After nearly three years as Mexico’s consul general in Minnesota, Nathan Wolf is packing up his office, his home and leaving behind his “baby” — the consulate he helped shape from the ground up.
“Three years ago, it was hard to get a pencil. Now, we are a well-oiled machine,” he says. “So many people come here, for so many reasons. We help them in every way we can.”
With two weeks left in his tenure, Wolf sat down with me to discuss achievements and challenges for the consulate, Minnesota’s Mexican community and the community at large.
Dispelling myths, making connections
When the consulate opened in May 2005 in St. Paul, it was seen as an indicator of how much Minnesota’s Mexican community had grown.
“My greatest challenge three years ago was to establish the consulate, to get it running smoothly, and to gain the trust of the Mexican community, the Latino community and of Minnesota as a whole,” says Wolf, 39. “That goal has been achieved.”
Earning that trust hasn’t been easy. Throughout his time here, Wolf has faced many challenges, especially when it comes to the question of immigration.
“There are many myths when it comes to immigration,” he says. “First, that we come to steal jobs that Americans need and second, that immigrants don’t pay taxes. Of course, both of those are not true.”
Wolf notes, for example, that every time an immigrant buys products and rents or buys property, they are paying taxes. In addition, he says, many pay federal taxes through an Individual Tax Number, which doesn’t require a Social Security number to receive. Many pay into the tax system — knowing they probably won’t see that money again — so that if there is immigration reform, they can prove they paid taxes.
“I think everyone agrees that something needs to change,” he says. “But these are federal questions; this is not something that is impacted at the state level. Instead of making a lot of noise and continuing these myths, why don’t people talk about the contributions instead? [Minneapolis] Mayor [R.T.] Rybak has told me many times about how dangerous Lake Street used to be, and now look at it; it’s a thriving commercial sector, and that success has largely to do with immigrants — Latino and Mexican immigrants, in particular.”
The top concerns among the Mexican community, he says, are similar to those of the community at large: access to health care, higher education and driver’s licenses.
Though access to driver’s licenses might seem to be an issue only facing immigrants, it has broad impact on the community at large. He cited the recent Cottonwood, Minn., accident in which an unlicensed driver from Guatemala allegedly ran a stop sign and crashed into a school bus, killing four students on board.
“Having a driver’s license doesn’t change your immigration status,” he says. “What it means is that that person has insurance, knows how to drive and knows the rules. That is surely in the best interest of the community as a whole.”
All in all, Wolf says he relishes even the tough conversations about immigration. Building bridges and dispelling myths are part of the job. “Just by talking we can arrive at common solutions,” he says. “It’s important to hear the tough questions and to have dialogue; we can’t cut each other off.”
Wolf thinks his successor will continue to build on his legacy — chiefly, increasing business opportunities between Minnesota and Mexico, and advocating for education. Attracting investments and improving the economic condition of the Mexican people is a top priority for Mexican President Felipe Calderon, he says.
“There is a lot of wonderful possibility here — between Minnesota and Mexico,” he says, adding there’s plenty of room to grow. He points to Wisconsin, which exported nearly triple the amount of goods to Mexico than Minnesota did in 2007 — $1.8 billion vs. $666,000 million.
While the local consulate has made some inroads in Minnesota’s business and political communities — hosting seminars and exchanges — more is needed, he says. “We are a great trading partner, we are close, we are easier to trade with than China or India; the framework is there. Minnesota needs more political interest to make this happen because the potential could be huge.”
Minnesota also is missing out by not offering low-cost college educations to undocumented immigrants, he says.
He relates a story — one he says is repeated day-in and day-out in his office — about a top student who only discovered his undocumented immigration status when he started to apply for college. “He had so much potential, English was his first language, he felt that he was American, so to not take advantage of that potential is terrible,” Wolf says.
Adios, for now
As he looks back on his three years, Wolf is proud of the consulate’s work. “Mexicans now are more informed about their rights. We have worked with agencies throughout the state; we help an average of 200 people a day; we’ve given away 30,000 [Spanish-language books] to prisons, colleges, elementary schools and libraries; we’ve processed 35,000 documents; we’ve hosted teacher, sports business interchanges. It’s great.”
Though much remains to be done, he leaves satisfied that the next consul — yet to be named — will be building on a solid foundation. “It will be a new person, with new energy and new goals.”
Wolf’s new position will be general director for international economic promotion in the office of the Secretary of Foreign Relations in Mexico City.
“In the Foreign Service, it’s normal to be reassigned every three to five years, but it is still hard. I’ll miss the lakes, the culture, the people, even the cold — really, I like cold more than hot! I hope to continue my connections to the people of Minnesota, who I have always found so genuinely warm and helpful.”