HE IS AT THE HELM of a major American city a mere 60 miles from the Mexican border, but Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild still regards immigration as much more an opportunity than a threat. In 2011, Rothschild left a successful law practice to lead a city in a deep recession and (in the popular narrative) under siege by illegal immigrants. Looking back on his six years in office, the avowedly left-leaning Rothschild has charted a successful middle path between his city’s economic, cultural and infrastructure imperatives, bolstering support for job generators like Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Raytheon, while working with the business community to bring Caterpillar and Monsanto to the Tucson region. He also recruited hundreds of volunteers to tutor Tucson kids in reading, reached out to help solve the homeless veterans crisis, and traveled extensively in Mexico with a message of friendship. Weeks away from the most divisive national election in recent memory, the Mayor addresses what he judges to be the realities of the immigration issue, and explains why he is working hard to carry Arizona for Hillary Clinton.
TLB: Good morning, Mr. Mayor. What in the world led you in 2011 — having never before run for office — to step into one of the toughest positions possible, at a time when Tucson was in a recession?
Rothschild: Well, I have to say, I didn’t really appreciate the challenge at the time. I had a very successful life, I thought I knew a lot about public affairs, and I read the local newspaper. And honestly, after reading the paper day after day, I said – probably like many of us – “I can do better than that!” And I had the good fortune of having lived here my whole life. My work as an attorney had me out and about in the community. I volunteered on nonprofit boards and the like. So, I knew a lot of people.
Once I was elected, I found out everybody has opinions, but not everybody has the facts on which to base those opinions. A lot of what I’d been reading and hearing about city government just wasn’t true. Some was absolutely the opposite of true. The city had taken some hits that were unfair. Not that there wasn’t work to be done, but there was already a lot of good work going on.
The other thing that motivated me to run was the re-election of President Bush in 2004. Oddly enough, I’d met his brother Neil when I was a freshman at Tulane. We were acquaintances. I was not a supporter of President Bush, so when he was re-elected, I thought, “This is my generation, and this is not what we set out to be.”
I mean, I understand. It’s hard for everybody. You have ideals but you’ve got to make a living and you raise a family and you lose touch with what’s going on in your own community. But after President Bush was re-elected, I couldn’t stand on the sidelines any more. And I was already at an age – I wasn’t a 28-year-old trying to get into politics. I was born here. I knew the city. There was going to be an open seat. So I said, “I’ll run for mayor.”
TLB: You went after the mayoral seat because you thought your community was in trouble. And because you shared a national disappointment in George W. Bush’s presidency, which took us into Iraq and whatever else.
Rothschild: I don’t want to give him all the credit. It was a recognition on my part of, well, you know, if I don’t step up, who’s going to?
TLB: Getting into your term as mayor, the immigration issue has been huge for you. As a city 60 miles from the Southern border, you find yourself at the vanguard of a divisive issue which his metastasized into utter toxicity the past year. Some believe in building a wall. What do you believe in? And what have you done?
Rothschild: I took office in 2011. SB 1070 had just been put into practice. SB 1070 was the state legislature’s bill that authorized local and state police to enforce federal immigration law. And that immediately became a matter of national concern. The city of Tucson – before I became mayor – filed a brief to set that law aside. Ultimately, much of it was set aside – but not all, unfortunately.
Immigration is an opportunity, not a crisis. Furthermore, at least as of last year, more Mexicans left the United States than entered the United States. They’re going back to Mexico because there’s work there. There’s a culture there and a welcome-ness there. And partly those numbers have gone down because Mexico’s improved its own economy. In Tucson, within the city limits, we’re 43% Hispanic. We’re 60 miles from the border. It’s not a homogeneous population; it’s a heterogeneous population. What I mean by that is there are families that have been here for 400 years, and there are families that have been here for 4 weeks. When you live here, you recognize that these aren’t numbers, these are families. These aren’t numbers, these are friends. What I realized as mayor was, when you’re 60 miles from the border – as Tucson is – your economic success is going to be tied in no small part to the economic success of your nearest neighbors. In our case, that’s Mexico, not Phoenix.
But Phoenix realized this too, the importance of Mexico to Arizona’s economy. And so Greg Stanton, the Mayor of Phoenix, and I would take regular trips into Mexico, to say to Mexican officials and business owners, “What you’re reading about and what you’re seeing is not Arizona.” We had to do that. And we did.
So do I believe in building a wall? [laughs] Of course not. Walls have never worked anywhere. When I was a little kid – and it was a different world, I’ll grant you – we’d go down to Nogales, and there was a fence, but it was like a ranch fence. It wasn’t even barbed wire. It was just a wire fence. And people would cross all day long. People would live in Nogales, Sonora and work in Nogales, Arizona. Or vice versa. The world has changed, clearly, but building a wall? That’s nonsense.
TLB: There’s so much talk that we hear in the presidential campaign, from Mr. Trump and others, about crime along the border. What are the facts about that? What burdens do border related crime place on Tucson’s police and Tucson’s court system?
Rothschild: I can tell you that we see very little crime as it relates to the border. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t drug trafficking that runs north. And that’s not to say there isn’t gun trafficking that runs south, from the U.S. into Mexico. There has not been, in my opinion, the kind of cooperation there needs to be at the federal level between Mexico and the United States to share information. But as a local community? We’ve experienced very little effect.
Now, as far as the policy of stopping people and picking them up for their undocumented status, our federal court system is very busy on a daily basis, taking people through a cattle chute of a process called Operation Streamline. If we had comprehensive immigration reform, that problem would go away.
TLB: And yet certain individuals tell is that these undocumented individuals could be murderers and rapists. What has been your experience and Tucson’s experience with the Mexican people?
Rothschild: Well, as I say these are families, these are friends. They come here to shop. Sometimes they come here for medical purposes. They come here as tourists – to enjoy American culture, just like we go to Mexico to enjoy Mexican culture. Now, again that’s not to say there aren’t some who come and commit crimes, but I can tell you, I’ve lived here my whole life and there was a lot more crime in the 1970s.
TLB: How important do you think the 2016 election is to the American southwest, and who do you support and why?
Rothschild: I’ve gone around publicly saying that if Donald Trump is elected president, the state that will be hurt the most is Arizona. Because I’ve seen it before, with SB 1070. And I’m convinced of that. I happen to support Hillary Clinton. I support her because she has great experience. She’s been Secretary of State. The first President Bush had a lot of foreign policy experience and it made him a better president. She’s been a United States Senator. She lived in the White House for 8 years with a man who I believe was – in my lifetime, at least by results – our best president so far. And the candidate who the Republican Party put up – I think it was the New York Times that said he’s the single worst candidate a major political party has nominated in the country’s history. So that makes my decision pretty easy.