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Philadelphia's Mexican consulate opens legal center for immigrants fearing crackdown

Flooded with panicked calls from Mexican nationals worried about the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration, the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia plans to open a "Legal Defense Center" on Friday at its Bourse Building offices in Center City.

"People are scared, they don't know what is going to happen," said Alicia Kerber-Palma, Mexico's consul general in Philadelphia. "The idea is to provide them with information, and let them know that if they have any type of legal situation, we can help."

Kerber-Palma said her office would provide basic legal advice and refer complicated matters to a roster of immigration, labor, and general-practice lawyers drawn from the local bar.

"Families want their [U.S.-born] kids to have double nationality, because they don't know what is going to happen," Kerber-Palma said. "If they return to Mexico, they want their kids to receive education and health services" there.

Fear was already running high in February, when Mexico's Foreign Ministry warned Mexicans in the United States to "take precautions" as they face "the most severe implementation of immigration control measures."

Kerber-Palma said her office does not ask whether the people seeking help are in America legally, but some are clearly concerned about deportation. She tells families they must have "a plan B" in case push comes to shove.

"Give power of attorney to someone you really know, so in case you get deported somebody can take care of your kids. That's the first thing you have to think of," she said. "And power of attorney for bank accounts, and what to do with your house."

It is "a pretty dark plan B," Kerber-Palma acknowledged, but not having one could be worse. She said that she tells them to "be calm" and "not make rushed decisions," but that they have to act.

"If they want to return to Mexico, we assist with that," providing information about which Mexican state needs workers, how to buy a house, and other advice. "If they are going to be deported," she said, "we are going to be very close with them … to see that their human rights are respected and due process is followed."

While stressing that the Mexican government respects America's right to choose its leader, she said she was disappointed to hear President Trump tell Congress on Tuesday that he is creating VOICE — Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement — a new office to compile and make public incidents allegedly involving immigrants as perpetrators. She said the plan unfairly implicates all immigrants, including law-abiding ones.

"It's sad. Sad to make the relation between immigration and criminals," she said, "because that's not true. It has been proved that immigrants are not responsible for [elevated] levels of crime in the United States. There is a very clear principle. Crimes are committed by persons. Crimes are not committed by nationalities."

The anxiety of Mexicans in the Philadelphia region is mirrored in other parts of the U.S.

In the 48 hours after Election Day, the consulate in Tucson, Ariz., reported receiving 1,000 calls from concerned Hispanics.

The Mexican consul general in St. Paul, Minn., recently told a Kansas television station that "people here are very, very nervous." The consul general in Kansas City, Mo., told the local newspaper that his consulate has experienced unprecedented long lines of Mexican nationals seeking documents.