping.
The authors estimated that over 23,000 wage and salary jobs at retail stores and restaurants in Arizona are "directly attributable to Mexican visitor spending." These jobs account for over $3.6 billion in sales and about $840 million in income.
Nogales takes full advantage of this spending. In fact, the city could not survive without it.
"The city of Nogales does not have a property tax," said Nogales City Attorney Joe L. Machado "Its sole base of revenue is the sales tax that is collected on sales transactions occurring within the city."
Mexican visitors with border crossing cards, such as Ivan Suarez, come to Nogales mainly to buy in bulk. Suarez said that it is cheaper to buy in volume on the American side of Nogales than in Mexico.
As Suarez sat in a park on Morley Avenue, the main business thoroughfare, he carried a rolling suitcase filled with the morning's purchases. He said he was waiting for his mother and sister to finish shopping so they could continue on to Tucson, where it was cheaper to by single, quality items.
However, shoppers such as Suarez and his family are becoming less common in Nogales.
Merchants like Bracker took a huge hit last year and not because of the recession.
The recession hit hard but Bracker said the business, "survived, and we did well. From January to the point when they signed SB 1070 we were showing signs of recovery," he said. "The minute they signed SB 1070 in my discount store, my business dropped 50 percent for 2 weeks. Since then it has been 30 percent off from the previous year."
The impact of the bill's passage is not unique to just Bracker's. Yvonne Delgadillo, executive director of Nogales Community Development, said that a lot of businesses have felt negative effects from the legislation.
"A lot of merchants have estimated a 50 to 60 percent drop in sales," Delgadillo said.
This drop comes from the perception that American law enforcement officers will treat Mexican visitors in the community with hostility because of the law. So people are more hesitant to come across the border.
However, the problem goes much deeper than just SB 1070. Delgadillo said that the major problem is the public opinion about Nogales as a whole. The bill just reinforced existing public perceptions.
"We have to fight against so much negative publicity, but the opportunities are still there."
A major facet of that publicity is the feeling that Nogales is dangerous.
"The perception that it is violent here is not true," said Nogales Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkham, in an interview conducted prior to the December and January Border Patrol-related shootings.
Kirkham was appointed chief of the Nogales Police Department in January. He previously worked at the Mesa Police Department from 1987 to 2008 serving as a lieutenant and sergeant. He believes that the town's proximity to Mexico actually adds to the safety of the town.
"It's partly because of the closeness of the border," said Kirkham. "Smugglers don't want to stay here. They want to move on because there are so many federal agents…so they get away as quickly as possible."
But Kirkham said that the proximity to the border does come with its problems.
"Our officers will on an average, almost daily, certainly weekly, come across 200-500 pounds of marijuana," Kirkham said. "That was unheard of in the Valley."
He said that most of the violence that is dealt with in the county occurs on the outskirts of town. But those crimes "are directed towards law enforcement, not the general public," Kirkham said, as was case in both the deaths of the Border Agent in December and the border crosser in January.
The violence against peace officers is increasingly felt by members of the Border Patrol, agents say.
Nogales is in the Tucson Sector of Border Patrol which has had the largest number of apprehensions of illegal immigrants every year since 1998, according to an August release from the Department of Homeland Security.
The Nogales Border Patrol Station is the largest in the nation. It is responsible for about 32 miles of international border, 12 miles of which is fenced. The station currently employs around 600 Border Patrol agents.
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Paul Boulier said agents are often shot at and sometimes are involved in "rockings," where individuals on the outskirts of town or on the other side of the fence will throw large rocks at officers.
To help address the dangers of the job, Border Patrol agents are given the option of checking out a shotgun, M4 carbine, and extra body armor when on patrol in addition to the standard .40 caliber pistol.
The station led the nation in alien apprehensions in 2009 with over 57,000 arrests. Boulier estimated that number is down by about 40 percent for 2010. However, he also estimated that the rate of assaults against Border Patrol agents has doubled since last year.
"I don't think it's because of SB 1070, but it could be," said Border Patrol officer David Hurtado.
Hurtado believes that the rising number of assaults comes from frustration at the increasing difficulty of crossing the border illegally.
"When you have the infrastructure and you have the personnel and you have the technology and you're stopping people from coming, they're going to get desperate," Hurtado said. "And when they get desperate violence is going to go up."
While Border Patrol agents are frustrated by what they go through, some legal residents of Nogales are frustrated by what Border Patrol officers put them through.
"It's not dangerous," said Carlos Santa Cruz Jr., whose backyard is 15 feet away from the border fence. "Mostly what makes you feel threatened is the immigration and the police because they make such a big deal out of everything."
Santa Cruz said he didn't like how immigration officers brandished their guns during arrests. "Just put them in the back of the truck." Santa Cruz said he has had immigration officers point a gun at him in the past, he said.
Santa Cruz's family owns all the houses on both sides of a city block just north of the fence. His relatives operate two DJ companies that play mainly for local parties in the area.
He said that once while he was cutting grass near the fence, Border Patrol agents stopped to see what he was doing. He didn't hear the officers approaching because he was listening to his MP3 player. Cruz said the next thing he knew he was hit by a stun gun. The officers were apologetic, but it was a reminder of how incendiary normal life can be on the border.
Santa Cruz's sister, Chelsea, 16, has also dealt with the unique issues that come with living so close to the border. She said she was once awakened at 5 a.m. by illegal crossers who broke into her home to hide from Border Patrol agents.
Even with these experiences, neither brother nor sister is afraid to be living by the border.
"It's just normal," said Carlos Santa Cruz. "They live their lives, we live ours. It's just how it is."
A growing border
For residents, the border is just a part of daily life. For the nation, it represents a big investment in terms of tax dollars and agriculture.
Construction began on the expansion of the Mariposa Land Port of Entry in October 2009 under President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The project is expected to cost almost $200 million.
Among other things, the project will add more commercial vehicle lanes and inspection facilities to the border crossing where an estimated 47 percent of the fresh produce consumed in the United States during the winter months is imported. The project is expected to be completed in spring of 2014.
"It is the gateway for fresh produce from Mexico to the U.S.," said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. "It's been coming through this town for more than 100 years."
Jungmeyer said that 50 percent of fruits and vegetables coming from Mexico during a year pass through the Nogales port of entry. For some vegetables such as tomatoes, that can jump to around 80 percent during the winter season.
"The key thing to keep in mind is that, for the most part, most of the produce coming from Mexico is coming through at a time when the U.S. isn't producing it on their own," said Jungmeyer.
Mexico is the leading exporter of fresh fruits and vegetables to the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The total value of all agricultural imports from Mexico totaled $11.3 billion in 2009.
Jungmeyer's association works with the commercial and government parties involved with produce. It's a bridge that transcends cultures as well.
"We have great relations with Washington, D.C., and Mexico City," he said. "A lot of times we're viewed as the conduit that helps both sides understand each other."
But the cross-border relationships aren't all peas and carrots. The drug violence in northern Mexico is causing state officials in Arizona to reassess working assignments.
As of early November, the Arizona Department of Agriculture has pulled its produce inspectors from the Mexican side of the border due to recent reports of violence.
Currently, the state employs 20-25 USDA inspectors through a federal and state program to ensure produce meets U.S. standards before going to U.S. markets.
Previously, inspectors examined produce at three sites on the Mexican side of the border. Those employees are now working at inspection points on the U.S. side.
"If they (continue) to do that, that will be a catastrophe for the industry," said Olivia Ainza-Kramer, president of the Nogales Chamber of Commerce. "We don't have the infrastructure to deal with something like that."
Ainza-Kramer said that the change will add too much time to the process of dropping produce shipments at warehouses. Commercial trucks would be forced to cross the border and then wait for inspection, a process that previously occurred almost simultaneously. With time-sensitive products like fruits and vegetables, that spells big losses for produce shippers.
"The companies are going to be facing a drop of 25 percent or more in revenue," said Ainza-Kramer. "That's going to affect not only the local economy, but the state."
However, recent reports of violence along the border have made the risk too high for the Arizona Department of Agriculture, said Don Butler, the agency's director.
"Bodies were found 4 miles from where our people go," said Butler. "We just don't want to have somebody ambushed."
Butler said that they would hire more inspectors to try to alleviate losses by businesses, which is in the back of his mind.
"I understand their side. I've been on that side before. They say they don't have the space down there," he said. "There's just a concern of our people in the department of going into Mexico."
Butler has no reservations about having his workers on the American side of Nogales. But he knows that the decision will affect a multi-billion dollar industry.
"You take the good times with the bad. This is a tough decision for this department and it's a tough nut to swallow," Butler said. "(We)'re between a rock and a hard place."
For Nogales, it's just another blow to its image that local leaders are struggling to manage.
"It really breaks my heart to see the negative news we get," said Manuel Ruiz, a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. "It's unfortunate that the problems here are magnified because of our proximity to the border."
Ruiz has served on the board of supervisors for the last 10 years and on the school board for 18. He believes that the answers to Nogales' economic problems will have to come from the city itself rather than state policy.
"I think that change begins in your own backyard," Ruiz said. "What we need to do as a community has to come from us."
Ruiz has been a member of the community for decades. He grew up in Nogales, married his high school sweetheart and had two children. After spending time in Texas and Michigan, the family decided to move back to Nogales. He loves the community, but is worried about the future of the city.
"The sad thing about it is that most of the young people see there's not much opportunity, outside of if their family owns a business, so they leave," he said.
And while the young leave, those who stay deal with leaders who recently have attracted a lot of bad press.
In September the city's mayor, Octavio Garcia-Von Borstel, and his father, Octavio Suarez Garcia, were arrested on charges of corruption.
Garcia-Von Borstel was released from county jail in early October and faces nine felony charges under two separate indictments including theft, bribery and money laundering.
After a December hearing, defense attorney Christopher Scileppi said he expects the trial on the corruption charges to proceed without any delays. The allegations under a parallel indictment by the state may take longer to get to court, he said.
The case, said local business leaders, signifies the need to develop strong leaders for the future.
"We have a leadership vacuum in this community," said Nils Urman, a Nogales Community Development board member. "As our economics changed in this community, our leaders left. They moved on, they retired, and they were not replaced."
The loss of leadership combined with the current economic downturn hasn't helped. Nogales is extremely vulnerable to the shifts occurring in state and federal legislation. This situation has caused a lot of frustrations for local organizers like Urman.
"We're deeply affected by policy," he said. "Every time we're working on solving one policy they create another policy."