Mexican consulates in the U.S. are doing a lot more than renewing passports and issuing visas these days. They’ve become de facto legal aid centers of last resort as desperate nationals look to the country they left behind — some, many decades ago — for help amid the threat of deportation under the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has already allocated $50 million in new funds to help its 50 consulates address the legal needs of Mexican nationals in the U.S. On Friday, each launched its own Legal Defense Center to deal exclusively with Mexicans’ immigration issues by giving talks on undocumented immigrants’ rights, dispensing legal and practical advice, and connecting families with lawyers.
“We are letting them know, ‘We don’t know what is going to happen yet, but be prepared,’” said Alicia Kerber, head of the Mexican consulate in Philadelphia. “You have to have a Plan B so that you can know who can take care of your kids, who can take care of your house, of your bank account, of your car, of everything.”
Mexican President Peña Nieto charged Mexican consulates in the United States with creating the centers back in January, Kerber said. As fear and uncertainty rises in the Mexican community following Donald Trump’s election, demand for consulates’ services has surged across the country — one family in Texas arrived at their consulate at 5 a.m., three hours before it opened, in order to be first in line, the Texas Tribune reported.
“I think they are afraid. They don’t know how to do. They are desperate, trying to find help,” Jasmine Amezcua said of the Mexicans who seek services at the San Jose consulate, where she’s deputy consul. “You know, if you are desperate, you are afraid, you are not thinking right, you are not thinking correctly… So they feel more comfortable when they know there’s a way to do the things.”
Parents fearful of being deported are searching for ways to ensure that their American-born children can join them in Mexico. Demand for dual citizenship has surged at the San Jose consulate, Amezcua said, since the Mexican government looks after the kids if they’re citizens.
“That service is by appointment, and the whole month is booked. We don’t have any space,” Amezcua said. “And we opened last Saturday just for that service.”
Amezcua’s employees have also started giving a talk once or twice a day on what rights Mexican nationals are entitled to, no matter their immigration status. They sometimes head out to churches and schools to present the information, just to make sure everyone’s heard it and knows that the consulate can help them.
Requests for birth certificates and legal advice have also doubled at Kerber’s consulate. About 400 people now come in every day, though Kerber didn’t know how many were undocumented. “We never ask for their legal status, so we don’t care if they have documents or not,” she explained. What matters, Kerber said, is making sure people’s rights aren’t being infringed.
The defense centers aren’t the only new service consulates have started offering since the Trump administration came into power. While they’ve long operated an app and a phone hotline that gives callers counseling on current immigration policy and consular services, that hotline now operates around the clock so that consulates can instantly respond if a Mexican national lands in legal trouble.
But the centers’ launch does mean that consulates can now get imperiled nationals legal representation much quicker. Consulates could get Mexicans lawyers in the past — but it might take a little time. Now, thanks to an extended national network of human rights organizations and minority rights organizations, like the ACLU and Anti-Defamation League, consulates can bring in lawyers much faster. And, if someone can’t pay for a lawyer, the consulate now has more money to potentially step in and help out.
“You need to act immediately so you can protect the rights of the kids, the rights of the mother and the person who has been detained,” Kerber explained. “It’s just that now we give the immediate and proper response that can allow us to detect if human rights has been violated or if due process has been not respected.”
Philadelphia’s Legal Defense Center had only been open for a few hours as of press time, but Kerber said she already sees how much of an impact it’s made on the mood of the community. “It has been wonderful, immediately wonderful,” she said. “There were a lot of people asking questions, receiving information… People [are] really concerned about what is going to be their situation and they want to be informed, and that makes us be really more committed with our vision.”