El Salvador to open consulate in Springdale – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

SPRINGDALE — El Salvador on Monday will open a consulate at 3861 W. Sunset Ave. in Springdale to help serve its citizens in Northwest Arkansas.
“We want them to be proud of our service,” said Alicia Hernandez, a vice consul from San Francisco, who will open the local office with three staff members. “We want them to know the consulate is their house.”
Hernandez’s English skills are limited, so Jessica Aguilar-Hiett, director of Salvadorenos Unidos Para Arkansas and daughter of the organization’s founder, provided translation as needed.
Members of the nonprofit group Salvadorenos Unidos since 2018 have sent letter after letter to the Salvadoran government asking for a consulate. Before Monday, citizens of that country had to travel to the consulate in Dallas for documents and services.
Salvadorenos Unidos was started by Paz Aguilar to help Salvadorans and other Latinos in the Northwest Arkansas region. She brought her 12-year-old daughter to Siloam Springs in 1985 after her husband died fighting in the country’s 12-year civil war.
Aguilar lost patience with the 12-hour round trip to Dallas, the nearest Salvadoran consulate, when she and other Salvadorans needed documentation from their country.
A woman came to Aguilar after she had paid her cousin $1,000 to take her to Dallas, but he disappeared with her money. Many Salvadorans living in Northwest Arkansas don’t have cars, so they pay someone to take them to Dallas, Aguilar said.
She added a Salvadoran national would need to take one or maybe two days off work for the trip, which meant lost wages and possibly an unsympathetic boss. Then a trip might require a night or two in an hotel.
And if the Salvadoran was missing a document or a signature, the trip to Dallas might have been a waste of time, said Margarita Solorzano, executive director of the Hispanic Women’s Organization of Arkansas.
And a mother might have to take the entire family on the trip because she was living here without benefit of family, Solorzano added.
“It’s really great news,” she said. Now Salvadoran nationals won’t have to wait until someone takes them to Texas.
A local consulate will help Northwest Arkansas residents streamline the process, and that 12-hour drive might be reduced to a half hour, she said.
“It’s not impossible, but it is hard. And it’s expensive,” said Jose Hernandez, whose own journey to legal status and a business of his own lasted 10 years.
Although Hernandez came from Mexico, he’s a board member and business sponsor of Salvadorenos Unidos. Aguilar said the group is ready to help anybody who needs help. Hernandez serves on the board because he wants to give back to the community that helped him navigate his new country.
He is no relation to the vice consul.
Solorzano said Salvadorans are the second-largest Latino group in Northwest Arkansas, with Mexicans the largest.
The census in 2018 counted 25,000 residents of Salvadoran descent in Northwest Arkansas, she reported.
Aguilar-Hiett estimated 34,000 Salvadoran nationals live here today.
She noted the Salvadoran government wouldn’t consider a consulate unless the area had at least 30,000 Salvadoran citizens.
The Salvadoran government saw a large population of Salvadoran nationals in Northwest Arkansas that would continue to grow year after year and knew it needed a full-time consulate, said Kevin Flores, a member of the Springdale City Council and general practice lawyer who also represents some clients with immigration issues.
Flores’ family left El Salvador in 1991 to escape the civil war. Flores said he was 7 years old. He also finds it a true parallel with the American success story that the effort to get the consulate was driven by a group of grassroots volunteers.
The Salvadoran population is bigger than 21 of the cities in the state, said Bill Rogers, president of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce. He said Sherwood and Benton have populations similar to the Salvadorans, while Van Buren is considerably smaller with just 23,000 people, according to the 2020 census.
The chamber, Mayor Doug Sprouse and local business leaders wrote letters in support of a consulate in Springdale. When the Salvadoran government initially approved a consulate in Arkansas, they wanted to open it in Little Rock because it’s the state capital, Aguilar-Hiett said.
The Salvadoran government “shut down” during the pandemic, allowing time for Salvadorenos Unidos to ask for those letters of support, which made a difference in the location of the consulate, Aguilar-Hiett said.
Salvadorenos Unidos sponsored its first “mobile consulate” in February 2020, Aguilar-Hiett continued.
The consulate was to open at 6 a.m. Saturday in a rented space in the Harps Plaza at North Thompson Street and Backus Avenue. People started lining up Friday, Aguilar-Hiett reported.
Consulate staff and volunteers worked until 4 a.m. Sunday when the computers needed a break, she said.
Consulate staff asked if they had to work the long hours, she related. “The president told them they were government workers to provide service to citizens. The citizens needed service, so yes, they had to work,” she said.
Aguilar-Hiett noted the Dallas consulate typically will process about 200 passports a week. The mobile consulate processed 500 a day, she reported.
The new consulate will join a consulate for the Republic of the Marshall Islands opened in Springdale in 2000. Eldon Alik, the counsel general, estimates the Marshallese population in the region to be 15,000.
“The Marshallese are lucky in Springdale because the community, the mayor and the governor all support the community,” Alik said.
Services
The most important document for a Salvadoran immigrant is an identification card issued by his home country, similar to a state driver’s license, Aguilar-Hiett said. That documentation is the starting place for all other services, including work permits and passports.
Many Salvadoran nationals also seek passports from the Salvadoran consulate, which are needed as they travel between countries, Alicia Hernandez said. The consulate also will issue certificates of births and deaths in El Salvador and provide notary services legal in El Salvador, she added.
For example, the consulate here can issue a power of attorney that will be recognized in El Salvador, Alicia Hernandez said. Perhaps a person here wants to sell land in his home country but would need someone to act as his agent, she gave as an example.
And common requests of consular staff are for help in returning to El Salvador for burying the bodies of Salvadoran nationals who die here, she said. The consulate can help if the family doesn’t have the money to send the body home.
El Salvador’s citizens living in Northwest Arkansas can cast their votes in the next Salvadoran elections at the Springdale consulate.
“Nothing other than the consulate can provide these legal measures they are already entitled to as citizens of El Salvador,” Flores said.
He noted many Salvadorans living in Northwest Arkansas hold dual citizenship with the United States.
The consulate’s services also are available to Salvadoran citizens living in Northwest Arkansas without proper documentation, Flores noted.
The Salvadoran consulate would be their first stop to acquire lawful residency. The consulate serves Salvadoran citizens much the same way as a county courthouse serves United States citizens.
“If you don’t need the services of a consulate, you don’t appreciate how vital that is,” Rogers said.
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