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Nebraska’s Illegal Immigration News

010708 Consul to break ground again — in Alaska



When Jose Luis Cuevas arrived in 2000, few Midlanders knew what to expect of an Omaha-based Mexican Consul.

Mexican Consul Jose Luis Cuevas is taking a post in Anchorage, Alaska. He has worked in Omaha since 2000.

The scent of roses still clung to the midtown florist shop Cuevas eventually transformed into a diplomatic branch office of the Mexican government.

The protection of local Mexican nationals still fell largely to native-born civil rights attorneys and community advocates. And paperwork from Mexico usually required travel to cities like Chicago or Denver where Mexican Consulates already were in place.

But the longest assignment of his 38-year diplomatic career now is coming to a close. Cuevas, 57, is being transferred to Anchorage, Alaska.

The Mexican government is charging him with establishing its first consulate in that Canadian border state, where industries include canning and fishing. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 2,000 Mexicans live in Alaska, compared with about 77,000 in the Nebraska-Iowa region.

Cuevas said the coastal area will call for more tourist-related work.

Cuevas’ counterpart in Eagle Pass, Texas, will replace him in Omaha. Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes is to arrive in February after an eight-year stint running his current office. The rest of Omaha’s 11-person staff is expected to remain intact.

Cuevas considers his Omaha-based assignment, which at one time also covered North and South Dakota, his most enjoyable.

“Initially it was a bit of a struggle to let people know who we were and what we were doing,” he said, noting that Mexico’s was the first foreign consulate in this area. “Now it’s a pretty well-oiled machine.”

Sons Carlos and Luis, 16 and 9, spent formative years here. Wife Lourdes Ivonne advanced into a medical interpreter position.

Cuevas’ tenure coincided with unprecedented national outrage over illegal immigration.

A Nebraska Minuteman chapter and groups with similar agendas formed locally under his watch and staged protests outside the consulate office at 35th and Dodge Streets. Last year, the Minneapolis-based National Socialist Movement made a potentially volatile visit.

“I didn’t expect it to go all the way up to the Nazis,” Cuevas said. “That was surprising.”

He handled the visit with the same diplomacy and behind-the-scenes maneuvering he became known for during his seven and a half years here.

Cuevas contacted key law enforcement authorities. He discouraged counterprotests. The hour-long rally ended peacefully, but not before local law agencies had spent more than $70,000 on security.

“If they wanted to protest, fine,” Cuevas said. “It was within their First Amendment rights — provided they didn’t harm any people or damage the building.”

Latino leaders said they will remember Cuevas as professional, pensive, a stickler for protocol. He wasn’t necessarily an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights but was well-connected among officials who might be able to influence a case.

Jose Garcia, a Latino historian and activist, said he had hoped for more outreach from Cuevas to the established Latino community and a consul who was more proactive on immigrant concerns.

But that likely wasn’t the mandate from the Mexican government, Garcia said. He said he respected Cuevas for creating a sound administration that handled integral paperwork and cultural exchanges.

A primary role of the consulate is to ensure that Mexican nationals are treated fairly under U.S. law. Mayor Mike Fahey said Cuevas also strengthened the local community.

“He was instrumental in establishing our Mexican sister city and has undoubtedly left a positive impact.”

Cecilia Olivarez Huerta, director of the State Mexican-American Commission, said a consular presence gave the growing immigrant population a comforting place to handle business that previously required travel to Chicago or Denver. A mobile consular unit sometimes came to town, but visits were occasional and the lines were long.

The Cuevas era in Omaha started with a bang. He ruffled the feathers of some Latino businesspeople when he sent formal letters calling for removal of the Mexican coat of arms from storefront advertisements and stationery. The official seal shouldn’t be used on nongovernment business, he told them.

Not everyone lauded Cuevas’ promotion of the consulate-issued identification card, the matricula. Critics called it a quasi-amnesty for illegal immigrants, allowing them access to banks and other services. Supporters thought it enhanced safety by providing a form of identification.

Cuevas said he was proud of his accomplishments, including his staff’s work on identifying illegal immigrants discovered dead in a railroad boxcar in Denison, Iowa, in 2002.

Cuevas leaves with a hope that Nebraskans and Iowans raise their tolerance of foreigners. “Some aren’t very open to outsiders from other countries,” he said.

Overall, he is sad to leave and considers his stay in Omaha positive.

“I’ll always carry Omaha in my heart,” he said. “If I had the opportunity, I’d come back and retire.”

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