Diplomats from south of the U.S. border open two new consulates to serve Nebraska migrants

Guatemala, El Salvador, newcomers, join Mexico in outreach efforts

By: - August 24, 2023 5:45 am

Guatemalan Consul Billy Muñoz, left, is in Omaha preparing to open the Consulate of Guatemala, which will join the Consulates of Mexico and El Salvador. El Salvador opened its first office earlier this year, and the Mexican consulate opened in 2000. Mexican Consul Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes, is in the center, with acting Salvadoran Consul Javier Prudencio at right. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — A third Latin American government is setting up an Omaha office to serve its citizens who have settled across Nebraska — a sign of continued cultural shifts and an unprecedented consular presence in the Cornhusker state.

The Nebraska Consulates of Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador were featured at an Aug. 17  community gathering at Bellevue University. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

When the Consulate of Guatemala officially opens in a few weeks, it will join the nearby Consulate of El Salvador, which established a local base earlier this year.

The pacesetter Mexican Consulate made its entrance back in 2000.

While separate entities, the three embassy-like satellites collectively reflect the growing influence of Latino immigrants, who account for about half the state’s estimated 150,000 or so foreign-born residents.

Consider this data, from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Immigration Research Initiative:

  • Foreign-born Nebraskans of all nationalities make up more than 7% of Nebraskans.
  • That group represents 9% of Nebraska’s labor force and 8% of its earnings.
  • Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador represent three of the top four countries with the most expatriates in Nebraska (India is the other).

It is those numbers that spurred the Guatemalan and Salvadoran governments (and before that, the Mexican government) to turn attention to Nebraska and to assign official diplomats to organize consulates in the state’s biggest city. 

“We know that Nebraska is an important state for our people,” said Javier Prudencio, the interim Salvadoran consul. “It looks like they’ve discovered the life you have here, the good life.”

Javier Prudencio of the Consulate of El Salvador speaks at an Aug. 17 forum. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Such operations, headed by a government-appointed diplomat called a consul, serve as a link to expatriates, providing them with official documents such as passports and identification, and support services for health, finances and education.

Without a nearby consulate, migrants often travel hours to a bigger city where one is established, or wait for a mobile consulate to swing into town. In their absence, protection and advocacy services fall largely to civil rights attorneys and community advocates.

Nebraska as a whole also benefits from consulates, say those familiar with the services.

Consulates are staffed with bicultural natives adept not only in Spanish but in less common indigenous languages, who can intercede to bridge gaps in communities.

Foreign-born residents in Nebraska

Mexico: 48,302 (18% entered after 2010) 

Guatemala: 9,926 (36% entered after 2010)

El Savador: 5,576 (32% entered after 2010)

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2021 American Community Survey

They understand customs and needs of their constituents, and can open doors to business, academic and labor markets, said Yesenia Peck, who heads the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s going to be easier for us to approach the consuls and learn from them and to understand the challenges, say, of the entrepreneur from El Salvador,” she said.

Cobus Block, director of international and business recruitment for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, said consulates also host events and activities that inform Nebraskans about newcomers.

“It is a two-way street that often reaps benefits in terms of economic growth, educational opportunities and, hopefully, the building of lasting relationships,” he said.

Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes was the second Mexican consul in Nebraska. He left for other assignments, and this year returned. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Already, Guatemalan Consul Billy Muñoz, along with Mexican Consul Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes and Prudencio, met with Gov. Jim Pillen in the governor’s hometown of Columbus. Other area public officials, education and business leaders also joined the discussions.

Last week, leaders from all three Omaha-based consulates shared the stage at a public forum at Bellevue University that drew about 75 constituents.

“Historic” is how Muñoz described the joint appearance with his counterparts. But he and the others expect more to come.

“Billy is my brother,” said Prudencio, a nod to how their countries share a border. And just on the other side of Guatemala’s border is Mexico.

Muñoz, who said he is preparing to open his office in coming weeks, expects the issuance of official documents and protection services to be among the most pressing needs for his team. Reunification of unaccompanied minors, he said, is a growing concern for Guatemalan migrants.

Billy Muñoz of the Consulate of Guatemala leads the newest Latin American consulate serving Nebraska.  (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

But a strength in having three Latino-serving diplomatic branches will be in outreach and advocacy efforts, say Muñoz and others. They say their constituents share many common challenges and interests.

“This is going to help inclusion,” said Peck. “How amazing that we will be able to help individuals that felt they were left behind.”

Gina Ponce, director of Latino Community Outreach at Bellevue University, and Maria Arriaga, of the Nebraska Commission on Latino-Americans, hosted the recent Bellevue forum that featured leaders of the three consulates.

Especially at times when immigration becomes a political hot potato, a united front from  the leaders south of the U.S. border can be a comfort, said Ponce. 

“They want to show the community the unity between the three of them,” she said.

Arriaga sees such gatherings as a “big step” to a more concerted effort to improve the well-being of Latinos in Nebraska. The Census puts the share of Hispanics, regardless of country of origin, at an estimated 12.3% of Nebraska’s population.

Three consulates serving migrants in Nebraska shared information during an event Aug. 17 event in Bellevue. (Courtesy of Bellevue University)

Others are pleased for practical reasons.

Saul Lopez, an Omahan originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, said local consular services are good news especially for many migrants who hurriedly leave their homelands in distress, pushed by natural or political disaster — and without all the paperwork they need for a new start. 

Walter Garcia Rodriguez also was at the recent forum. As the new executive director of the Council Bluffs-based Centro Latino of Iowa, and a U.S. citizen with a wife who is a Guatemalan national, he wanted to hear the consuls first-hand.

The Omaha consulates for Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador all serve Iowa, too. The coverage area for the Guatemala and El Salvador offices extends into a few other states as well. 

“It’s a great blessing and will save us time, mainly traveling,” he said of the local Guatemalan branch. The nearest others are in Chicago and Denver.

Consulate offices

Mexico, 7444 Farnam St.

Guatemala: 1010 N. 96th St.

El Salvador, 11422 Miracle Hills Drive

Garcia Rodriguez recalled aligning about four years ago with a small group of Nebraska residents from Guatemala who worked to bring a branch of their government to the area. They wanted representation.

He also sees value in the foreign diplomats engaging with Nebraska’s public officials and in local community events. He sees that happening.

“We are hosting a Latino festival next month,” Garcia Rodriguez said. “They agreed to have a table here.”


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.