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Interview: Rubén Beltrán, Consul General of Mexico, on Serving U.S.-Based Latino Populations

June 18, 2008

"The situation involves dozens of countries and hundreds of thousands joining the job market every year."

In an exclusive interview, Consul General of Mexico in New York Rubén Beltrán speaks with AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis about a new initiative bringing together Latin American consulates to expand services for immigrants in the tri-state area. The coalition marks the beginning of the project through the June 21 Feria Consular Latinoamericana in Harrison, New Jersey, where the consulates Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay will provide services.  Beltrán also discussed the challenges facing Mexican immigrant communities across the country and consular efforts to meet the needs of New York’s rapidly growing Mexican community.

AS/COA: You described this initiative (the Feria Consular Latinoamericana) as the first of its kind with this many consul generals coming together. Can you talk about how these consul generals came together and why now?

Beltrán: Well, it is the first time that several consulates of Latin America in the U.S come together to provide services in a joint fashion simultaneously. Over the last six months we’ve been getting together on a regular basis to discuss ways to further cooperation between our countries. One of the ideas that was explored was precisely having this consular fair. The other decision was to assess what kind of services we can provide. So we came up with this formula, and out of 16 consulates, 9 were able to seize the date. Others had prior engagements but I’m pretty sure that in forthcoming exercises, the vast majority of the consulates will come together to provide services.

AS/COA: Can you talk a little bit more specifically about what you will be doing on June 21; it sounds like this is just the first in a series of events.

Beltrán: Several services are going to be provided and different consulates are going to be providing different services. Some of the consulates are going to be issuing passports, some of them are going to receive applications for passports, others are going to be giving some other services like vital records.

In our case, that Saturday we’re going to be very busy because our office in Manhattan is going to be open, we are going to have a consulate roving function—what we call “the consulate on wheels”—in East Harlem. We are going to provide in Harrison, New Jersey three kinds of services. We’re going to give legal advice to folks that will need information in terms of some specific questions on migratory issues or legal services in general. Also, we’re going to open our desk for vital records. Mexicans that would like to register their kids before the consulate are going to be able to do it. Also, Mexicans that are willing to give the power of attorney to a different person are going to be able to do so within the premises.

The full array of services to be provided is a huge menu, so countless amount of Latinos are going to be there for different kinds of services.

AS/COA: Before you were here in New York, you were in Los Angeles. What are some of the different challenges and opportunities that you see here in New York as opposed on the West Coast?

Beltrán: In terms of community, I would say the main difference is that the migratory wave of Mexicans here on the East Coast is much more recent, whereas the migratory settlements in the West Coast date back for decades and decades. I would say that the migration settlements are much younger here and, in many ways, the sentiment of belonging to Mexico is fresher. On the other hand, they’re learning how to organize themselves around community-based organizations and hometown associations and the like. The Mexican migrant population here in the Tri-State area is the one growing at the fastest pace in the whole U.S. in terms of volume. Maybe it is growing at a quicker pace in Arkansas for instance, but the volume is much more smaller in Arkansas or Raleigh or in other places.

AS/COA: I imagine that it must be a challenge…

Beltrán: That in itself is a challenge, but that in itself is also an opportunity for us to have an impact in the ways the Mexican community is organizing itself, so we can provide information so immigrants can take advantage of the new policies that are in place and the new programs. So it is both a challenge and an opportunity.

AS/COA: Since 2006, when immigration reform fell apart in this country, several state, municipal, and local laws have been approved. What sort of impact do these laws have on how the different consulates function?

Beltrán: Tremendous impact. You don’t have a homogeneous group of Mexicans living here, their political situation is not homogeneous, and there are different policies in place. Some municipalities are taking initiatives that are very much against the immigrant community and others are more passive. But some are trying to create an environment that is, frankly, the right environment so immigrant communities can prosper and the community as a whole can take full advantage of their presence. That’s the case of New York. The policies put in place in New York City by Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg and borough leaders, those are policies that favor the joining of these communities to the mainstream of the society.

There’s a geography of intolerance, and if you draw a map you’ll see what I call the geography of intolerance. There are certain islands which are hot spots where intolerance is a routine, it is a daily act. In some others, as I said in the case of New York, it is much more benevolent or even proactive in fostering the assimilation of immigration.

Therefore, there’s no uniform policy from the Mexican consulates in all the cities. I think the common denominator mandated between all the Mexican consulates is to be very proactive, but the action of the consulate is different in states or cities where immigration is favored from others where immigration is subject of active discussion and tremendous activity in municipalities, city councils, and state legislations. My colleagues in those states, cities, and municipalities are very much involved, basically by demonstrating that, contrary to what very few but very vocal groups that are against immigration say, the net impact of immigration is very positive. So our programs vary from region to region, because there is not a common platform in the whole United States.

AS/COA: You have these mobile stations where you go to different communities where there are large populations of Mexicans. Please talk a little bit about different policies in other parts of the country, where consulates have to pursue providing services in a different way. Is it impossible to have something that visible in some of those communities?

Beltrán: In some communities is not possible to be that visible outside of the consular building. But the Mexican tradition of having these roving functions is very old. It was born 20 years ago or so. The difference of this program that functions throughout the week, which we call “the consulate on wheels” launched by President Felipe Calderón’s administration, is that it is a daily program. Normally the mobile consulates—that’s how they’re called 20 years ago—functioned once a month; you go with your colleagues to a church, to a school, to a community-based organization to provide those services. That was very common and it was created back in the 90s by the Mexican consulate in Chicago.

But these “consulates on wheels” offer a service provided on top of the regular services, with a separate budget and separate personnel. Through that system, we were able in just four months to serve 30,000 Mexicans in the Tri-State area. Paperwork for another 70,000 Mexicans was processed in Manhattan, so we are breaking all records in terms of people being covered through this service. It comes to a big total of 108,000 Mexicans being served in less than six months of this year. Bear in mind, that last year 104,000 were served, so we already surpassed the figure of the whole 2007 in the middle of 2008.

This consulate on wheels gave us a tremendous opportunity to really explode the level of services we are providing for the rest of the community. We already visited 14 cities in the Tri-State area, and we have two units. One team works from Tuesday to Saturday and the other team works from Wednesday to Sunday, so the Consulate General of Mexico through this mechanism is working seven days a week. There is also a consulate on wheels working right now in Los Angeles, another in Chicago, and another in San Bernardino.

Is the consulate on wheels the formula to address the needs in all states? Maybe not. But my colleagues in other states are very resourceful and they’re trying to find different formulas to tackle the challenge which is to provide service to, let’s say, 12 million Mexicans that live in the United States, plus another 12 to 14 million Mexican-Americans. That’s why we have the largest consular network any country has in any other country. We have 48 consulates in the United States, and we’re, pretty soon, going to open two more, so by the end of the year we’re going to have 50.

AS/COA: Looking towards the future, do you have any sort of predictions or thoughts in terms of what the U.S. presidential election might mean for the Mexican community here, and for Latin American immigrants in general?

Beltrán: I think that the chances that the next administration will engage sooner than later on the issue of immigration are very high. I am confident that the next administration, whoever the next president would be, will seize the opportunity to put forward comprehensive immigration reform. I am confident that Congress will echo the desire of the new administration to come up with a meaningful reform that will, on the one hand, give some sort of legalization to the immigrants who are already here, and also will provide a legal framework for the flow of immigrants that are joining the job market in this country. I am confident that sooner than later we can have language before the Congress and I am confident also that finally the Congress will take action for the benefit of the millions of immigrants undocumented living in this country.

We tend to believe that this a problem only between the United States and Mexico but the truth of the matter is that are dozens of countries involved in this issue and we cannot reduce it to the Mexicans that are living in or coming to this country. The situation involves dozens of countries and hundreds of thousands of people joining the job market every year. I hope that, regardless of who’s the next president, after listening very carefully to their ideas, I think that they will move forward a proposal for immigration reform.