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Mexican Consulate in L.A. takes a wide-ranging role in guiding immigrants to social services

Partnering with U.S. government agencies and nonprofits, the consulate offers aid on parenting, healthcare, labor violations and other issues.

July 23, 2009|Anna Gorman

Typically, a foreign consulate in the United States doles out passports, helps travelers in crisis and serves as a liaison to the home country.

But the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles has become an almost de facto public agency in recent years, forming partnerships with government officials and nonprofits here to provide healthcare, offer mental health counseling, fight labor violations and hold literacy classes.

The consulate took another step earlier this year to meet the needs of Mexicans living in L.A. County by teaming up with the Superior Court and the county's Department of Children and Family Services to regularly assist Mexican nationals in dependency proceedings.

Court and county officials welcomed the help, even giving the consulate space for a desk at the Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park. Ted Myers, chief deputy director of the family services department, said having consular representatives on site helps parents, who are often in shock after having their children taken away, understand and maneuver through the dependency court system.

"It's great having them there and being able to connect [parents] to the services right away," he said. "It vastly increases the probability of them following through and keeping appointments."

In March, Michael Nash, the presiding judge in Juvenile Court, and Juan Marcos Gutierrez-Gonzalez, the Mexican consul general, signed an agreement laying out procedures to follow if Mexican nationals are involved in dependency court proceedings. For example, court officials agreed to allow consular representatives to attend court hearings.

The consulate also began offering free Spanish-language parenting classes, using a curriculum approved by the county. Most of the parents, including 27-year-old Mexican immigrant Gema Galvan, were ordered by the court to attend classes.

Galvan's three children were taken away in November when she hit one of them with a belt. The court directed her to attend counseling and take anger management, domestic violence and parenting classes. Galvan, who works part time at a garment factory, said she was grateful to find a free course because she already had to spend more than $100 a week on the other courses.

During the 12-week parenting class at the consulate, Galvan said, she learned how to talk to her children at their level and how to control herself when they misbehave. Galvan has visits with her children every week and said she believes she is on track to get them back by the end of the year.

Nash said the court has had a relationship with the Mexican Consulate in the past, with the government occasionally helping to find and evaluate relatives south of the border, but there wasn't regular contact until this year. Nash said the classes are especially valuable because many parents cannot find affordable programs, thus delaying family reunification.

"In today's economy . . . to have the Mexican government come in and offer these services is truly a bonus," he said, adding that he hoped the services would help the families "get out from under our system."

Susana Preciado, a social worker who teaches the course, said she gears the classes to Mexican natives, talking about legal and cultural differences between the two countries. Parents who come here often don't know what is and isn't acceptable, she said.

"They have very basic knowledge about the laws in the United States," she said. "They kind of need guidance."

During a recent class, Preciado gave the group of nearly 20 parents a series of tips: Treat your children as you would want others to treat them. Know your child. Choose your battles. Be consistent. "Use the same rules at home and in public," she said. "If they can't do it at home, they can't do it anywhere."

Her assistant, Jose Carlos, chimed in, "Remember, children are the best psychologists in the world."

The Los Angeles consulate, on 6th Street just west of downtown, is the busiest and largest Mexican consulate in the world, serving as many as 500 people a day. Consular officials said their unique and ambitious programs cater to a population of nearly 4 million Mexicans, legal and illegal, many of whom have no plans to return home.

"The Mexican Consulate in L.A. has been kind of a lab," Gutierrez-Gonzalez said. "We're trying to expand and make more comprehensive the services we provide."

Consular representatives met July 15 with union leaders and officials from Cal/OSHA and the Department of Labor to plan a labor rights week this fall to encourage people to report labor violations.

The previous week, the consulate signed an agreement with the Red Cross to work together to educate and prepare the Mexican immigrant community in case of a disaster or other emergency.

The next area the consulate plans to address is domestic violence. Consular officials are working to develop a network of law enforcement agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide services, such as counseling, legal representation and shelter, to Mexican victims of domestic violence.

Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC, said the consulate has long served as a bridge between the U.S. and Mexico but has become increasingly active in Los Angeles in recent years.

"It reflects the recognition by Mexico that a significant portion of its people are living in the United States," he said. "This is one of a series of steps helping the Mexican consulate be a relevant factor in the community."

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anna.gorman@latimes.com

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