Acquiring and renewing this documentation is a long but necessary process for many Mexican nationals living in the U.S.
Because the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta is a five-hour drive from the Tri-Cities, many Mexicans living in the area have to rely on another, more convenient service: the Consulate on Wheels.
Twice a year, a small group of men and women from the consulate set up shop inside the gym of St. Dominic Catholic Church in Kingsport to provide this service to the area’s Mexican community. They arrive on Monday and return to Atlanta on Friday.
Catholic Charities helps coordinate the events each year, and the agency's Alma Vazquez said the people who bring the Consulate on Wheels to Kingsport are very organized. The event is made possible through a partnership between Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, Catholic Hispanic Ministry and St. Dominic.
“It evolved to be as organized as it is now,” said Vazquez, who works at the Johnson City office of Catholic Charities. “We used to have to use volunteers — at least five to 10 volunteers.”
Mexicans who use the service must set up an appointment with the consulate beforehand. According to a flier advertising the event, people who want a Mexican passport from the Consulate on Wheels must bring a certified copy of their birth certificate and an official photo ID.
If they’re hoping to get a Mexican ID, people must bring a certified copy of their birth certificate, an official photo ID and a document proving their name and place of residence.
Vazquez said the consulate meticulously scrutinizes the documents that are brought in front of them, going so far as to disqualify birth certificates if the name is misspelled.
“The Mexican government is very picky about the paperwork that they will take,” Vazquez said. “There are crazy people out there everywhere and they want to be somebody that they’re not. So every government wants to make sure that they’re issuing the paperwork to the right person, so that’s why they’re very, very strict.”
The documents given by the consulate are in high demand, and Vazquez said she’s heard of people traveling 10 hours by car just to get access to the services.
Several years ago, the consulate only visited the area on Saturdays, setting up on Friday night and then seeing scheduled appointments until about 10 p.m. the following evening. People would camp outside the church overnight just to get the chance to be seen the next day, Vazquez said.
“That was no good for nobody,” Vazquez said. “Because it was putting themselves in danger ... and then they would just wait the whole day.”
Eventually, the service was extended to a week, and now the Consulate on Wheels sets up about 1,000 appointments from Tuesday to Friday morning.
The IDs that Mexican citizens receive at the consulate can be used for many purposes.
“Everywhere you go, you have to have an ID,” Vazquez said. “People have to know who you are. So whenever you need an ID, we need an ID, too.”
According to the National Immigration Law Center, many banks accept a consular ID as proof of identity to open a bank account. A consular ID can be used to acquire an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which allows a worker to pay federal income taxes.
A Mexican citizen can use the ID to obtain a driver's license and can use it as proof of identity in the event that they are approached by police.
As of August 2013, the Mexican Embassy reported that more than 371 counties, 356 financial institutions and 1,036 police departments recognize the consular ID as proof of identification.
“It’s very good to have a piece of paper that says, ‘This is who I am,’” Vazquez said. “It’s awful, but you have to have a piece of paper for some agencies, for some places, to be worth something.”
Without a government ID, Vazquez said that Mexican citizens in the surrounding area could also be vulnerable if they have a run-in with police.
Lt. Scott Carrier, an officer with the Johnson City Police Department, said that people who violate city or state law can be taken to jail if they cannot produce proof of identification. A consular ID could, in effect, be the difference between an inconvenience and a night in jail.
"So long as an officer is presented with a formal government document of some sort, that should suffice," Carrier said. "I would strongly encourage it to be a photo ID of some sort."
"Whenever you need an ID, we need an ID, too."
– Alma Vazquez
And in order to get those documents, Mexicans must rely on either the Consulate on Wheels or the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta, which is far enough away to require a significant investment of time.
“I think we can reach many people who wouldn’t be able to reach the services if they were only served in Atlanta,” said Rosa Flores, who works for the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta. “Some of the places we go to are five hours or more away from the office.”
Flores said about 12 employees travel with the consulate. She appreciates the warm reception that the Consulate on Wheels has received in the surrounding area, particularly at St. Dominic.
“It’s great,” Flores said. “They have been always welcoming to us, so yes, they understand people’s needs and that’s why we work together.”
Vazquez said that the recent focus on immigration by 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has placed unwelcome scrutiny on the Mexican community in the U.S. In a symbolic way, she said the service by the Mexican consulate helps confer an identity on Mexicans who are normally lumped into a single basket by members of the American public.
“It’s about dignity,” Vazquez said. “We’ve been called criminals, we’ve been called rapists, we’ve been called whatever. And even people who don’t know our names they call us ‘Maria’ ... or ‘Juan’ or ‘José,’ and sometimes — and this going to sound really cheesy — you’re like, ‘Who am I?’”
In fact, Vazquez said that, though she has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico, she still needs the services of the Mexican consulate in order to renew her documents.
Vazquez acknowledges the caustic political climate that has sprung up around the recent presidential election, but she doesn't understand why people criticize the consulate for providing services to people who have immigrated to the U.S. — particularly when they're just trying to get documents that prove their identity.
“We're here anyway,” Vazquez said. “You have to know who’s here, and that’s better for everyone — better for me, for anybody. So whenever someone complains because someone is getting an ID and going through all these difficult processes ... I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
Above right: Consulate worker Jose Prado helps visitors to the Consulate on Wheels at St. Dominic Catholic Church. Photos: David Floyd