Chatting Feb. 20 with Jaime Chamberlain, chairman of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and president of Nogales-based J-C Distributing Inc.

3:00 p.m. Tom Karst: I saw your letter to the GOP candidates. That was pretty strong...

Karst chat with Jaime Chamberlain: focus on opportunities3:00 p.m. Jaime Chamberlain: It was a heartfelt moment and I felt like it needed to be written. We will see who responds to it. I’ve had a lot of reaction to it all over the country. I think a lot of people understand where I am coming from.  It’s been a long time where we get a lot of negative publicity and the think the state is fed up with it, I know the county is and I know we are as a city.

3:01 p.m. Karst:  What has been some of the reaction to the letter so far?

3:01 p.m. Chamberlain: I was very happy (about the reaction). One of the television local stations in Tucson jut interviewed me this morning and the letter got picked up by the Arizona Republic. I was invited tomorrow evening to Sen. Santorum’s event in Phoenix and I’ve been invited to  a dinner with Speaker Gingrich.  I don’t think they will take me up on the invitation to come down to Nogales; I don’t think they have time. I really didn’t think of doing this until about a week ago. But I think if anyone of them can speak positively about trade with Mexico, speak positively about the state of Arizona and its importance to the country and if anyone can speak positively about Santa Cruz County and Nogales and my border community, I think it is a great thing. I think a lot of people try to make Arizona out to be an issue of just immigration or border violence, but that is not who we are. We are much more than that. We are economic drivers for the county. If I can bring a little attention to that and have the candidates start focusing on some of the successes and opportunities there are in doing business with Mexico and doing business in this year, I think it is a positive thing.

3:01 p.m. Karst: For those who haven’t read the letter, what were you mainly trying to communicate in the letter to the GOP candidates?

3:02 p.m. Chamberlain: I’m trying to communicate with the candidates that not everything that has to do with Arizona and the southern border has to do with immigration or violence. And that’s all we are hearing. There are so many great opportunities that many thousands of companies all over the U.S. are doing business with Mexico. It seems to be that we are really not paying attention to the positive aspects of having such a great trade neighbor. You will easily get to $460 billion worth of trade between the two countries. What we do with Mexico is more than what we do with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) put together. That’s an incredibly positive success story.  The candidates - not only just the candidates  but also most politicians - tend to think of Arizona and they think of an immigration issue and they think border violence. That’s not true. The state of Arizona, Santa Cruz County and Nogales, Ariz. are so much more than that.

We have a $3 billion produce industry here. We have an $18 billion maquiladora industry here. Those are the positive things that I think we should be able to focus on. There are so many people blaming so many other people on why the economy is as bad as it is. I think we should try to focus on what is good, what is working and what is successful and try to build on that. To be honest with you, anytime you talk about Mexico the first thing everybody says is that it is violent. Well so is New York City. So is Chicago, Ill. So is Philadelphia for that matter. So is London, so is Singapore. There are a tremendous amount of violent countries out there that are having real problems. But as a neighbor to the U.S., I think it is extremely  important to lend attention to what is good about being neighbors with Mexico. One thing that is good with Mexico; look at Congressman Paul from Texas. The state of Texas trades $151 billion worth of goods with Mexico annually and over 800,000 jobs are impacted, just in the state of Texas. 

That’s what people don’t get. When a distributor in Nogales does business with a Mexican grower, it doesn’t just mean that he is importing foreign products into the U.S. My foreign products we import to the U.S. directly impact American jobs. Whoever doesn’t get that just doesn’t understand. Because we buy our packaging equipment from Georgia Pacific or International Paper. We buy our quarter boards we buy are strapping material in the U.S. Where do you think the seeds come from? The seeds come from Israel, they come from the states, from Monstanto, from Seminis, from Syngenta, from all over the place. Just in the agriculture business, where do you think our tractors come from and where are they made? What about our packing equipment?

3:08 p.m. Karst: So there is a lot of economic activity.

3:09 p.m. Chamberlain: I don’t care if you are senator out of Ohio or if you area governor of Utah, you need to understand that our trading partner in Mexico is extremely important. Their problems are our problems and our problems are there problems. We should work together, along with Canada, to make North America a stronger trading partnership than what we already have. That is a success story that should be built upon.

3:10 p.m. Karst: What does the future hold for Nogales and southern Arizona?

3:11 p.m. Chamberlain: We have one of the most modern ports of entry that is being built (in Nogales) right now in the U.S, on the northern or the southern border. It will be done in 2014. I want Congress to know and I want the rest of the U.S. t know - that our ports of entry are critically vital to the economic security of our country. If we do not learn how to process legitimate trade efficiently and quickly, we are going to lose the competitive advantage that we have. We need to have our ports of entry staffed the correct way with enough people that can help expedite the flow of traffic. When I have a load of produce come to the U.S., we forfeit our rights to that load of produce to over 40 different government agencies right there at the border. It is Customs and Border Protection’s job to expedite that and quickly process that so it comes into the U.S. in a legal form. When we give up our produce, we give it up to the FDA, CDC, USDA, APHIS - any government agency that wants to look into our produce can do that.

You can’t necessarily way that about domestic product. You have domestic farms in the U.S. that have gone two or three generations and they have never seen a USDA inspector on their farm or ranch. Here, we are giving up our rights and our produce at the border. It has to be staffed correctly and if you are understaffed and undermanned at your ports of entry, then your ports of entry are weak and therefore your trading efficiency and competitiveness becomes weak. In the last five or six years, the appropriations for border patrol has tripled. It is amazing how many guys in green their are. There is this buzzword: “secure the border.”  What does secure the border mean? One meaning of that is to secure your ports of entry. The 9/11 terrorists all came through a port, either an airport or a land.

I would like to see some balance. I don’t disagree with what Border Patrol is doing; I do disagree in the way that it is being done. and the imbalance of border patrol agents to CBP agents.  It is hindering our way of being efficient in our way of trading with a foreign country.  Immigration needs to be fixed, but I don’t want for the state of Arizona or Santa Cruz County or Nogales to be known as the immigration hotbed. I want the county, the state and my city to be known as the gateway to the U.S for Mexico.

It behooves the U.S. to have a good relationship with Mexico.

3:11 p.m. Karst: How are things different today in Nogales compared with 10 years ago and what would you like to see changed in the next few years

3:12 p.m. Chamberlain: I’m extremely excited about this brand new port of entry at Mariposa here. I think the state of Arizona is very,  very excited abut having the most modern facility on our southern border. I believe there are many more opportunities to do business with Mexico. I hope when we go online, we open up the port, I hope we have the amount of staff we need to staff it correctly. Our facilities was made in the early 1970s and it was made for 300 to 400 trucks a day. We have been at 1,500  or 1,600 or 1,700 trucks a day for the last 15 or 20 years. We have outgrown our facilities. Now we are going to be ready for anywhere from 3,000 to 4,00 trucks a day. We are going to become more efficient and a bigger force in the produce industry. I’m looking at things in a very positive way.

3:13 p.m. Karst: Will there always be tension or rivalry between U.S. winter vegetable growers and Mexican growers?

3:14 p.m. Chamberlain: I have been here for 25 years, and all I can say is that there is always competition between both areas and mostly like there will continue to be competition between both  areas. I think we all have the same goal, and that is for the U.S. consumers to buy fruits and vegetables and be healthy. I don’t see where it behooves anyone to argue about one area or the other. We have been here for over 100 years feeding American families out of Mexico. We will try to continue to feed American families.  I think we need to stay focused on the big picture.