At the Mexican Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, the date 29 July had been marked on calendars for months. This was the week Arizona was scheduled to begin enforcing the United States’ most aggressive laws to trap illegal immigrants: police officers will for the first time be empowered to ask anyone suspected of lacking legal papers to present them.
Law SB1070 clearly targets Mexican nationals in the state – they constitute an overwhelming majority of the estimated half-million illegal immigrants in Arizona – and their government has been unusually vocal on the type of local political fight that embassies typically avoid. Upon the bill’s passage, an embassy spokesman issued a statement warning of its “potentially dire effects”, as the ambassador rallied 11 fellow Latin American embassies to lend their names to a “friend of the court” motion challenging the law.
On Wednesday, the Mexicans were able to claim credit for a victory in the American courts. A federal judge in Phoenix, aligning herself with some of the arguments in Mexico’s brief, struck down the most aggressive elements of the law, at the least delaying their enforcement. The law’s supporters promise to appeal – an eventual Supreme Court fight looms – but an embassy spokesman declared the decision “a first step in the right direction”.
Others at the embassy had been girding for a less satisfying end to the week. SB1070 had already begun to test the forgotten ranks of the Mexican foreign service: the consular officials whose work – processing visas, replacing lost passports arranging for jailhouse lawyers and interpreters – is on most days ignored as the grinding humdrum of international relations.
Indeed, Mexico’s network of more than 50 consulates in the US may add up to the most extensive ground-level diplomatic operation the world has ever seen in a bilateral relationship. A list of the sites shows that the Mexican government has planted its flags in cities not traditionally considered immigrant hubs (Boise, Idaho; Anchorage, Alaska) and municipalities so small that few Americans would think of them as sites of diplomatic exchange (Presidio, Texas; Oxnard, California).
Mexico has five consulates in Arizona (the third most of any state after California and Texas) and has been boosting their ranks in recent months by hiring new locals and sending in reinforcements from elsewhere. Around the embassy, consular officials referred to the looming deadline as an “exceptional circumstance”, so much so that they could not recall another episode that compares.
Beginning this spring they prepared for the likely scenarios: Mexican nationals who came under legal visas and want to make sure their papers are current, or those rushing to get an American passport issued for a child born stateside (regardless of the parent’s immigration status, the child can claim citizenship). They have organised local forums with citizens and law-enforcement officials, and lined up local lawyers and volunteers from sympathetic community groups who will be on call when the first Mexican citizens get detained.
“Mexico has always given a message of prudence,” embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday said as he counted down the days to the law’s enactment. “We have tried to avoid creating knee-jerk reactions.”
In late April, Mexico’s foreign ministry issued a travel advisory, warning the country’s nationals that, once the law took effect, “it must be assumed that every Mexican citizen may be harassed and questioned without further cause at any time”.
But it did not join the anti-Arizona boycotts popping up around the US or otherwise discouraged Mexicans from travelling to the state. “Our role has been informing what the law is, and preparing to make sure that in the event it enters into force, we are ready to assist,” Alday says.
As the fight over SB1070 winds through the courts, consular officers will still be instructed not to offer an opinion on the question of the day for Mexicans in Arizona: should I stay or should I go?