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Mexican call center tries to connect families to missing migrants

Mexican diplomats in Arizona answer desperate calls from relatives searching for loved ones who have crossed into the U.S.

November 13, 2013|By Cindy Carcamo
  • An operator at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson searches for a person in various databases. The call center gets about 4,500 queries a month, many from people looking for missing relatives in the U.S.
An operator at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson searches for a person in various… (Cindy Carcamo / Los Angeles…)

TUCSON — The mother calling from the Mexican state of Chihuahua hadn't heard from her son for days and she feared the worst.

Her voice cracked. She spoke quickly. She told the young man on the other end of the phone that she needed help.

In Tucson, a meticulously coiffed young operator wearing a dark tie responded calmly in Spanish.

"When was the last time you spoke with him?" he asked.

They last talked, she said, right before her 23-year-old son embarked on an illicit journey into the United States, trudging through the Arizona desert. The operator, busily typing notes into his computer, listened sympathetically.

The woman had called the national nerve center for Mexicans hunting for answers. Located in a small office inside the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, the center is staffed by 21 diplomats — men and women mostly in their 20s or 30s — who answer toll-free calls from Mexico, the United States, Canada and, sometimes, even Europe.

The operators field about 4,500 calls a month on issues reflecting the complex relationship between the U.S. and Mexico: Do U.S. labor laws protect workers in the country illegally? What's the latest on immigration reform? How do I send money to my daughter being held in immigration detention?

But the most urgent and sensitive queries are appeals like the one from the mother calling one summer morning from Chihuahua — desperate people looking for loved ones.

The operator, well educated and speaking in eloquent Spanish, did his best to keep the mother focused.

"Madam, please give me his complete name," he said politely. She did.

"Does he have another name other than Eduardo?" he asked. He checked the name against multiple databases on his screen.

Ricardo Pineda, the Mexican consul in Tucson, said the call center had been around since 2008, a year after the immigration debate reached a boiling point in Arizona and state officials passed a law targeting employers who hire people who are in the country illegally. Based in Tucson because of its proximity to the border, it's the only call center of its kind the Mexican government operates.

In 2008, operators received inquiries only from Arizona, mostly from callers asking about new state laws. Slowly, that changed. More Mexican nationals discovered the toll-free number, (855) 463-6395, and began to call from south of the border, many trying to track down a missing relative who had made the illegal, and often dangerous, journey north.

As tension peaked after the passage of Arizona's immigration law SB 1070 in 2010, calls increased. Supporters of the law took to protesting in front of the consulate, Pineda said. Some of them turned aggressive, he said.

It's these sorts of security concerns that prompted Pineda to ask that none of the operators be named for this article.

In July, the call center officially went national with a new name, Centro de Información Sobre Actualidad Migratoria, or Center for Current Immigration Information. Staffing was increased to 21 from 12, and the center operates seven days a week.

Its main objective is to provide information on immigration, often warning callers to guard against scams suggesting easy ways to cross the border or obtain immigration papers. On the morning Eduardo's mother called, another caller said she'd heard that the U.S. had revamped its immigration laws.

"I can assure you there is no immigration reform," a female operator replied.

Weekly training classes hone the operators' skills, giving them a chance to tackle difficult situations presented by callers who may sometimes be illiterate or handicapped in some way. If the operator can't find a match within the databases, a missing person report is created. Operators ask for physical descriptions, such as tattoos, scars or dental work.

Operators are trained to tap into a variety of databases; some are public, such as the searchable inmate list on the Arizona Department of Corrections website. Others are obtained through a partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The work can be stressful, but the operators show no sign of stress. Instead, they speak in monotones, enunciating their words slowly, in an attempt to steady frantic callers.

Although the numbers of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally have decreased, data from the Pima County medical examiner's office show that the death rates among migrants are at all-time highs in the southern Arizona desert.

In the last 13 years, more than 2,000 migrants have died in the Arizona desert while attempting the crossing. About half the border crossers who die succumb to exposure. On this summer day, temperatures reached 100 degrees.

A woman from Sonora state was relieved after the operator told her that her husband was in the Florence Detention Center, a federal holding facility in central Arizona. At least he's alive, she said; she asked how to send him some money.

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