WASHINGTON - Rep. Raul Grijalva, D- Tucson, knows there are benefits to be had from a U.S.-Mexico relationship, but fears the possibilities have been endangered by the hostility that has become part of the immigration debate.
"The border lines went from a unique American landscape of people, history, and land itself, to a threat … to something to be feared," Grijalva said. "Making that transition has affected the border tremendously."
His remarks came this week at the release of a report that highlighted the many economic benefits that Mexico provides neighboring states, including Arizona - benefits that the authors said most Americans do not realize.
"I think there's a giant awareness gap (about) what kind of country Mexico is and what it means to have a good, or a better, relationship with Mexico," said Erik Lee, one of the authors of "The State of the Border Report," which was released Thursday.
"It's the 12th-largest economy in the world," said Lee, associate director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University.
The report - prepared jointly by the center, the Woodrow Wilson Center and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte - cited a 2007-2008 University of Arizona study that said Mexican visitors generated more than 30,000 jobs in Arizona that year, leading to more than $2.6 billion in revenue.
Despite benefits like that, Lee said policymakers' overemphasis on national security is causing grave harm to our relationship with Mexico. That has been particularly true in Arizona, which has seen a hardening of the border in recent years.
"Arizona has really witnessed a buildup in border patrol," Lee said. As a result, he said, the state "really has underperformed in terms of its trade with Mexico."
The report said the U.S. Border Patrol now has more than 21,000 agents assigned to Southwest border sectors, a more than 500 percent increase in staffing since the early 1990s. The resulting spike in arrests, besides deterring illegal immigration, has also dissuaded the many migrant workers who would typically have come from Mexico, Lee said.
An improved relationship could be beneficial to the quality of life on both sides of the border, Lee said, but the ongoing immigration debate could make or break Arizona's relationship with Mexico.
"We're at a really historical moment," Lee said.
Grijalva agreed, saying the benefits outlined in the report deserve "to be part of the discussions as we go forward."
"These studies provide a groundwork … where we reintroduce the good aspects of what a border line should be," he said.
"This (report) is trying to redefine, redirect, and refocus the conversation about the border lines … to talk about economics, to talk about opportunity, and what is possible in the border community," Grijalva said.
Lee said that in addition to economic advantages - he said Arizona's "two-way trade with Mexico is about $13 million a year" - a solid cross-border business relationship would help border security.
But economics are only one part of the potential advantages, according to the report, which also looked at the sustainability and competitiveness issues that the border provides to the two countries.
Lee said the report will be given to policymakers as immigration talks continue and he hopes they look at the positives as they go forward instead of just focusing on security.
"On one hand I think Americans should know a lot more about Mexico than they do," Lee said. "But on the other hand it's a large, complex picture."