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Mexico's Utah consul works to build trust

Published June 23, 2014 2:42 pm

Diplomacy • Eduardo Arnal seeks to fix misconceptions by immigrants, U.S. citizens.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

His job may be akin to brokering peace between the Hatfields and McCoys.

Eduardo Arnal, Mexico's consul in Utah, seeks to build trust between undocumented immigrants and local Utah citizens and officials. He says misunderstandings on both sides are common but could disappear if they grew to know each other better.

For example, he says undocumented immigrants "have a strong fear towards authority, all kinds of authorities. They don't distinguish between local … police and ICE" (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). So, "They don't report crimes," whether they are witnesses or victims, fearing they will be deported.

On the other hand, he says most U.S. citizens can't understand why so many Mexicans choose to immigrate illegally. "The answer is simple: It's almost impossible [to immigrate legally]. Not hard, almost impossible."

Building bridges • In the 10 months Arnal has served in Utah — after previous stints as consul in Chicago and Denver (Mexico has 50 U.S. consulates) — he has been trying to build bridges.

For example, he tries to help police understand why immigrants often may not trust them and help immigrants understand why they should.

He explains that for years, "We had serious problems with police in Mexico" that were infiltrated by criminals, including recently in some poorer, rural areas. "That's why the image of the police officer [among Mexicans] is not the same as here."

Arnal says police have improved in Mexico and points to the federal police seizure of $206 million from a drug kingpin in 2007. "This guy offered the money to the police to release him. They didn't accept. To be honest, in another time in our country, there would have been 206 millionaires" with the criminal's cash.

Contributing to mistrust between police and immigrants are differences with language and culture.

"If a police officer stops you in Mexico because you are speeding, it is your duty to walk to the police car," he says. He adds that if Mexicans do that here, they may find guns drawn and police yelling for them to back off.

Mexico has 63 native ethic groups that speak 53 languages and dialects, Arnal adds. So "they may not understand what is happening, even with a translator."

Besides meeting with police here to help them understand such problems — which he has done in 15 counties so far — Arnal also has the consulate meeting with immigrants to help build trust with police, often appearing with local police.

"Sometimes we have been working as a bridge between the police and the victims, to encourage them to report the crime and be safe," Arnal says. He said they explain "the difference between the sheriff's office, the police and ICE" — and that local police generally do not enforce federal immigration laws.

Mistrust • Arnal says the need for such work is shown by a recent University of Chicago study that found about 45 percent of Latinos say "They do not report crimes [when] they are witnesses — nor even as victims — for fear that police inquire about their immigration status."

The same study, he says, shows 62 percent believe that it is common police practice to "detain Hispanics without legitimate cause."

Arnal says he is working to help immigrants believe it is the mission of local police "to protect the people," including immigrants themselves.

He said the misconceptions often lead to immigrants becoming targets of crime because they tend not to call police. He includes in this category undocumented parents of children who may become involved with gangs or drugs. Such youngsters often are U.S. citizens because they are born here, speak English and "know how the country works. So they start to rule the house. When the parents try to stop them… They say, 'I am an American citizen so don't bother me or I will report you to ICE.' "

Arnal says, "It's terrible, but it's happening all around the country."

The consulate urges parents to take control of their homes but concedes he cannot be sure how U.S. immigration officials may handle cases if they are reported. "That is not in our hands. Hopefully we will get comprehensive immigration reform, but in the meantime we have to do something."

Broken immigration • Arnal also spreads the message that the U.S. immigration system is broken, which he said most Americans either don't know or believe.

"They don't know that to get a green card takes 22 years" for Mexicans who do not have relatives here, if they can get permission to immigrate at all, he said, adding that is why people in poverty seeking a better life for their families come illegally.

"They cannot do it through the [legal] process because the process does not allow them to come," he says.

"On the other hand, there is a real necessity for foreign workers in this country. In the next five years, 65 million baby boomers will retire and it's a fact there are many jobs that Americans don't want to do," he says.

"So on one hand, the economy is really strong and is attracting workers like a big magnet," Arnal says. "On the other hand, there is no way to come and fulfill that necessity" legally.

Many U.S. citizens do not understand "the reality of life in Mexico" and the big difference in lifestyle in poor areas and in the United States — and why immigrating is such an attraction, he said.

"Here in Utah, there are more people who understand that. Maybe it's because the LDS Church has many people travel in missions, and they not only learn the language but the culture," he says.

The greater empathy that he finds in Utah gives him hope. "The more we understand each other, the more things will improve."