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Updated Apr 23, 2013 - 8:08 am

It's time for Arizona to get in the game with Mexico

What do we want from Mexico?

As the Gang of Eight pushes forward on immigration reform, the prospect of real change gives us the opportunity as Arizonans and Americans to ask, What do we want from our relationship with Mexico?

The first question to ask is, What IS our current relationship with Mexico? It is definitely NOT a security-based relationship.

True, the Mérida Initiative -- a binational U.S.-Mexico security program -- is worth about $1.9 billion dollars over several years and our border security complex costs us several billion dollars annually. Yet these figures pale in comparison with the U.S.-Mexico commercial relationship, now at over a half trillion dollars per year. Mexico is the U.S.' No. 2 export market, our No. 2 tourism market and the third-largest foreign petroleum supplier. Mexico is Arizona's largest trading partner, by a significant amount. In this era of globalization, money really talks, and the reality is that our bilateral commercial "conversation" makes the talk about Mexico's security situation and our own worries over border security look small in comparison.

Arizona needs more personal relationships with Mexico

In international relations, as in football, it's a bad strategy to have your "defense" on the fi eld for most or all of the game. Over the past several years, we've been playing defense at the border just as Mexico's economy expanded tremendously beginning in 2010. Even our trade discussions in the state focus largely on what is happening just here in Arizona. As important as border infrastructure is, in reality the U.S.-Mexico border is the very last place where you want to start dealing with complex issues such as immigration, trade and security.

Business in a global context is still driven by personal interactions. This means that you can't accomplish all that you need to accomplish from our air-conditioned offi ces in Phoenix, Tucson or even Nogales. Business in Mexico is particularly notable for being based on face-to-face relationships between family-owned fi rms, often over very long and delicious meals in Mexico City. Tough work, but someone has to do it!

A Casa Arizona in Mexico City

Arizonans have the Arizona-Mexico Commission as a solid mechanism for working with the state of Sonora, but Sonora is just one state in Mexico and not the most dynamic from an economic standpoint. The real economic potential is where the large population centers are: Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara. We desperately need a permanent, well-staffed Casa Arizona located in Mexico City that can be utilized by the state of Arizona, city leaders, chambers of commerce, universities and other key stakeholders. The basic methodology for these types of trade development offi ces is now well-developed by other states, most notably Texas. Arizonans need to be there in large numbers and full-time in order to get in the game and make something happen for the state. Immigration reform gives us the "bandwidth" to focus on creating the truly strategic relationships and fl ows of trade and tourism that we very much need to help develop a sustainable economy.

Erik Lee is Associate Director at the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University.

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