PHOENIX – Every week at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport, some 120 jets take off bound for Mexico.
But that wasn't quite enough, so the city courted the Mexican airline Volaris to offer new flights, including a nonstop one to Mexico City that begins in December.
“In recent years demand to and from Phoenix and Mexico has been growing,” said Deborah Ostreicher, the airport’s deputy aviation director.
Ostreicher said the new flights reflect that demand, and are also part of a conscious effort by the city to create more links with Mexico.
“Because it really is our largest trading partner,” Ostreicher said. “It is very important to us and we want to offer more air service so that people can come and go to and from Mexico.”
Not too long ago, Arizona was internationally known for its efforts to crack down on illegal immigration from Mexico. Now local mayors are seeing legal Mexican visitors as key to economic development.
During one year before the recession, 24 million Mexicans visited the state and spent $2.7 billion, according to a University of Arizona report.
Avondale's mayor, Marie Lopez Rogers, is encouraged by those stats and wants to help grow those figures.
She is working with the Maricopa Association of Governments on a proposal that would allow Mexicans who have border-crossing cards to visit the entire state, instead of just the zone up to 75 miles north of the border they can visit now.
The idea reflects a change in the mood from just a few years ago.
“I think the mayors have realized that we can’t continue down the path of being afraid,” Lopez Rogers said. “We need to embrace, and we’ve taken a couple of trips into Mexico and talked to our counterparts, and I think we realize that there is a great economy there.”
The recession made clear to many leaders that Arizona needed to diversify its economy away from just real estate, said Erik Lee, the executive director of the North American Research Partnership, a think tank focused on the continent.
“At the end of the day you have to make and sell stuff to folks to grow your wealth to grow your economy,” Lee said. “Mexico is right there as our go-to customer internationally.”
But relations between Arizona and Mexico grew downright chilly in 2010 when Arizona passed its immigration enforcement law, SB 1070.
Now Lee says it is notable who is pushing to repair the relationship and boost trade.
“In the wake of the SB 1070, local leaders around the state have really taken a leadership role, which was historically the prerogative of the state of Arizona,” Lee said.
For example, the Phoenix City Council has approved opening a trade office in Mexico City early next year.
It will be the only permanent presence Arizona has in Mexico’s capital.
While Mexico's secretary of foreign affairs, Jose Antonio Meade was visiting Phoenix last month, he cited the city's plan to open the office as one of a number of signs indicating the relationship has improved, according to The Arizona Republic.
Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez became Mexico’s new Consul General for Arizona over the summer, and has come in with a list of projects aimed at strengthening Arizona-Mexico ties.
“We don't want to blame each other for who is responsible for the dark period, but essentially we want to turn the page,” Rodriguez Hernandez said.
One of his plans is to create a scholarship program that will help students on both sides of the border.
Another is to open a cultural center in Phoenix that will showcase Mexican and Mexican-American exhibitions.
“This cultural center is going to be not just a message, but a symbol of unity, a symbol for a new beginning, a symbol of new opportunities,” Rodriguez Hernandez said.
Erik Lee of the North American Research Partnership has figured out how to sum up this moment in Arizona-Mexico relations:
“We are getting reacquainted after a spat, in the middle of a long friendship.”
Now that tensions are thawing, the hard work of boosting cross-border trade can begin.
In recent years, each of the other border states has enjoyed substantial gains in their exports to Mexico.
What remains to be seen is if Arizona can catch up.