West Coast consul generals take on political role in era of strained U.S-Mexico relations

Photo by | Linda Baker
Mexico's West Coast consular delegation, Ventana al Mar waterfront park, Ensenada

Before President Trump took office, Oregon’s Mexican consulate processed 50 birth certificates every month. The consulate is now processing 50 per day.

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“There is a lot of fear and anxiety,” said Francisco Maass Peña, consul general for Oregon. The birth certificates help Mexican citizens apply for work permits, obtain driver’s licenses and protect against deportation.

Once a relatively obscure foreign service post, the Mexican consul general position is moving into the spotlight.

There are 50 Mexican consulates in the United States; 12 in Washington, Oregon and California. 

Forty years ago, Mexican consul generals focused primarily on administrative work, said Sacramento consul general Ilse Lilian Ferrer Silva. Silva was one of 12 West Coast consul generals who gathered in Baja for a meeting and regional tour earlier this week.*

Following implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the ’90s, the consular position expanded to include business development and promotion duties. The role diversified further as immigration became a polarizing political issue.

At that point, consular officials became “protectors” of Mexican citizens living in the U.S., Silva said. 

Now, as the Trump Administration takes a combative stance toward immigrants and refugees, the consular role has become fully politicized.

RELATED STORY: A conversation with Oregon’s new Mexican consul general

Peña, who was appointed last year, handles services for approximately 400,000 Mexican nationals in Oregon and Southwest Washington. He visits Mexican citizens who have been arrested in jail to ensure they receive legal representation and are being treated according to the Geneva Conventions.  

Unknown 6 Francisco Maass Peña, Oregon Consul General, Ensenada            Photo by | Linda Baker

Portland does not have an immigrant detention center. Peña said the consulate must act quickly or people who have been arrested will be moved to a detention facility in Tacoma.  

Despite high profile arrests of Portland-area Dreamers (Mexicans who were brought to the United States as young children) last spring, the number of deportations has not increased, Maas said. But concerns about due process for Mexican citizens are intensifying.

Deportations nationwide have not increased under the Trump Administration, but arrests of undocumented immigrants ballooned by 40% over 2016, the U.S. Customs & Immigration Service reports.

 “Making sure the rights of Mexicans are respected is a major focus of consuls going forward,” said Carlos Manuel Sada, Undersecretary for North America at the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs of Mexico.  

Sada, Mexico’s former ambassador to the U.S., was one of several federal government officials who met with the West Coast delegation in Baja.

IMG 0539 copyCarlos Manuel Sada at a presentation by Mexican customs officials, Tijuana       Photo by | Linda Baker

Mexico has a reputation in the United States for being a dangerous country, Sada said. He called on Dreamers to be on their best behavior not only to avoid deportation —  but also “to give a better image for Mexico.”

Maria Cristina Garcia Cepeda, Mexico’s secretary of culture, unveiled a new “culture without borders” initiative for the West Coast delegation.

“Culture has a relevant role in U.S.-Mexico relations,” Cepeda said. “Arts and culture create a narrative of country parallel to politics. Mexico talks to the world through its culture.”

IMG 0540 copyMaria Cristina Garcia Cepeda, Tijuana        Photo by | Linda Baker

Mexico’s consular delegation meets annually. But this is the first time the West Coast contingent has met as a group. The region is considered more hospitable to Mexicans than some other parts of the United States, and the political situation and proximity to Mexico warrant more collaboration, Peña said.

“Now we must work as a network,” he said.

* This article is one in a series of stories chronicling my recent trip to Baja with Mexico’s West Coast consular delegation. The trip was not a media tour, and Oregon Business paid my travel and lodging expenses.