BIIN and Santa Teresa Catholic Church Co-host Guatemalan Mobile Consulate

Published by Program Manager on

BIIN and Santa Teresa Catholic Church Co-host Guatemalan Mobile Consulate

BIIN and Santa Teresa Catholic Church have a long history of cooperation, as both are deeply committed to serving immigrants across the Brazos Valley. In BIIN’s early years, when it was just a fledgling grassroots organization, Santa Teresa provided a place for BIIN’s first IRA clinics to be held.  Since then, BIIN and Santa Teresa have collaborated on many other immigrant-related initiatives, including legal workshops and vaccination clinics.

The two organizations recently paired up again to host a team from the Guatemalan Consulate in Houston, who traveled to Bryan to offer a “mobile consulate” for Guatemalan nationals living in central Texas.  In the course of two days, August 27 and 28, almost 300 Guatemalan citizens obtained consular services –  the issuance or renewal of essential documents such as birth certificates, passports, and consular identification cards – through an event held in the education wing of Santa Teresa Catholic Church in Bryan. 

Why was there such demand for a mobile consulate in Brazos County?  Many immigrants from Guatemala (and other parts of Latin America) who live in central Texas work in low-wage jobs, often holding more than one position in order to eke out a living.  It is hard for them to take time off from work, especially when they work for more than one employer, and when their positions are precarious. It can also be difficult to cover the expenses or deal with the logistics of travel (when adults and children need to show up together).  In addition, many people do not have the digital skills or devices needed to get information or complete forms in advance. In discussions among Guatemaltecos at the mobile consulate, many mentioned concerns about the cost, the time and the frustrations of traveling to Houston, only to return empty-handed due to long lines or misunderstandings about the documents needed. 

However, everyone wants to have their documents in order; no one wants to be stuck or penalized for lacking proper documentation. Being able to access these essential services closer to home, on the weekend, and in the presence of bilingual volunteers who can help with some technological hurdles made the mobile consulate an appealing prospect for many folks.  Within a few days of the announcement of this event in early August, available appointments were filling up fast.

While consular staff were the ones providing the official services, holding an event such as this far from the consulate’s own facility required a great deal of support and assistance from Santa Teresa, BIIN and their crews of volunteers.   

Volunteers recruited through BIIN and Santa Teresa, along with Santa Teresa Parish Social Ministry leader Angelita Garcia-Alonzo, BIIN board chair Nancy Plankey-Videla and BIIN staff, put in countless hours preparing for the event:  publicizing it through local Spanish-language media and social media, responding to calls from people seeking information, helping them sign up for appointments, relaying frequently asked questions to consular staff, securing the facilities and some of the equipment needed for the event, recruiting volunteers to help during the event, planning for hospitality, and welcoming the consular team when they arrived the night before.  Special thanks to BIIN staffer Adriana Stowe and the team of volunteers who called and scheduled over 400 appointments for Guatemalan nationals in the weeks leading up to the event.  As that number suggests, there was a great deal of heavy lifting done by the local sponsors and their volunteers, even before the mobile consulate opened its doors. 

From 7:30 am until 5 pm on Saturday August 27, and again from 7:30 am until 2:30 pm on Sunday August 28, volunteers provided essential support to the consular team, serving in many roles:  welcoming and orienting people who had scheduled appointments; helping them find, complete, print, copy and assemble documents needed; directing traffic both in and outside of the building; delivering food and drink donations for consular staff and volunteers; keeping spaces clean and functional, and helping in other ways as needed. 

Nearly all members of the Guatemalan consular team, led by Vice Consul Maria Eugenia Alvarez Ruiz, remarked at one point or another that the presence and cooperation of this extraordinary team of volunteers made a huge difference to their ability to process so many people’s requests efficiently in the course of two days.  Thanks to this team effort, by the end of the event, some 275 Guatemalan nationals living in central Texas were able to get the documentation they needed, without having to miss work or to travel so far from home. That’s a huge win for everyone!

Here we share some scenes from the two-day event, following step by step the process that consular staff set up for people with appointments.  If you missed the event, these photos will give you a sense of all it entailed, and perhaps inspire you to join us next time. If you were part of this shared effort, we hope you’ll find plentiful evidence of the impact that you and others had. Again, our deepest thanks to all who stepped up to help! 

Volunteers Nancy Plankey-Videla and Lin Bustamante discovered their common roots as Chilenas, while waiting for the next wave of Guatemaltecos seeking consular services to arrive at Santa Teresa.

Step 1:  Arriving and assembling documents

Consular staff announce the opening of the mobile consulate, reminding people with appointments that they were to have completed an online form before they begin the process. While some people had done this task in advance, many had not, and so volunteers were deployed to help with this step: both explaining what needed to be done as people arrived, and helping them complete the form online before they entered the building for their appointment.
Volunteer Anja Schwalen (left) holds a QR code and stands ready to help clients who have not yet completed the form. Many folks try to fill out the form on their cell phones, only to discover that the formatting is not designed for a mobile device. Angelita Garcia-Alonzo (below, center) helps a young couple as they try to complete the consular form.
Realizing that the form can more easily be completed on a laptop, BIIN Director Jaimi Washburn brings hers outside and shows volunteer Melissa Ramirez how to walk people through this step.
Nancy Plankey-Videla works with a young woman in the shade of a tree, to complete the consular form required before she can proceed to her appointment.
A friendly atmosphere develops between volunteers and the local residents who have come for consular services, thanks to Roberto, Adrian, Angel, Anja, Nancy, Melissa, Brayan, Maria Luisa and Tere, who formed a kind and competent team at the building’s entrance.

Step 2:  Checking in, waiting in line

Volunteer Lin Bustamante welcomes people as they enter the building and confirm the time of their appointment, handing out face masks (as needed) and brochures about BIIN’s programs and services in the process.
A member of the consular staff (left) starts to check in with people waiting, to make sure that they have the documents necessary before they reach the document review station. BIIN staff person Janet Morford (right) helps direct people from one station to another.
Volunteers Eduardo Romero and Melissa Ramirez stand ready to print documents or help fill out online forms, as needed. Having a number of bilingual and digitally competent volunteers with access to laptops and a printer was crucial for keeping the process going.

Step 3:  Presenting documents to consular staff

At the first station, consular staff review the paperwork submitted by Guatemalan nationals, to be sure that everything meets the requirements. When staff discover that a document is missing or incomplete, they refer applicants to one of the volunteers nearby, for additional help in accessing or completing documents.
Volunteers Melissa and Eduardo print a missing form for an applicant, ensuring that he can keep his place in line.
Nancy Plankey-Videla consults with Vice Consul Maria Eugenia Alvarez Ruiz to get clarity on the range of documents that applicants are expected to have ready, by the time they reach this station.

Step 4:  Paying fees for services to be rendered

Once their documents have been verified as complete, applicants move across the hall to the second station, where they pay for the services that will be rendered, using separate money orders for each item. Consular staff work quickly, but there are inevitably delays, requiring patience especially from family members with young children in tow.

Step 5:  Waiting for “capture”

After paying their fees, applicants move to the hallway to wait for their turn at any of the “capture” stations, where photos and other records will be collected. Volunteers stationed along the hallway – including Gloria Agudelo, a Santa Teresa parishioner (above), and Fabian Leon, a BIIN volunteer (below) – monitor open spots and keep the lines moving, so that consular staff can focus on working with the clients in front of them.

Step 6:  Recording digital data

When their turn comes, applicants sit at stations equipped with cameras, scanners and other equipment needed to record photos, fingerprints and other personal data for consular IDs and/or passports. With multiple stations for each kind of document, the process moves more quickly at this point.
Given the long waits involved, the calm and patience of young children required to come along for the ride were remarkable. Being snuggled close on mom’s back or able to play games on dad’s cell phone (as well as the prospect of getting a fruity popsicle from the vendor in the parking lot afterwards) no doubt helped.
While most men in attendance dressed more casually, a number of Guatemaltecas came to the event wearing the beautifully beaded dresses associated with particular regions of the country. By informal poll, these were some of those deemed “best dressed” in the course of the weekend.
When the flow of people coming through the door slows down, volunteers Lin Bustamente and Tere Vega (both of whom had also spent long hours setting up appointments in advance of the event) jump on their phones and follow up with people on the schedule who had not yet showed up, reminding them of the unique opportunity this presented to get consular services closer to home.
Volunteers Brayan Tovar Murillo and Melissa Ramirez worked outside for hours, using a laptop to help people fill out online forms so they could then meet with consular staff. Here, they take a well-deserved pause for a snack in the air-conditioned break room.

Thank you to all of the people who worked so hard to make this mobile consulate a success!  It would not have been possible to serve so many people so efficiently without the participation and assistance of such a competent and flexible team.  Special thanks are due, in particular, to Angelita Garcia-Alonzo for bringing the need for a mobile consulate to our attention and facilitating our use of the educational wing at Santa Teresa Church;  to Jaimi Washburn and Janet Morford for overseeing logistics, volunteer recruitment and material needs from start to finish;  and to Nancy Plankey-Videla and Jaime Ovalle for publicizing the event and serving as volunteer coordinators during the event. Photos featured here were taken by Tere Vega and Janet Morford. We are also grateful to the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M for its support of the mobile consulate, and to local vendors who donated food to keep consular staff and volunteers going during the event:  Chick-Fil-A, Shipley’s Donuts and Jason’s Deli.