Mexican consulate in Little Rock grows with demand

JON GAMBRELL
Associated Press Writer
Published Saturday, August 23, 2008

LITTLE ROCK Ever-increasing demand for identity documents for Mexican immigrants coming to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee has boosted that nation's diplomatic outpost in the region.

The Mexican Consulate in Little Rock has added eight new staffers and doubled the amount of appointments it can make with citizens seeking its services, Consul Andres Chao said. The office, now with 21 employees, can handle about 300 requests a day for those seeking matricular consular identity cards, passports, legal help and birth certificates, he said.

The increased capacity comes even after the Mexican government opened a new consulate in New Orleans, which relieved Little Rock of assisting immigrants living in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

"At this moment, we are completely full," Chao said.

The consulate, located across the street from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, holds two different shifts a day for requests. Workers stagger the appointments every 45 minutes, allowing crowds to remain small.The increase comes less than a year and a half after the consulate opened, capable of seeing 15 immigrants a day. The demand even surprised Chao, who last year thought he would need to bring in only three more workers. That demand mirrors the explosive growth of Arkansas' Hispanic population, which jumped from under 20,000 in 1990 to more than 150,000 now.

The consulate's region also covers western Oklahoma, including Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and eastern Tennessee to Nashville. Chao said the large Mexican immigrant populations in those areas also kept demand for consular services high, with some driving more than five hours one way to reach the Little Rock office. The consulate also plans to hold a "mobile consulate" event in Oklahoma City in November to allow those unable to make the trip to obtain the help they need, Chao said.

Chao said about 200 people come to the consulate daily. He said he expects the number to rise as people return from summer vacations and word about the consulate's new hours reach immigrants across three states.

"It's a big, big community," Chao said.