Scott Ball / Rivard Report
With increased immigration enforcement and tensions between the Trump and Peña Nieto administrations over the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the newly appointed Consul General of Mexico in San Antonio, Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendívil, knows there's a lot of work to do.
"We've definitely seen our numbers go up immensely at the consulate," said Torres, who arrived in San Antonio on April 16. As she spoke to the Rivard Report in Spanish on Wednesday, a crowd of people filled the rows of maroon benches outside Torres' modest office, waiting to meet with consular officials to get help with legal issues, visas, and general documentation.
Torres fills the diplomatic vacancy left by the sudden departure earlier this year of Mexican Consul General Héctor Velasco Monroy, who held the job for just seven months. Velasco gave a headline-making speech denouncing Trump's proposal for a border wall last June at the Frost Bank Plaza Club and became a frequent presence at civic and cultural events. On Jan. 28, he was quietly recalled to Mexico without public notice or explanation and named head of DICONSA, a government-run distribution network that offers financial services to low-income Mexican families through its nationwide network of rural stores.
In the months since Velasco's departure, consular officials and community leaders had waited to see if the Mexican Foreign Ministry would fill the consular vacancy. More than 1 million Mexicans live in the 27 counties served by the consulate, making San Antonio "one of the most Mexican cities" in the United States, in the words of Velasco.
Torres, originally from Mexico City, has worked as a diplomat for more than 25 years and most recently served as Mexico's general director for the Protection of Mexicans Abroad, which focuses on protecting and safeguarding the rights and well-being of Mexican nationals abroad. She has held various positions within Mexico's Department of Foreign Affairs, including Consul General in Fresno, Calif., deputy general director for International Policy on Human Rights, and deputy chief of staff to the Secretary of Foreign Relations.
Currently, among the 50 Mexican consulates in the U.S., only nine are headed by women. San Antonio's last female Consul General at the Mexican Consulate was Martha Lara, who served from February 2004 to December 2007.
Torres told the Rivard Report that uncertainty and fear among the Mexican immigrant community due to the fraught political climate has had the unfortunate effect of providing opportunities for abuse and fraud.
"Someone may come to them and say, 'Give me $1,000 and I'll fix your situation,'" Torres said. "But it's important for people to be informed and prevent these kinds of situations, go to official sources, and know what number to dial in the case of an emergency.
"We are creating alliances with local groups to help people prepare ... have a plan in case they are deported, to figure out who will take charge of their children, their homes, cars, and other assets."
In addition to assisting Mexican citizens residing in the U.S. with documentation, Torres said she's looking forward to strengthening ties between the business communities on both sides of the border. That may prove to be the toughest part of her job.
Late Wednesday night, following a phone call with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the White House released a statement saying President Trump had agreed not to terminate NAFTA. Trump followed up Thursday by tweeting "if we do not reach a fair deal for all, we will then terminate NAFTA." The news comes after Texans in Congress reacted with concern following reports early Wednesday that the president planned to unwind the agreement through an executive order.
I received calls from the President of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Canada asking to renegotiate NAFTA rather than terminate. I agreed..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 27, 2017
...subject to the fact that if we do not reach a fair deal for all, we will then terminate NAFTA. Relationships are good-deal very possible!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 27, 2017
"We have to get over the political rhetoric," Torres said. "It's a question of common sense and the people of San Antonio know it. With the San Antonio area having such close ties with Mexico, there is a historical relationship there and [it's interwoven] with the welfare of our communities and those who benefit from trade and investments on both sides of the border."
Mexican Ambassador Gerónimo Gutiérrez, who served until a few months ago as managing director of the San Antonio-based North American Development Bank and is considered an expert on trade, met with Trump on Monday to present his diplomatic credentials as his nation's new ambassador to the U.S.
"We are very pleased that our new ambassador is someone who knows and who has been in San Antonio," Torres said. "He perfectly knows the importance of keeping alive the economic and commercial links between Mexico and the United States.
"NAFTA has borne fruit for more than 20 years and there is every intention – as the Mexican Foreign Minister and President Peña have said – to work with the [Trump] administration to update and improve the treaty itself."
The job of the consulate, Torres said, is to support those negotiations in Washington at a local level, with the help of the San Antonio business community.
"Texas is a key state, and our consul in Austin is also spearheading efforts to bring that information to all relevant actors in the state," Torres said. "Our chief negotiator is the foreign minister, and he has traveled all over the U.S. Our secretary of economy was just in Austin last week and our consul in Austin arranged a very intense agenda with businessmen, local authorities, and the State Legislature."
Torres said she is acclimating to San Antonio, and Fiesta celebrations have provided for a warm welcome.
"I'm just now starting, but with patience I'll begin to cover all fronts and meet with local authorities," she said. " ... And of course, we'll be working with all the organizations that work in favor of immigrants."
Recently people have been coming in droves to register their children and ensure they have their Mexican passports, Torres said, which is important in case families are forced to return to Mexico due to a family member being deported.
"We've had jornadas sabatinas on Saturdays dedicated just to registration due to the high number of people that are asking for this service," Torres said. "We have instructions [from the Mexican government] to become authentic advocacy centers for legal defense. We plan to hold workshops not just at the consulate, but to go out to community colleges, high schools, and churches with a group of lawyers. Many people don't know the details of their own immigration status, and that makes them more vulnerable."
"We will have a very intense program during all of 2018, not just in the month of May," Torres said. She was tight-lipped about special events and potential guests, but promised a big celebration.
"Mexico is going to celebrate San Antonio in a big way," Torres said. "We have a jewel here in the Mexican Cultural Institute. It's a strategic space to showcase Mexico at a time when it's most important that people go beyond the stereotypes that are traditionally known about Mexico."
The Instituto Cultural de México will host a special reception for Torres at the end of May to officially welcome her to San Antonio.
"San Antonio is a growing city, it is very lively, and that undoubtedly represents a challenge for us as a consulate," Torres said. "The consulate and the Instituto must be a reference for everything Mexican – in gastronomy, in history, in educational exchanges, in culture, and in trade and investment. That is part of our mandate."