Editor’s note/update: Ms. Valenzuela recently moved on to her next position and is no longer El Salvador’s consul general in Atlanta. To reach the consulate, email email@example.com.
When Claudia Valenzuela was serving her country at the United Nations, she gained lessons much more valuable than international protocol.
While she enjoyed negotiating and meeting heads of state — she even shared a photo with infamous former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — what most impacted her was a realization of shared humanity across 192 countries and even more cultures.
“I learned to be completely tolerant with the world,” the El Salvador diplomat said during an interview as part of the Global Atlanta Consular Conversations series, held at the Miller & Martin law firm. “For a foreign diplomat, the United Nations is heaven.”
Before that stint, she had served in Chile, where she learned the value of self-reliance, and in Japan, where she came face to face daily with meticulous preparation. Everything seemed to have a manual.
“I learned in life that everything happens for a reason, and you are in that place because you have to learn something,” she said during the luncheon interview.
But it was the U.N. that best set her up for her post as consul general in Atlanta.
The city’s Salvadoran migration has been relatively recent and was mainly economically motivated during an after the 1996 Olympics, in contrast to the many who fled the country during the civil war of the 1980s, settling in places like California and Texas.
When she arrived here six years ago, at a consulate opened just a few years before that, Ms. Valenzuela saw it as her duty to learn the intricacies of a Salvadoran community that has grown to nearly 80,000 people in Georgia alone. (She also covers Alabama and South Carolina.)
It had some key differences in makeup from what she knew back home. She quickly butted up against the “machismo” culture, with some men questioning why a young woman was in such a position of authority.
She also faced a harder battle against misinformation. Resources to help the immigrant community assimilate were plentiful, but finding them wasn’t easy for most of her constituents, who were plagued by rumors about policies and procedures, often from relatives.
It wasn’t all bad. Treating her job as a cross-cultural exercise with her own people had its benefits, too: She saw that they could be their own ticket to prosperity if they were to build on their strengths.
“We are really really hardworking people, working in landscaping, in restaurants, in construction, but we also have a lot of entrepreneurs — people that are leaders,” she said, pointing out community leaders like life coach Mercedes Guzman in the audience. “A consulate without the community is nothing. I would not be able to do anything if I didn’t have the support of my constituency, so that changed completely my perspective.”
She saw “her” Salvadorans as partners in improving their lives — and the perceptions of their country.
That hasn’t been easy. As she built bridges within her community, she had to work outside it, dealing often with local law enforcement, Immigration Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Illegal immigration from the so-called “northern triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has long been a concern, but the problem came to a head in May 2014 with the arrival of some 50,000 so-called “unaccompanied minors,” many of them teens fleeing rising gang violence back home.
Many were sent on the perilous journey northward across Mexico as murder rates skyrocketed in the wake of a fractured truce between the country’s infamous maras, violent criminal gangs.
The new arrivals overwhelmed the U.S. courts for a time, shedding light on the fact that there are often no right answers with immigration issues. Many people, including a couple with two children that holed up in an Atlanta church for a time, were issued deportation orders because their asylum case didn’t meet the litmus test for political, religious or ethnic persecution.
A few years before, President Barack Obama had issued Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order that put off for two years deportation for children who had been brought to the U.S. before the age of 16. It also granted them two-year work permits. He tried to extend similar assurances to undocumented parents of U.S. citizens, a plan known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, but it was enjoined in federal court in early 2015. DACA, as the former is known, remains in place, while the Trump administration canceled the latter last month amid its ongoing legal limbo.
For Ms. Valenzuela, a lawyer by training, all that upheaval required an additional level of empathy, as well as both procedural and relational dexterity.
In one family, she said, you could have an undocumented mother, a father covered by DACA a child who was a citizen — not exactly an easy situation, especially when law enforcement agencies are doing a justified job.
“I try to balance the human perspective and that of the government, which I completely understand,” she said. “We have to acknowledge the things that maybe we didn’t do well, because there is a process for everything.”
Still, she has been a strong advocate for greater certainty for both legal immigrants and the enterprises who employ them.
More than Maras
With all this as a backdrop, it’s understandable that Ms. Valenzuela’s time is spent mainly on community concerns rather than investment promotion.
While she politely pointed out that the maras are said to have originated in California’s Salvadoran communities and multiplied their menace back home upon deportation, she also noted that the country is now doing its part to face up to the problem and improve its institutions.
A peace deal in 1992 brokering political inclusion for former guerrillas shows that progress is possible. President Salvador Sanchez Ceren is the second straight president from a party of former revolutionaries.
Even still, the headlines haven’t been favorable of late, as Salvadoran gangs have become the poster-children for President Trump’s plans to deport more undocumented criminals.
Ms. Valenzuela counters that a nine-point nationwide safety plan is being carried out and that the country is rebranding to focus on its strongest asset: its people.
Few know that El Salvador is an airplane maintenance hub, with a local branch of Colombian airline Avianca through an acquisition. The nation is also an apparel manufacturing powerhouse drawing companies like YKK, the Japanese zipper company with its Western Hemisphere base in Atlanta.
Tax and investment incentives are available for qualified companies, Ms. Valenzuela also said, noting that she can put interested parties in touch with ProEsa, the country’s business promotion agency.
A burgeoning call center sector is springing up, many employing deportees from the U.S. to make use of their bilingualism. Clean energy is also an area of keen interest, as is food packaging and production, a key Georgia sector.
“You can imagine what you can create with all of these people that are looking for the best of the country,” Ms. Valenzuela said, expressing optimism about the next decade. “I see my constituency here in Atlanta, and I expect the best.”
Ms. Valenzuela is currently serving as the dean of the consular corps, a role reserved for the longest-serving member of Atlanta’s diplomatic community.