Standing at the counter after an hour-long wait, Susana Mutzus couldn't believe what she heard. She'd left Dallas at 5 a.m. with her elderly mother, and now the attendant at the Guatemalan Consulate in Houston was telling her they had to go all the way to Austin for a signature from the Secretary of State's Office and come back. Her mother wasn't feeling well, but this was the only day she had requested off from her job cleaning houses, so they sped to Austin, waited in line again, drove back to Houston and made it just before the doors closed.
The Houston consulate is the only Guatemalan consulate in Texas, so getting a passport, consular ID, death certificate and countless other official errands require a trip there.
Mutzus' brother, an engineer, had recently died of lung cancer. When she and her parents attended his funeral in Guatemala City last summer, they learned that he'd left a pension fund to his mother. To draw money from it, she had to have the paperwork certified at the consulate in Houston.
While they drove 12 hours in a single day, Mutzus' father stayed in bed at their Farmers Branch home, ill with prostate cancer and kidney problems. "I felt terrible," her mother, a tiny white-haired woman, recalled. "I was depressed, I had headaches and nausea, and my husband was here, sick. It was too much stress."
A Guatemalan government agency with representatives in Dallas has been lobbying the Guatemalan foreign ministry to open additional consulates in the state, specifically in North Texas. Manuel Villacorta, local representative of Guatemala's human rights ombudsman's office, an independent agency created to monitor human rights and make recommendations to the Guatemalan government, says the Guatemalan population has swelled in North Texas and requires its own consulate.
According to Villacorta, there are some 40,000 Guatemalans in North Texas, a number that's difficult to corroborate because of the large portion of undocumented immigrants and the years that have passed since the last census. In 2000, the census showed nearly 20,000 Guatemalans statewide and around 5,000 in Dallas, a number that's almost certainly increased. A 2005 report by DFW International, a nonprofit agency, said North Texas' immigrant population rose 28 percent since 2000 after doubling in the '90s, and immigrants and their children accounted for 40 percent of the total population. Most of the surge has come from Latin America and Mexico.
With more and more immigrants drawn to job opportunities and family in Dallas and the majority of foreign consulates located in Houston (the only Central American country with a consulate in Dallas is El Salvador), calls for more consulates are likely to increase.
"I have a lot of clients who have to make the trip to Houston," says immigration lawyer Fernando Dubove, who says the four-hour trip is inconvenient but doable. "The reality is a lot of these countries don't have the money to put that many consulates up...People are always asking for a consulate closer to home. It's an inconvenience thing, not an equity thing."
Still, for people who are ill or debilitated, or have to find childcare or take time off work, the trip feels like a hardship.
"The problem is it's a day off work, they lose money, often they have to stay in a hotel because the lines are so long," says Villacorta. "And it's hard for old people, pregnant women and sick people."
Mutzus, who came to Dallas in 1979, worked in a garment factory and became a citizen after an employer sponsored her, recalls numerous trips to Houston with her two daughters. She says getting the girls passports to travel to Guatemala required locating their father in Houston and getting his permission, finding two witnesses to certify their identity and hiring a notary. "We'd leave at 4 a.m. to be there by 9, only to find out we still needed something else," she said recently, sitting with her mother in the living room of their tidy Farmers Branch home.
Mutzus and her mother can look forward to more trips to Houston. To continue drawing money from the pension left by her son, the elderly woman must go in person every year to prove she's still living and is who she claims to be. There's another option, though: the "mobile" consulate that comes to a Guatemalan business in Garland for one day twice a year. Mutzus took her mother last month, but it wasn't much better than the alternative.
"There were 200 people there, from all over Texas, Oklahoma; every room was packed. There was nowhere to sit, barely even room to stand," she says. "We waited three hours."
In addition to processing official paperwork, there should be a consulate here to provide legal advice like the Mexican and Salvadoran consulates do, Villacorta says. While they don't get involved with U.S. residence or citizenship applications, the consulates can help in other ways, which the Mexican consulate demonstrated last week. Spurred by a constant stream of complaints from Mexican citizens who say they've been stiffed by employers, consular legal advisors visited a day labor center in Garland and told workers waiting for contractors to write down the name, address and license plate of each employer in case of abuses.
The recent arrest and detention of Guatemalan workers at the Swift meatpacking plant in Cactus highlights the need for legal advice and advocacy, says Margarita Alvarez, president of Voces Unidas por los Inmigrantes, a local nonprofit. Many of the workers arrested in Cactus by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents late last year remain in county jail.
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"There isn't pressure from our country," Alvarez says. "They'll be prisoners for months. We want a consulate here so the government can recognize people's problems and be involved in helping them—not just so they can issue passports and IDs, but to lobby for our rights."
Villacorta says that if there were a consulate here, or at least more frequent visits by the mobile one, it would be easier for people to ensure that children born in the U.S. have dual citizenship, something he recommends in case undocumented parents are ordered deported and risk being separated from their children. Numerous Guatemalan families have been separated in the wake of the Swift raids.
Marta Beatriz Altolaguirre, a vice chancellor at the foreign ministry in Guatemala City, said via e-mail that while there are plans to open additional consulates in Texas, the only solid plans at this point are for a consulate in McAllen. She didn't say when it was scheduled to open, and phone calls to the consulate in Houston and to the Guatemalan ambassador were not returned.
Mutzus hopes a consulate opens in North Texas at some point, but she says she wouldn't be surprised if it takes a long time. Having to travel to Houston isn't ideal, but things could be much worse. "I'm grateful to this country," she says. "It's given me a lot, and I thank God for it."