Mexicans Gather Papers, Just In Case

Mexicans gather papers, just in case
In Raleigh, the Mexican consulate sees a run on documents

Sarah Ovaska
Staff Writer
June 20, 2008

RALEIGH – Requests for passports, birth registration and consular identifications by Mexican citizens living in North and South Carolina have skyrocketed in the past six months as families brace for the potential of a sudden departure from this country.

In 2005, the Raleigh consulate, which serves an estimated 600,000 Mexicans living in North and South Carolina, issued an average of 571 passports a month. This year, more than 3,000 are processed a month, according to Rodrigo Pintado, who heads the Mexican government's documentation division in Raleigh.

There's been a similar explosion in birth registrations, a way for Mexican parents to begin securing dual citizenship for children born in the United States. In 2005, the office handled 28 registrations a month. That was up to 300 a month this year.

Three factors are causing this sharp increase, Pintado said: the requirement that valid passports be used for international flights, the inability of illegal immigrants to renew their North Carolina driver's licenses, and a rising fear of deportation as North Carolina sheriffs team with immigration officials. Sheriffs are screening the citizenship status of inmates — a program that Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison will introduce early next month.

The debate about illegal immigration — and the push for more aggressive enforcement — has many of the estimated 600,000 Mexican citizens in the Carolinas worried about having the documents that will allow them to return to their home country if they suddenly must, Pintado said. The consulate doesn't keep statistics on how many Mexicans are thought to be in the Carolinas illegally, Pintado said. But a 2005 study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates North Carolina has about 300,000 illegal immigrants from Mexico and other nations.

“Most of them are concerned about the current situation in the United States,” Pintado said. “They want to fix all their paperwork in case they need to go back to Mexico.”

Federal rules that took effect in January 2007 require that those flying to Canada and Mexico have a passport. Compounding the issue is a 2006 North Carolina law that tightened driver's license requirements, making it harder for illegal immigrants to renew them.

“If they have a visa to be here, they can drive,” said state House Minority Leader Paul Stam, an Apex Republican and illegal immigration opponent. “People shouldn't drive without licenses.”

The law has left many without valid identification once their licenses expire, Pintado said.

The demand for passports and documents is evident on any weekday outside a satellite office the Six Forks Road consulate opened in late May at the intersection with Atlantic Avenue. Men in yellow vests direct arriving motorists to parking spots as lines as long as 50 people snake along the side of a brick building. Inside, several hundred stand shoulder to shoulder, holding paperwork and photo identification in hopes of getting passports — after making appointments months ahead of time.

Since January, the Raleigh consulate has issued more than 15,000 passports, according to their statistics. The consulate is now the third-fastest growing of the 48 Mexican consulates in the United States, with only the New York City and Philadelphia offices growing faster, Pintado said.

A new atmosphere

Among those waiting in Raleigh was Luisa Rivera, a Siler City woman who spent Monday morning in line with her husband, who hails from Guatemala, and their son. She said she needed her passport because she had no other valid identification. She also has no other way to open a bank account and needed the passport for a return to Mexico.

The Cruz family left their Charlotte home at 4 a.m. to head to the Raleigh consulate, the only outpost the Mexican government has between Atlanta and Washington, so they could get passports.

Fernando Cruz, a construction worker, came to the United States 12 years ago by walking across the border near Douglas, Ariz. He said that it was a different atmosphere then and that he wants to make sure he and his family can return to Mexico by plane if they must leave. Otherwise, he, his wife and three children face a three- or four-day bus trip.

“It's important if we have an emergency and need to go home to Mexico, we can go on the airplane,” Cruz said. But he'd prefer to stay in the United States where he says his children can be better educated.

Cruz worries about a program that's been in place at the Mecklenburg County jail since 2006 as part of a partnership with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The program allows specially trained detention officers to investigate the immigration status of people under arrest and start deportation proceedings if a person is in the country illegally.

The program is expected to start in Wake, Cumberland and Henderson counties by July 1, bringing the number of counties in North Carolina to seven, more than any other state. or (919) 829-4622