Since November, Mexican consulates around the U.S. have reported an increase in unauthorized immigrants venturing in to seek legal advice and update their citizenship papers in case of possible deportation.
One weekday morning, Little Rock Mexican Consul Rodolfo Quilantán Arenas was giving a presentation recently to consulate patrons on a new effort to expand legal services to Mexicans living in the consulate’s zone, covering Arkansas, Oklahoma and parts of west Tennessee. These “Centros de Defensoria,” or Centers of Advocacy, are launching at all 50 Mexican consulates around the United States.
Arkansas-based Mexican nationals can use the advocacy centers to connect with a network of seven local attorneys who specialize in immigration, criminal, family and labor law, as well as consulate staff, law clinics and migrant advocates. Jose Aguilar Salazar is the Deputy Consul in Little Rock.
“It’s very focused in the current situation. Obviously, there is going to be emphasis in the matter of potential deportations,” he said.
The centers will offer advice about what protective measures undocumented migrants can take regarding the custody of their children and management of their property in case of deportation or detention by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, also known as ICE. Aguilar said the program is a direct response to new immigration policies set under the presidency of Donald Trump.
“The way the measures have been spelled… [they] are in the path of a fast removal,” Aguilar Salazar said. “So the risk [of deportation] is higher now than it was in the past.”
Last month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued directives to hire an additional 10,000 ICE officers and 5,000 new Border Patrol agents, while also expanding expedited deportations to apply to those who’ve lived in the country illegally for up to two years. Newly outlined DHS rules also prioritize for removal people suspected of crimes or deemed a risk to public safety, as well as those who have “abused any program related to the receipt of public benefits.” Immigrant advocates have criticized these rules as overly broad.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Trump defended the immigration policies, closely linking them to his economic message and his pledge to strengthen law and order.
“By finally addressing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions and make our communities safer for everyone. We want all Americans to succeed, but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos,” Trump said.
The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2014, about 70,000 people living in Arkansas were unauthorized immigrants. That’s about 2.4 percent of the state’s total population of about 2.9 million people. Pew estimated that about 70 percent of those 70,000 people were Mexican.
The Trump administration has asserted that the new policies will not lead to “mass deportations.” But Little Rock Mexican Deputy Consul Jose Aguilar Salazar says that hasn’t helped assuage the restless feeling he senses in people who come to the consulate.
“I can tell you there is fear. There is a huge concern by the families. They listen to many rumors and they want to be sure what to do,” he said.
Aguilar says since the November election, the Little Rock consulate has gone from serving about 35 people a day to roughly 65 a day. Mexicans are preparing for a forced return to their home country by updating their passports and parents are attaining Mexican birth certificates for children who were born in the U.S.
Among those sitting in the consulate’s waiting room on a recent morning was a father of three. He was with his two U.S.-born children, ages three and five, getting their Mexican birth certificates. When asked if he shares this sense of fear, he said yes.
Sarah Medrano Gonzalez, from the consulate’s office of Community Affairs, translated:
“He says that yes, there is some fear and mostly what is going to happen to their kids, what can he do if that happens. And that’s why they’re trying to get prepared,” said Medrano Gonzalez.
The 28-year old from Aguascalientes, Mexico did not want his last name used, citing this unease about what could happen to him. Enrique—that’s his first name—says he’s been in the US for a decade and works as a roofer. He says he thinks the rhetoric surrounding the new immigration policies have given rise to discrimination in some communities. But, also invoking an economic message, he says he’s somewhat optimistic about how U.S. immigration policies will develop.
“He knows that the Hispanic community overall, either permanent residents, citizens that have dual nationality or undocumented migrants contributed a lot to their society, to the economy, the United States…So he believes that that’s going to be something that’s going to be taken in mind through these policies,” Medrano Gonzalez said as she translated.
And Deputy Consul Jose Aguilar Salazar said it is understandable that the U.S. wants people within its borders to be in good standing with the law. He simply hopes they are judged accordingly.
“In a country that has been founded along the lines of immigration, you see, it makes sense that they have a chance,” Aguilar Salazar said.
Aguilar Salazar said the consulate keeps in regular contact with ICE officials, who he says so far have not stepped up forced removals in Arkansas.