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Outcry over consul's ouster

Community leaders protest removal of official in Santa Ana. Mexican government says it's a routine move.

December 14, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

The Mexican government has announced that it will remove Consul Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro from Santa Ana, provoking ire among community leaders who view him as an outspoken and unbending advocate for immigrants in Orange County.

Community leaders are collecting signatures to petition for his reinstatement and planning a trip to Mexico City to speak with government officials. They are also planning to protest when Mexico President Felipe Calderon visits Los Angeles next month.

Some residents in this largely Latino city say they have found in Ortiz Haro the sort of fiery leader the town has lacked in recent years.

"With respect to those who served before him, I do not think we have been serviced before the way we have in the last five years," said Alfredo Amezcua, an attorney who said he had worked with the consul in Santa Ana since the Mexican office opened 20 years ago.

"We've made so many advances, and this decision could set us back significantly," he said.

Unlike most diplomats, Ortiz Haro, 47, came to the job after a political career in Mexico City. He ran his Santa Ana office in the style of a populist Latin American patriarch, peppering his conversations with trendy idioms and spending hours on the problems of immigrants, which fell beyond the formal scope of his job.

"It really hurts to leave the people here. It's a job I really like because I can help people and live among them while learning about the lives of immigrants from my country," Ortiz Haro said.

His removal is part of customary changes in the assignment of 48 consuls in the United States and not a reflection on his work, a Mexican government official said. Ruben Beltran, the Mexican consul in Los Angeles, was recently reassigned to New York, and a new consul, Carlos Felix, was assigned to the office in San Francisco.

"Consuls are routinely changed from one position to another. This is part of the process in our foreign service and those of many other countries," said a foreign ministry official who asked not to be identified. "No one can be in a post for an eternity. We will always seek to put in these positions a professional who can serve the community."

But in Santa Ana, this was hardly a mere changing of the guard. Some said Ortiz Haro was the city's -- and perhaps the county's -- strongest advocate for immigrants in a county that is home to some of the nation's most active anti-illegal immigration groups.

Ortiz Haro is the second Orange County immigrant advocate to announce his departure in as many months. Jaime Soto, auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Orange, was recently transferred to Sacramento by the Roman Catholic Church.

Ortiz Haro declined to comment on his removal, which he learned about last week. His last day will be Jan. 31. He has not been assigned to another diplomatic post.

On Wednesday, leaders of community organizations streamed into his office to bemoan his departure. Employees held back tears.

"We cannot let them take him from us," said Norma Briones, president of an association of immigrants from the state of Nuevo Leon. Briones is among more than a dozen leaders collecting signatures to protest the decision.

Jeannet Hernandez, secretary of the State of Mexico Federation, another immigrant group, said the decision should be reconsidered. Ortiz Haro "is not just about words. He's about action. He's united the community. He helped us help ourselves," she said.

Because he was not diplomatically trained, Ortiz Haro enrolled in English classes at Santa Ana College when he arrived.

On Wednesdays, Ortiz Haro opened his office to immigrants to hear their problems and sometimes solve them. He often helped track down lost relatives, fought deportation cases and reviewed criminal matters.

In time, the sessions -- known as Miercoles Paisano, or Compatriot Wednesdays -- spread to other days of the week, and his office became a regular gathering place for people facing an array of problems.

During his tenure, the Santa Ana office increased the number of Mexican identification cards issued. Ortiz Haro recently said that his consulate issued more of the cards, known as matriculas consulares, than any consulate except for L.A. and Chicago.

Those who seek Mexican passports from Santa Ana wait no more than three days. Waits in other cities can be months, he said.

Ignacio Lopez said he came to the consulate in 2005 because he wanted to adopt his grandchildren after his daughter died. U.S. authorities had told him it was not possible.

With financial support from Ortiz Haro, the Anaheim resident got an attorney who helped him get a permit to work in the U.S. Consular staff accompanied Lopez to Orange County Superior Court, where this week he was granted the right to adopt the children.

Ortiz Haro "did what no one would do. He believed in us. He put his time in to help us," Lopez said. "And there is no way to pay him back."

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