April 22, 2005
Minneapolis, Minn. — By day, Juan Moreno works for the University of Minnesota's extension service. However at night, twice a week, he deals in passports.
His official title is Honorary Consul of Ecuador. He doesn't get a salary. He can do this because he has dual citizenship in the United States and Ecuador.
He and about a dozen other volunteers work out of an office on Lake Street in Minneapolis. The building belongs to an Ecuadorian couple who donated the space while others donated the furniture.
There are children's photos and tapestries lining the walls. Streamers in yellow, red and blue, the colors of the Ecuadorian flag, decorate one of the waiting rooms. It's hot and there's no air conditioning, so they keep the windows open. Sounds from the street below fill the austere office.
Moreno and a number of other Ecuadorians worked for about 15 years to establish this. It officially opened last month.
"The first step of course is to make a case that you have enough people to make it worth their while," says Moreno. "And that is very difficult to do with a census system in the United States that doesn't count the people you want counted. And so you have to not only rely on the census figures, which are the official figures, but also on information from other agencies that work with our populations."
Immigrants who aren't legal U.S. residents rarely show up on official government counts. U.S. Census figures from 2003 show there are nearly 3,000 Ecuadorians living in the area. But after getting estimates from the police, the church and community non-profit organizations, Moreno and others determined there are more like 10 to 15,000 Ecuadorians living in the area.
They flee their homeland because of economic collapse and political unrest. The majority of the recent immigrants to Minnesota work in food processing, service industries, and manufacturing.
Until this spring, Ecuadorians had to take time off work and drive to their consulate in Chicago to get a passport. Moreno learned last year that about 800 people from the Twin Cities had to make multiple trips to Chicago for a passport.
"When they threw that figure at me, I almost died," he says. "Because I understood the level of work that this implied. And it was at that moment, also, that I decided that I would pursue the issuance of passports as the primary job of this honorary consulate.
Diana Sotamba, 20, is a student at the University of Minnesota. She's come to the consulate to renew her passport so she can travel back to Ecuador.
"Before we had to travel to Chicago and wait ten days and then go back and get the passport," Sotamba says. "So it's very good that we have this here now."
Ecuadorians still need to travel to Chicago to certify some legal documents like wills or marriage certificates. But for many, a passport is more important since it can be their only identifcation.
Since the consulate opened in March, about 40 people come each night to pick up or apply for a passport.
Nancy Argudo, is sitting in the waiting room. She's lived in the United States four years. Now she's eight months pregnant and she wants a passport so she'll be able to identify herself when she gives birth. "We don't have documents from Minnesota and we can't get any. All we can get is a passport," she says.
She said most places such as banks don't recognize her Ecuadorian "cedula," the equivalent of the American Social Security Number and that's all she has.
But in about 10 days, she'll return here, to what Honorary Consul Juan Moreno calls a small sanctuary for Ecuadorians. Then she'll get her passport.