Arizona's Pima County covers 9,188 square miles and is home to the largest stretch of land that runs along the United States-Mexico border. Now, thanks to the work of the Rev. Randy Mayer, pastor of The Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, immigrants can feel a little more at home there. County supervisors recently voted to adopt a resolution proposed by Mayer designating the area an "immigrant-welcoming community," which he says is another step toward returning his state to a place of welcomed diversity and celebrated heritage.
"What we are trying to do is carve out Southern Arizona to distinguish it from extremist politicians and mindsets in other areas of the state," Mayer said. "We want to show that Southern Arizona is welcoming and understands its culture and history."
As an immigrant-welcoming community, the resolution states that Pima County recognizes border communities as important hubs for commerce, trade and tourism and supports programs that would build the area's trade capacity and cross-border tourism. Among other items, the resolution also states that Pima County respects the rights of all immigrants, welcomes those from all parts of the world, and recognizes the economic and cultural contributions of immigrants.
Mayer, who lives in Pima County, said that crossing back and forth across the border is a way of daily life in Southern Arizona, adding that he does so regularly for tasks such as going to the dentist, taking his car to the mechanic, or grabbing lunch. But this started to change in 2010 with the passage of Arizona State Senate Bill 1070, known as the broadest and strictest anti-immigrant measure in recent U.S. history. The law made it illegal for an immigrant to be in Arizona without proper documentation, and required law enforcement to attempt to determine an individual's immigration status if there is reasonable suspicion that the person is undocumented.
The economic impacts of this bill hit Pima County hard, and the impacts on morale hit the county even harder, Mayer said.
"When you put into place a law that basically says we are going to stop people if we have any questions about them, people from Mexico were being stopped and they started going to other places to do their business," Mayer said. "It doesn't make business or economic sense and our county has suffered."
Pima County is the sixth area in Arizona to become an immigrant-welcoming community through the work of Mayer and Religious Leaders against Senate Bill 1070, an ecumenical group of clergy which formed shortly after the law passed. In addition to the work in Pima County, Mayer said there are talks about Phoenix and Santa Cruz County soon becoming immigrant-welcoming. The group is also working on the other side of the border to create parallel versions of the resolution which would designate border cities like Nogales, Mexico, as tourist-friendly, safe places for people from the U.S. to visit.
"It's a pretty extensive project," Mayer said. "But our goal is to figure out how we counter the negative perception that people have of Arizona since Senate Bill 1070 and how can we take back our name and create immigrant-welcoming areas.
"These are very small victories, but it's really building the foundation for bigger things," Mayer adds. "We don't see this as the end of our work but rather getting our foot in the door for other pieces of our strategy."