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TIJUANA - New U.S. consulate opens in Tijuana

TIJUANA — Long lines of visa applicants have for years been a fixture outside the offices of the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana, hub of one of the busiest American consular districts in the world. This week, the lines have suddenly vanished, even if the activity hasn’t.

After 47 years in the same location near the Caliente Racetrack, the U.S. government has moved across town, on Monday opening offices in a $120 million gated compound built near the Otay Mesa border crossing. The imposing stone structures — with more than 100,000 square feet of space in the main building — are intended to offer both greater efficiency and tighter security at a time when the consulate’s role has grown increasingly complex.

“We’re not a traditional consulate that you might have thought of ten or 20 years ago,” said Steven Kashkett, the consul general, a 53-year-old career diplomat who oversees a staff of 50 Americans and 100 Mexicans operating out of the Tijuana facility. “We are now basically a mini-embassy representing the U.S. government in this part of Mexico.”

High-volume consulateSome average annual numbers from the Tijuana consulate, which serves the Baja California peninsula.

-- Visas processed annually: 190,000

-- U.S. population (est.): 250,000

-- U.S. citizens arrested annually: 2,000

-- U.S. deaths reported: About one death a day, most of natural causes

Source: U.S. consulate
Issuing visas and providing services to American citizens abroad are the stock-and-trade of consular offices worldwide. Kashkett said much of the work at the Tijuana consulate now also involves reporting on regional counternarcotics efforts, as well as political and economic issues on the border. The consulate, he said, “is much more of a facilitator between the two governments than it was in the past.”

While the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City serves as the State Department’s main representation in Mexico, the U.S. government also maintains nine consulates across the country, with Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez being the largest and busiest. In Tijuana in recent years, growing numbers of U.S. agencies have begun operating out of the consulate’s office, and now include Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Department of Commerce.

“Clearly in a country like Mexico, where U.S. interests are so multi-faceted, in a city like Tijuana that is such an important element of the national fabric, the consulate assumes a role that a consulate in Lyon, France, might not,” said Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

The Tijuana consulate had long ago outgrown its rented facilities in the city’s upscale Hipódromo neighborhood, and in recent years found itself forced to open a visa annex a few miles away in the city’s Río Zone, where lines of applicants carrying documents could be seen standing outside throughout the day as they waited for appointments.

The new facility commands a sweeping view of the city, and sits surrounded by vacant land on a large plot known as La Pechuga, so-named because its shape resembles a chicken breast. The setting and structure meet U.S. State Department security standards for diplomatic facilities worldwide established following 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that claimed 220 lives.

Though less centrally located than the old facilities, the opening of the new consulate consolidates all of the operations in one location. Shaded areas with benches inside the compound allow for a more comfortable wait.

The central atrium of the newly opened U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana. — Nelvin C. Cepeda The Tijuana consular district, which oversees U.S. government affairs in Baja California and Baja California Sur, has an estimated 250,000 U.S. citizens living within its jurisdiction, a figure that does not include the millions of others who cross each year for tourism, jobs, family, and business.

More people are arrested here than in any other U.S. consular district, about 2,000 annually, according to consular figures; drug and weapons charges are among the most common. At any given moment 250 U.S. citizens are behind bars, though any definitive tallies are difficult because some may hold dual citizenship and not identify themselves as U.S. citizens.

On average, one U.S. citizen dies each day in the district, in the majority of cases of natural causes, the consulate reports. While most of last year’s 66 non-natural deaths were homicides, they also included car accidents, drownings and seven suicides.

“We are the highest volume, most complex American citizen services post in the world,” said Kashkett, whose previous posts have included Halifax, Port-au-Prince, Beirut and Jerusalem.

While the consulate can help those who lose their passports, are victims of crime, and recommend attorneys to those who face charges, “Americans need to understand that they live in a foreign country, the laws of the foreign country apply,” Kashkett said.

Some find the help invaluable.

A recent high-profile case brought consular staff to San Felipe earlier this month after the sinking of a charter fishing vessel in the Gulf of California with 27 U.S. citizens aboard. David Levine of Bodega Bay, said the 19 survivors had lost everything, including passports, drivers’ licenses and medications. Consular staff, “went out of their way to do whatever they could for all of us down there,” Levine said. “They made sure we got back across the border without passports, that we were OK to drive.”

Source: SignOn San Diego • (619) 293-1716 • Twitter @sandradibble

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