Arizona is not among the top three states doing trade with Mexico, but Southern Arizona officials and businesses are trying to change that, with efforts to create a single economic region with Sonora.
Mexico is the 14th largest economy in the world, and it is expected to grow to the fifth largest by 2050.
California is the U.S. state that does the most trade with Mexico, followed by Texas, Illinois, and Michigan, said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.
That means businesses that use the newly-expanded port of entry in Nogales, called the Mariposa Port, are competing with those states, said Gonzalo Avila, the chairman-elect of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.
Produce businesses in Nogales import about $3 billion worth of edible goods a year, and lobbying at the state and federal governments is key to keeping that business in Arizona, Avila said.
"We have made it our mission to inform our state legislature and our representatives in Washington...of what our industry does and what our needs are," he said.
The port was expanded from four truck lanes to eight open during construction, but the produce association is concerned there are not enough U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials assigned to the port to open more than eight lanes.
"It's not being used to its maximum capacity if we don't have people staffing it. We want to make sure that the security in the port stays the way it's always been, very tight, not allowing things through the port that aren't supposed to come across, but all the legal trade we want to come across as efficiently as possible," Avila said. "We believe it could be better."
Arizona and Mexico traded $14 billion worth of goods last year, split between imports and exports, Rothschild said.
He would like to see that number rise, along with Arizona’s standing in trade with Mexico. That will take a deliberate effort, Rothschild said, such as increasing the number of international flights from Tucson International Airport.
“We hope and believe that by late fall we will have a direct flight, a non-stop flight from Tucson to Hermosillo, and that’s critical because once you go to Hermosillo, it’s a hub for the rest of Mexico,” Rothschild said.
The city of Tucson has a position dedicated to economic development, which includes a focus on Mexico. It's necessary because many Tucson companies want to do business in Mexico, said Juan Francisco Padrés, the economic development specialist for the city of Tucson.
“They understand there is a huge potential and opportunity to do business,” but, he said, when he invites them to travel to Mexico to check out a market, they can be intimidated.
“They’ll say ‘It’s a different language and a different culture.’ There’s different perceptions on both sides of the border, whether it is crime in Mexico, or SB 1070 in Arizona,” he said.
Mexican officials said it is also in their best interest to help businesses expand into Arizona. A regional approach is the goal, said Ramon Guzman Muñoz, the mayor of Nogales, Sonora.
“We have a defined concept of what it means to be partners, friends, to have family here and there we are practically two states with one heart that’s the reality in all aspects and that’s a good thing,” Muñoz said.
Many in Southern Arizona say the area is poised to become a logistics hub for moving Mexican products to the rest of the U.S. That will take infrastructure improvements, such as expanding road and rail capacity, said Mike Valencia, president of the Southern Arizona Logistics Education Association.
“We’re catching up. This is something Tucson should have been doing 25-30 years ago, because just of our strategic location,” he said. “But once we start putting all those assets in place, and we start building all that infrastructure, and we start announcing to the world, really everybody outside of Tucson, that we’re open for business, Tucson can take advantage of it tremendously.”
Another infrastructure project that would make business smoother would be adding a designated truck lane in Nogales to allow semi-trucks to go straight from the Mariposa Port of Entry to Interstate 19, Avila said.
"That would mean no stoplights, no traffic lights," which would improve safety in Nogales, and efficiency for businesses, Avila said.
Fernanda Echavarri and Zac Ziegler contributed to this report.