SPRINGDALE — El Salvador will open a consulate at 3861 W. Sunset Ave on Monday. in Springdale to help serve its citizens of Northwest Arkansas.
“We want them to be proud of our service,” said Alicia Hernandez, vice consul for San Francisco, who will open the local office with three staff members. “We want them to know that the consulate is their home.”
Hernandez’s English skills were 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 non-profit group Salvadorenos Unidos since 2018 have sent letter after letter to the Salvadoran government asking for a consulate. Before Monday, citizens of this country had to go 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 area. She brought her 12-year-old daughter to Siloam Springs in 1985 after her husband was killed in action during 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 documents from their country.
A woman came to Aguilar after paying her cousin $1,000 to take her to Dallas, but he disappeared with her money. Many Salvadorans living in northwest Arkansas don’t have a car, so they pay someone to take them to Dallas, Aguilar said.
She added that a Salvadoran national would have to take one or maybe two days off for the trip, which meant lost pay and possibly an unfriendly boss. Then a trip may require a night or two in a hotel.
And if the Salvadoran was missing a document or signature, the trip to Dallas could 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 whole family on a trip because she lived here without family benefits, Solorzano added.
“This is really great news,” she said. Now, Salvadoran nationals will no longer have to wait for someone to take them to Texas.
A local consulate will help residents of northwest Arkansas streamline the process, and that 12-hour drive could be cut to half an hour, she said.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult. And it’s expensive,” said Jose Hernandez, whose journey to legal status and a business of his own spanned 10 years.
Although Hernandez is originally from Mexico, he is a board member and business sponsor of Salvadorenos Unidos. Aguilar said the group is ready to help anyone who needs help. Hernandez sits on the board because he wants to give back to the community that helped him navigate his new country.
He has no connection with the vice-consul.
Solorzano said Salvadorans are the second largest Latin American group in northwest Arkansas, with Mexicans being the largest.
The 2018 census counted 25,000 people of Salvadoran descent in northwest Arkansas, she reported.
Aguilar-Hiett estimated that 34,000 Salvadoran nationals live here today.
She noted that the Salvadoran government would not consider a consulate unless the region 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 board member Kevin Flores. Springdale City Council and General Counsel who also represents some clients with immigration issues.
Flores’ family left El Salvador in 1991 to escape civil war. Flores said he was 7 years old. He also finds a real parallel to American success that the effort to obtain the consulate was led by a group of grassroots volunteers.
Salvadoran population is larger than 21 of the state’s cities, said Bill Rogers, president of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce. He said Sherwood and Benton have populations similar to Salvadorans, while Van Buren is considerably smaller at just 23,000 people, according to the 2020 census.
The chamber, Mayor Doug Sprouse, and local business leaders wrote letters in favor of a consulate in Springdale. When the Salvadoran government initially approved a consulate in Arkansas, it 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 request 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 due to open at 6 a.m. Saturday in rented space at Harps Plaza at North Thompson Street and Backus Avenue. People started lining up on 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 long hours, she said. “The president told them that they were government employees to provide services to citizens. Citizens needed services, so yes, they had to work,” she said.
Aguilar-Hiett noted that the Dallas Consulate typically processes about 200 passports per week. The mobile consulate was processing 500 a day, she said.
The new consulate will join a Republic of the Marshall Islands consulate opened in Springdale in 2000. Eldon Alik, the general counsel, estimates the area’s Marshallese population at 15,000.
“Marshallans are lucky in Springdale because the community, the mayor and the governor all support the community,” Alik said.
The most important document for a Salvadoran immigrant is an ID card issued by their country of origin, similar to a state driver’s license, Aguilar-Hiett said. This documentation is the starting point for all other services, including work permits and passports.
Many Salvadoran nationals also apply for passports at the Salvadoran consulate, which are necessary when traveling between countries, Alicia Hernandez said. The consulate will also issue birth and death certificates in El Salvador and provide legal notary services 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. Maybe someone here wants to sell land in their home country but needs someone to act as their agent, she gave as an example.
And common requests from consular staff are to help return to El Salvador to bury 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.
Salvadoran citizens living in northwest Arkansas will be able to vote in the upcoming Salvadoran elections at the Consulate in Springdale.
“Nothing other than the consulate can provide those legal measures that they are already entitled to as citizens of El Salvador,” Flores said.
He noted that many Salvadorans living in northwest Arkansas held dual citizenship with the United States.
Consulate services are also available to Salvadoran citizens living in northwest Arkansas without proper documentation, Flores noted.
The Salvadoran consulate would be their first stop to acquire legal residency. The consulate serves Salvadoran citizens the same way a county courthouse serves US citizens.
“If you don’t need the services of a consulate, you don’t realize how vital it is,” Rogers said.