MIAMI — Not only is the Mexican government not building a wall; it's spending $50 million to beef up its legal aid to migrants who fear deportation, a response to President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration.
All 50 Mexican consulates in the U.S. on Friday launched legal assistance centers to form partnerships with nonprofit groups and tap lawyers to help those fearing Trump's policies.
The diplomatic effort comes as the two countries are in a rift over Trump's plans for a border wall. While Trump says Mexico will pay for it one way or another, Mexico says it won't. It was also unveiled less than two weeks after new guidelines came out aimed at aggressively detaining and deporting immigrants by increasing the number of federal agents and strengthening cooperation with local law enforcement.
Miami's Mexican consul general, Jose Antonio Zabalgoitia, said Friday that these centers would become "authentic advocates of the rights of Mexican migrants."
"What changes today is that we are prioritizing legal matters over everything. Previously, we didn't have the need to seek so much legal support for our people," he said. "But now, we need to protect them against an eventual deportation."
Mexican consulates are forming partnerships with law schools, immigration clinics and nonprofit groups that litigate on behalf of immigrants. The centers are staffed with Mexican lawyers who can refer cases to organizations or clinics. They are also reaching out to private law firms interested in taking on pro-bono work.
Consulates from Mexico and other Central American nations have been juggling numerous inquiries in recent months from migrants concerned about their fate and that of their U.S.-born children.
Zabalgoitia said the increase in requests for documents and help is "enormous," as he pointed to a waiting room with dozens of people carrying folders of documents in need of birth certificates, Mexican passports and other identifications. "I used to sign two birth certificates a week. Only yesterday, I signed 15."
The increasing demand comes from people like Gloria Portillo, who went to the Mexican consulate in Phoenix on Friday to renew her passport. Her visa expired three years ago, and now she is trying to start the process of becoming a legal resident after marrying a U.S. citizen but fears something could happen in the meantime.
"We've been here all of our lives, we have kids, and of course we're afraid to be deported," she said, also speaking of friends and relatives living in the U.S. illegally.
Dozens of people visited the consulate in St. Paul, Minnesota, some lining up along the walls and asking the consul general questions. In the Philadelphia mission, which also covers Delaware and southern New Jersey, daily appointments at the consulate have doubled to 400 people, Consul General Alicia Kerber-Palma said. Near Boston, Mexican diplomats have been meeting with families at churches and community events to explain the challenges of claiming U.S.-born children, without dual nationality, after deportation.
Mexican diplomats in Houston, where half a million Mexican immigrants live, said requests for Mexican birth certificates at the consulate are up 50 percent since Trump begin announcing tough measures to curb illegal immigration.
"The tolerance is gone. I think that's the best way of describing it," said Oscar Solis, the first secretary of the Mexican consulate in Houston. "It's like in wars. They come for one person and many who are innocent — or not really involved — end up paying."
Divina Ciriaco, a 45-year-old housekeeper who lives in the Miami area, said she is gathering all the Mexican documents she would need for her U.S.-born boy to go along with her if she is deported.
"We live in fear of going back to Mexico, to the violence, the poverty we suffered," said Ciriaco, who migrated along with her husband and two children 20 years ago from the state of Guerrero. She gave birth to her third child in Miami. "Now, it's just a matter of waiting for that day to come."
Associated Press writers Errin Haines Whack in Philadelphia, Matt O'Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, Frank Bajak in Houston, Astrid Galvan in Phoenix and Amy Fortili in St. Paul, Minnesota contributed to this report.