Douglas, Arizona is about 120 miles southeast of Tucson but it's right on the border with Mexico and it's heavily dependent from the neighboring city of Agua Prieta in the State of Sonora. On a yearly basis at the Douglas port of entry, officials estimate about 26,000 truck crossings, more than a million pedestrians and close to two million cars.
Douglas has about 17,000 residents but Agua Prieta has approximately ten times as many people who are said to contribute up to 70 % of the sales tax revenues for Douglas. That is why many merchants, community leaders and residents in Douglas are so concerned about proposed boycotts and other activities from opponents of Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070.
Carlos Valenzuela is the president of the Greater Douglas Chamber of Commerce but he spoke to us as one of the dozens of individual business owners in the city. "We did nothing and it seems to me like it was not well thought out, that it would impact such small people that are trying to struggle to stay off the unemployment line.” Valenzuela and many others believe state and federal officials should visit border communities such as his so they can get a better sense of the history, ties and interdependency in this region.
Doctor Michael Gomez was born in Douglas and moved away to attend dental school but came back to the community and was elected mayor in 2008. He says his constituents oppose and support the bill, but he worries about its implications to cross border relations. "And so it’s very important for the economy of the state that we continue to have real good relationships with Mexico. And the problem is that 1070 has created a lot of diverse opinions which are not good."
Those opinions include the many shoppers who have legal documents to travel between Sonora and Arizona and who buy staples in Douglas such as food, clothing and shoes. Manuela Lopez is a homemaker in Agua Prieta and she says many people in her community don't agree with the proposal because they feel Mexicans contribute significantly to Arizona’s economy. "There has been talk about about boycotts and I’m willing to participate. Perhaps if none of us shopped there for a day or two Arizona could feel the impact," Lopez says.
Manuel Alejo is a teacher in Agua Prieta and has been traveling to Douglas and other Arizona cities for years. " Generally we come to Douglas every weekend where we buy simple items like clothing, shoes and food. We’ve been hearing that it’s not a good idea to travel to Arizona because they can stop us based on our appearance. My family and I had thought about going to Phoenix to visit friends and relatives but now we’re thinking twice about it.”
Gerry Bohmfalk is another merchant on the city's main business street and his family has lived in the region since before Arizona's statehood. He owns a Western store in the city that sells many hats, boots and other items to shoppers from Mexico. “This is not, there’s not really a border between Agua Prieta and Douglas, there’s a fence there but this is one big family down here. I mean, people over here and over there, we’re all one family.” Bohmfalk says he's not sure 1070 was the best way to address the problem of illegal immigration but he understands that some action was taken, due to escalating frustration for decades. “Arizona has taken the responsibility of bringing this to the forefront I think and rather than read anything into this of a racist nature, I’d rather think this is more of an economic problem.” He adds, " We’re broke. We have to suffer with the same issues that Phoenix has to suffer and typically we don’t have anybody with a lot of money to reach into t their pocket to help us out. Our schools are suffering, our public services are suffering, all these things are suffering because we’re just providing them for everybody and we’re spending more money than we’re making."
And while the debates and discussion continue, merchants don't know why a place like Douglas would be targeted. The Chamber of Commerce recently received an email from a man in the neighboring state of New Mexico who said he was canceling a proposed trip to Douglas later this year, referring to Arizona as a racist state. Carlos Valenzuela says this idea is very frustrating. " From the chamber’s perspective we just wanted to remind him that Douglas is 90% Hispanic and that it seems odd to me as the president and bewildered the board of directors why a city that is struggling with a lot of the border issues that we have naturally would be sort of punished commercially and businesswise because it appears to us that they’re really hurting the same kind of people that they’re trying to defend. “
The new law from Senate Bill 1070 is scheduled to go into effect in July.