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Jose Luis Bernal

Growing Pains, Healing Wounds at Mexico's Outpost in L.A.

March 26, 2000|SANDRA HERNANDEZ

Sitting in his fifth-floor office just north of MacArthur Park, Jose Luis Bernal admits his job as consul general of Mexico isn't a typical diplomatic post. With an estimated 3 million Mexicans calling Los Angeles home, his office is considered among the most powerful consulates in the world.

Besides overseeing such consular business as issuing passports and hosting visiting Mexican dignitaries, Bernal sometimes finds himself the flash point for U.S.-Mexico relations. When Mexican police broke up a student strike at the country's largest university, he took some of the heat. There is also the controversial question of allowing Mexican nationals living abroad to vote in Mexico's elections.

Unlike his predecessors, however, Bernal is here at a time when relations between California and Mexico are on the mend after nearly a decade of strained ties. Those tensions reached a peak when state voters approved Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant initiative, in 1994. Still, there are many sources of tension between Sacramento and California. For example, Bernal must deal with questions of police abuse against Mexican nationals, and there is the constant friction produced by immigration laws.

Indeed, Bernal became embroiled in a controversy over immigrants' rights to contact their consular officers. The California Legislature recently amended state law to ensure that immigrants were apprised of their rights. The controversy stemmed from several cases, including one in Texas, in which foreign nationals were arrested and convicted in U.S. courts but were never allowed to contact their consulates.

A native of Mexicali, Bernal has an undergraduate degree in international relations and a masters in economics. In 1979, he joined the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry. In 1985, he was transferred to Washington, where he became a liaison between the U.S. Congress and Mexico's embassy. Bernal was also instrumental in negotiating Mexico's interest in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In 1993, he returned to Mexico and spent two years working in the foreign ministry, eventually heading up the country's foreign service. Three years later, he was named Mexico's permanent representative to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. He remained there until October, when he moved with his wife, daughter and son to Los Angeles to head up Mexico's largest and busiest consular office.

During a recent conversation, Bernal addressed some of the issues facing him.

Question: How would you characterize the relationship between California and Mexico?

Answer: I think the relationship is becoming more positive. The change in the government of California has already had an effect. . . . New avenues of dialogue between Mexico and California have been opened. . . . President Ernesto Zedillo's trip to California [last year] marked a historical change in how Mexico views this part of the U.S. . . . Now we feel that we need to promote additional trade between California and Mexico. There is always the example of Texas. Texas has a very close economic relationship with Mexico. We hope that with the tradition of Mexican relations, with the presence of Mexican companies here and because of the interest in the Pacific region, we believe we can--and should--develop better and closer economic relationships.

Q: What part of the Texas model would you like to see replicated in California?

A: The amount of trade. We see a lot of opportunities for both Mexican and California companies to exchange goods and services. With Texas, we are talking about $20 billion worth; with California, it is only about $9 billion. . . .

Sandra Hernandez, a former staff writer for LA Weekly, has written extensively about immigration and Latino issues.

Q: One of the most important issues your office deals with are questions of immigration and the protection of the rights of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles. One complaint constantly raised by activists and immigration attorneys is that people detained by local law enforcement or the Immigration and Naturalization Service are rarely told they have the right to contact their consular officer. What is your office doing to address the problem?

A: There was a legal controversy in the U.S. about the obligation, according to international treaty, to notify individuals. Because Mexico is part of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, we say that every Mexican national should be notified. The controversy was over whether a [law-enforcement] authority was obliged to notify a [detained] person or the consulate. Well, they say they are notifying persons, but in many cases, the person doesn't speak English. The reality was, [immigrants] weren't really being told. In cases involving a [possible] death penalty, we had been arguing that [the authorities] never notified the consulate, and we were successful in a few cases.

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