Los Angeles: First came the anxious calls in the days after the election of President Donald Trump. Now, people begin lining up before 8am and crowd the waiting rooms inside the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles.
Mexican citizens come to renew passports that have been unused for more than a decade. They desperately ask lawyers if they can do anything to help them stay in the United States. They register their children for Mexican citizenship, just in case they are sent back and decide to move their whole family with them.
When the consulate began to get reports of dozens of Mexicans being arrested by immigration officials last week, they immediately dispatched lawyers to the federal detention centre downtown. Officers closely monitored social media, simultaneously trying to get information and quash unfounded rumours. In one case, they helped a man whom immigration officials had quickly sent to the border for deportation return to Los Angeles for a hearing in immigration court.
These are demanding times for the 50 Mexican consulates scattered throughout the United States. With Trump’s promise to crack down on immigrants living in the United States illegally and an executive order that vastly expands who is considered a priority for deportation, Mexicans living in the United States illegally are increasingly on edge.
And consulates are moving quickly to help. As official representatives of the Mexican government in the United States, the consulates can provide legal guidance and resources for people and families dealing with immigration issues. Mexicans make up about half of the country’s 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
The relationship between Mexico and the United States is at its lowest point in years. After a 35-year-old mother of two US citizens was deported in Arizona last week, the Mexican government warned their citizens living in the United States of a “new reality.” It urged “the entire Mexican community” to “take precautions” and be in touch with the nearest consulate.
Mexican officials say they are eager to keep families living in the United States together. There are economic concerns too: Mexicans living abroad send more than $25 billion back home, with most of the money coming from the United States, according to Mexico’s central bank.
Perhaps nobody is as busy as Carlos Garcia de Alba, the consul general in Los Angeles, one of the largest offices in the country. He has begun to train nearly every employee in basic legal services and expects to bring in many more immigration lawyers. Still, in recent months, Garcia has felt torn between his efforts to increase services to worried constituents and trying to calm their nerves.
“We don’t want to provoke and feed a kind of paranoia among our nationals here,” Garcia said in an interview. “There is a kind of psychosis; people are really scared. Up to now we haven’t seen anything that is really different than the last several years, but the environment is making people panic and they are completely fearful. They want to know what is going to happen and how to protect themselves.”
In the last week, the Mexican government has created a 24-hour hotline to help answer any questions for Mexicans in the United States. Last month, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto announced that he would spend $50 million to pay for lawyers at every consulate to help people facing deportations. And consulates have been distributing fliers detailing what to do if someone is approached by deportation agents — advising them not to open their doors without proof of a warrant or speak to officers without a lawyer.
Foreign service officers who have spent decades in the United States said in interviews that they had all encountered increased anxiety among immigrants without legal permission, as several states have passed their own laws to deal with illegal immigration. But they said this was the most hostile national atmosphere for Mexicans in recent memory, making their jobs more difficult and more urgent.
Scared by rumours and rhetoric, some consulates have heard of immigrants taking drastic steps to avoid authorities, like keeping their children home from school, quitting their jobs or selling their homes for cash. And many immigrants may not immediately consider turning to the Mexican government for help.
“There is an inherent feeling of vulnerability that comes with being undocumented in this country, and that vulnerability moves you to get away of anything that is official government,” said Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, the consul general in Austin, Texas, who estimates that about half of the 200,000 Mexicans living in the region are unauthorised. “The first challenge for us is to make sure that immigrants understand that the consulate is a safe place where they can get accurate information.”
Like other consuls, Gonzalez has tried to assuage fears by appearing frequently on Spanish-language television and radio, offering information that US officials may not be willing to share. He has been careful to emphasise that the operations appeared to be targeted, not widespread raids as some feared, but also pointed out that several people without criminal records had also been arrested.
Many of the consulates’ most pressing concerns are defensive. In several cases last week, immigration agents were “unwilling to provide our nationals with the option to talk with our consulate and the obligation to notify us,” said one Mexican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue was still under investigation. Under the Vienna Convention, a 1963 international treaty, any citizen of another country should be offered a chance to speak with their consulate.
Felipe Carrera oversees the department of protection in the Los Angeles consulate, where dozens of lawyers assist with immigration cases. For years, the office has sent a lawyer to the federal immigration center daily, monitoring who is taken in and talking to as many as 15 people a day. Minutes after he heard reports of dozens of arrests last week, several lawyers went there to talk with as many Mexicans as they could.
“Our main purpose is to find out if there have been violations of due process,” Carrera said. “People need to know they have constitutional rights. We want them to know about the Fifth Amendment and make sure they are properly advised about what happens if they plead guilty.”
Claudia Franco, the consul general in Phoenix, said much of her time these days was spent offering a kind of psychological support to immigrants, answering basic questions and calmly listening to their fears. “We want people to consider worst-case scenarios, to be prepared and have a plan,” she said. The round-the-clock national hotline, based in Tucson, received more than 1,500 calls one day this week, more than double than the average number of calls before Trump was inaugurated.