Latin consulates ally to assist NY area immigrants
June 17, 2008 - Associated Press

By SAMANTHA HENRY | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK - The consulates of nine Latin American countries are joining forces in an alliance they hope will strengthen representation and improve services for their immigrant communities in the tri-state area.

Calling the move a major departure from traditional diplomacy, the consul generals of Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay gathered in New York City Tuesday to announce they will work together as part of the newly formed "Coalition of Latin American Consulates in New York."

"This is the first time something like this has happened in the history of diplomacy between our countries," Ruben Beltran, the consul general of Mexico in New York, said in Spanish. "It shows a political willingness among Latin American nations to work shoulder-to-shoulder in a coordinated manner for the good of all our peoples."

Each country's consulate will still maintain separate diplomatic functions and be solely responsible for issuing documents, but the group plans to work together on issues they consider common to their immigrant populations -- from holding informational "consular fairs" and public health screenings to meeting as a group with U.S. immigration officials. The group's first event will be a consular fair to be held this Saturday at the Mexican community center Casa Puebla in Harrison, N.J.

The coalition will be open to other Latin American governments who wish to join, and the organizers hope it will become an international model of consular cooperation.

Consular officials said the move was part of a wider trend of changing attitudes many Latin American governments have toward their communities abroad.

Consulates have been transformed from offices that once just processed documents into high-profile diplomatic assignments in which staffers advocate for their communities abroad while persuading them to stay connected to their home countries, they said.

"We are no longer just here to sign visas, but to help our communities integrate here while continuing their important role in the development of our countries," said Jessica Escala Maccaferri, the consul general of Ecuador for New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Several consuls general said immigrant communities abroad have become increasingly powerful constituencies back home -- especially because of the millions of dollars they pump into the economies of many Latin American countries each year. Governments are increasingly reaching out to their communities abroad, from allowing them to vote in local elections back home, to establishing cabinet positions in their governments to represent communities abroad, they said.

The consular coalition also hopes to present a more united front in the U.S. immigration debate _ not by taking a political position, but by working to defend immigrant communities many feel have been vilified by the tone of the debate.

"We as consuls are very aware that the climate around immigration in this country is getting more and more difficult," said Lorena Sol de Pool, the consul general of El Salvador for the tri-state region. "We are showing that we are united in helping our people here."