After years of advocacy from Hispanic Oklahomans, a Mexican consulate is on track to open in Oklahoma City next year. That means the end of long drives, long lines and high risk for more than 110,000 Mexican nationals living in Oklahoma.
Rosa has been living in Tulsa for 25 years. It’s where she’s been taking her children to school, where she recently worked in sales at Que Buena radio station, and where she owns a home and has been buying groceries and gas, and paying taxes. And then there’s the drive: 540 miles round-trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, just to update her passport and consular identification card.
The trip costs her $300 – $500 when accounting for food, fuel, document renewal fees, and an unpaid day off of work – when she’s employed at all.
Now 32, Rosa arrived in the United States without legal permission as a little girl. She lived in California until she was six, then moved to Tulsa with her family, where she has lived most of her life. Oklahoma Watch has omitted her last name because publicly identifying her could lead to deportation.
She said without up-to-date identification documents, her ability to maintain a bank account, buy a house or car, and choose certain healthcare options is severely limited.
“Sometimes, when a person is trying to pay a bill, be it medical or something else, hospitals and other institutions require up-to-date identification,” she said. “Expired (Mexican) documents don’t count.”
If they manage to get an early morning appointment, Rosa and her husband can wake up at 3 a.m. and drive to Little Rock and back in one day. That’s a method they have tested at least six times, most recently in October.
There is no Mexican consulate in Oklahoma. And since the pandemic started, an existing backlog in appointments at regional consulates has been exacerbated, and mobile consulates, which used to come to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, have been temporarily canceled. That means Oklahomans like Rosa have to risk deportation and incur a steep cost to keep identification documents current.
Mexican nationals living in Oklahoma without legal status are not the only ones affected. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 110,023 Mexican nationals living, working, and paying taxes in Oklahoma, and more than 106,000 of them live in Oklahoma City. All of them count on services from the consulates in Little Rock, Dallas, or Kansas City, Missouri.
After years of advocacy from Hispanic Oklahomans, and an expressed political will from Governor Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, the Mexican government announced official plans to open a consulate in Oklahoma City next year.
Hispanic community leaders say the move is a major step toward increasing accessibility for Mexican Oklahomans. For Rosa, it means three hours less driving and hundreds of dollars saved.
Oklahoma is one of two states expecting a Mexican consulate in 2022, the other being New Jersey. Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the goal, which is part of a larger project to improve consular services in North America, is to reduce backlogs in appointments and increase the ability of consulates to handle demographic shifts in the Mexican community in the United States.
“Community and elected leaders have advocated in favor of a consulate for years,” Holt said in an Oct. 25 tweet. “Today we are a big step closer.”
A week later, Gov. Stitt traveled to Mexico and visited U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath and Mexican General Director for Consular Services Jaime Vazquez Bracho Torres to make clear his approval of Mexico’s decision.
“I made sure Mexico knew this has our full support and that we would help find the perfect location and roll out the red carpet to help any way we can,” Stitt said in a Nov. 4 press release.
The same release said specifics such as location and timeline are still being worked out between the Oklahoma and Mexican governments.
Robert Ruiz is the president of Scissortail Community Development Corporation in Oklahoma City. He said his organization is planning the construction of a Latino nonprofit center in the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. He hopes the center will house the Mexican consulate and other community services for Mexican and Latino Oklahomans.
“Of course, the consulate itself can’t make any decisions about that ahead of time,” Ruiz said. “There’s still a couple of steps. The State Department has to approve the Mexican government’s plans.”
He said plans for the building are underway, and approval for the consulate is expected to come in January, after which there will be a process started by the Mexican government to find a permanent location.
“What we would like to do is build that building and then find them space during the interim while we’re building out an office that suits them,” Ruiz said.
Years of Advocacy
Ruiz said advocacy efforts to open a Mexican consulate in Oklahoma City have been going on for about 30 years. Scissortail joined in 2013.
“It was part of some real estate development we were doing,” Ruiz said. “We were finding facilities for them when they would come on a temporary basis.”
In July, the advocacy picked up significantly. Hispanic organizations in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metros organized a letter drive advocating for a Mexican consulate in either of the cities. Ruiz said there were 4,572 letters sent by Hispanic Oklahomans to Mexican Consul General Rodolfo Quilantán Arenas and Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard.
The number of signatures represent a small fraction of the 438,106 Hispanc people living in the state, but Ruiz said the campaign was the most successful letter drive his organization has helped put together to date.
“That was in a matter of a week or two,” he said. “So, it just demonstrates the need, and the desire of people to help and make (the consulate) happen.”
Linda Allegro heads the New Sanctuary Empowerment Center, known as El Centro, a nonprofit in Tulsa that helps immigrants navigate their rights and communities. She said she has been in conversation with Consul Arenas, who explained to her that Mexican consulates do more than renew documents for people.
“They are going to help with a whole host of things,” Allegro said. “I was really encouraged to learn about the work they want to do in the area of wage claims, for example, or labor disputes. They’re also going to go up to bat for issues related to human rights abuses.”
She said the consulate will also function as a cultural ambassador and offer cultural exchanges with the state in the form of scholarships for Oklahomans to study in Mexico.
Ultimately, Ruiz said, the consulate coming to Oklahoma City will mean a lot for the representation of Mexican Oklahomans, as it will undoubtedly contribute to organizing the Fiestas Patrias Mexican independence day celebrations in September.
“Having an official representative of the Mexican government be able to do the ceremony of El Grito would mean a lot for our community,” he said.
Consulates on Wheels
Before the pandemic, there was an alternative to driving to a regional consulate. The mobile consulate deployed once or twice a month from a regional office to Oklahoma City or Tulsa in an effort to service Mexican Oklahomans where they are.
Rosa has waited hours in line at one of the remote consulates. She has mixed feelings about her experiences with them.
“The experience is a good one because it reduces the need to travel,” she said. “But at the same time, it can be negative because the mobile consulates don’t always have the ability to service everyone.”
She said sometimes the mobile consulates would renew specific documents and provide only certain services, and at times the lines for services didn’t end before the business day.
Carmen Vivenes is a health promoter at the Latino Community Development Agency, an organization that provides Hispanic Oklahomans with access to economic assistance, education and healthcare, among many other services. She said the mobile consulates were useful because the agency would take the opportunity to set up information booths and educate people waiting in the long lines.
“What we would do is give educational talks about nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, the importance of vaccines, and sometimes we would offer (those waiting) the same services we offer here,” Vivenes said, referring to the Riverside Community Center, which houses the agency.
Those services include the educational talks, but the agency also provides virtually every type of needed vaccine – now including Covid-19 – for Hispanic children and adults on the first and third Thursdays of each month. She said when the mobile consulates were operational, it was easier to go to the mobile consulate locations and reach members of the community.
But for the people waiting in those lines, hoping to get an appointment by the end of the day, the mobile consulates are less than ideal. Allegro said the community members she works with regularly in Tulsa are frustrated about the backlog in appointments at regional consulates, and that the mobile consulates are no different.
“From what I understand they would fill up very quickly,” Allegro said. “I think the mobile consulate was a good idea, but I think it’s gotten to the point where (the Mexican government) sees that they need a more established presence.”
The Bills Don’t Wait
Ruiz said the mobile consulates are worth rebooting, despite not being able to accommodate the full demand for their services. He said sometimes they came for a week or two, and other times for a single weekend each month.
“It’s not a great situation,” he said. “But it’s the best that the consulate could do, you know, with the resources they have. They were really very effective at trying to serve as many people as they could.”
Bringing the mobile consulates back is also part of Mexico’s larger plan to expand consular services in North America, meaning that once the country opens a consulate in Oklahoma City, the vans will likely launch from there and service outlying areas in western Oklahoma and parts of Kansas.
In the meantime, Oklahomans like Rosa are forced to wait out the validity of their documents or risk driving to a regional consulate.
She said when she and her husband had to renew their consular IDs in October, they drove to Little Rock like they’d managed to a few times in the past, but the backlog in appointments caused by the pandemic meant it took months to find an open time slot.
Rosa spent most of this year in quarantine and recovery after contracting Covid-19 last fall and getting in a car accident in February. It’s typical for her and her husband to count on their valid passports or consular IDs – ideally both – to get by, so it was an emergency when her documents also expired last fall.
“It was super urgent,” she said. “But there were not any appointments; we were struggling. The only appointments that were available were far from here, almost by the border.”
She said that trip would be too expensive and far too risky.
They were able to secure an appointment in October, but only after a hassle involving multiple hours on hold and rare availability during the pandemic.
“We have practically always struggled with making appointments, and then one has to miss a day of work because, well, we have to travel,” she said. “It’s hard. And the bills don’t wait.”
Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.