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Omaha Magazine

Omaha’s Foreign Consulates

Sep 21, 2023 03:48PM ● By Chris Wolfgang
consulates feature

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

"In a few words,” said Billy Muñoz, consul general for Omaha’s new Guatemalan consulate, “a consulate is a foreign office that provides documentation services, passports, IDs, consular protection, and legal assistance for their constituents. We’re also promoters of tourism, economic development, and investments for our country.”

You could say that those last two areas of focus—economic development and investments—are the long-haul work of Nebraska’s foreign consulates.

“This is Diplomacy 101,” Andrew Schilling said with a grin. He’s the honorary consul for Japan in Omaha. “Outside of their embassy in a nation’s capital, a government will set up consulates…typically, where there’s a lot of flow of their nationals, as well as opportunity for business investment.”

“One of our missions is definitely to promote business between Mexico and Nebraska,” said Jorge Ernesto Espejel Montes. He’s served twice now as consul titular for Mexico in Omaha and was instrumental in bringing Mexican dairy company LaLa to Omaha. “It was a very long, long process. I presented an investment plan to LaLa in Mexico. LaLa had to confer with the Mexican government as far as potential locations and tax issues. We had to demonstrate that there was a sufficient workforce ready here and orient them with how to go through various legal processes in Nebraska… Like two years or more of this.”

Consulates are integral to both attracting foreign business to their region, as well as building relationships for trade. For example, Mexico is Nebraska’s No. 1 export destination, according to the US Department of Commerce, with 22% of Nebraska’s exports going to Mexico.

“Japan really loves our high-end beef,” Schilling said. “They love soy. You like ramen? Good ramen will have a nice piece of pork on top. That pork in Japan is probably coming from Nebraska.”

Don’t forget that American jobs are boosted by foreign investment. The Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores credits Mexican trade with supporting 31,000 jobs in Nebraska, and as of 2020, Japan is the top foreign employer in US manufacturing, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.

“Kawasaki has been here 40-plus years,” Schilling said. “The Lincoln plant makes all the train cars you’ll ride on the Washington metro or the New York subway system. That’s the influence of what that investor has done.” He’s passionate about recruiting Japanese businesses to set up shop in Nebraska. “I’d like to see us attract more of these investors and build up more of a manufacturing base here in Nebraska. Why do Japanese business in California? It’s expensive! Bring it to Nebraska.” Schilling points to the CHIPS and Science Act, passed under President Joe Biden, an industrial policy strategy for the US to intentionally bring silicon chip manufacturing into the US. “Kansas got something like $30 million to construct one of those CHIPS plants. I want one of those in Nebraska.”

Let’s consider another crucial Nebraska commodity—education. “Education is a US export,” Schilling insisted. On a trade mission to Vietnam in July, Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen and University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor Joanne Li facilitated a partnership between a Vietnam university and UNO. “That will help create a pipeline of students from Vietnam to study here. If we can attract overseas students to study in the US, that’s a positive factor on our bilateral trade books. You absolutely have to be a globalist if you’re going to participate in a global world.”

“Education is the base of everything,” Montes agreed. One of his personal goals for the Mexican consulate is to promote an exchange of teachers between Mexico and Nebraska, not just students. “We want to bring teachers from Mexico to Nebraska, and take Nebraska teachers to Mexico,” he said. “Our elementary teachers come up to Nebraska and they share with [Omaha Public Schools] and other Nebraska schools how they teach our children.”

In addition to considering their government’s business interests within the state, Nebraska’s foreign consulates also try to help their nationals succeed in their own business endeavors.

“As any government office, we have limited resources,” Muñoz said, “but we have valuable networks with nonprofits, local government offices, banks that can help us simplify the life of Guatemalans living here.” There are 75,000 Guatemalans throughout the region that Muñoz covers, which includes Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and Minnesota. “We have about 25,000 Guatemalans living in Nebraska, which is a huge reason we have to open this office.”

An El Salvadoran consulate opened in Omaha last March, which brings the number of Latin American consulates in the city to three. The Mexican consulate serves the largest percentage of Nebraska’s Latin American population, at 78%.

There’s no specific number a population needs to hit before a consulate opens in a new region. “The Guatemalan government decides where to establish a consulate according to the country’s interests and its citizens’ needs,” Muñoz said. “This is a very strategic city. With [a consulate in] Omaha, we can cover a lot of states and reduce travel time.”

Prior to the opening of the Omaha office in late summer of this year, the nearest Guatemalan consulates were Chicago and Denver. “It’s a huge effort to get a passport, to open a bank account, to drive over eight hours one way,” he explained. Constituents without a driver’s license or immigration status often have to pay raiteros to drive them to these consulates. “It’s very expensive.”

Muñoz outlined the criticality of an accessible consulate. “We have that network that provides specific information so they can succeed. We can say, ‘Go to this clinic… they don’t require insurance, they won’t require an immigration status to check in. Here’s the bank that won’t request three forms of identification or a social security number. Here’s how to rent an apartment.’ We know who will help. We’re not just here for them when they arrive, not just when they need a document that expires once every five years. The intention of the consulate is to be part of the life of Guatemalans in this region.”

If a constituent asks their consulate for help opening a business, for example, the office should be able to outline the necessary steps. “You need a business plan, you need an IT number, you need to go to the city…” Muñoz said. “We provide all the information for the process.”

At the Mexican consulate, entrepreneurs and self-starters can take classes online to learn about business and investment in Nebraska. “For example, we have a six-month business class just for women—Mujeres Emprendedoras,” Montes points out. “We have an investment class that’s available to everyone. Bellevue University is working with us so the consulate can give classes directly there. It’s a private university so they accept anyone regardless of immigration status.”

After a Mexican citizen has taken a first business or investment course from the consulate, their next steps might include taking business classes in English, on how to scale a business, or how to increase investments, and so on. Classes are promoted on the consulate’s Facebook page.

“The quality of life in Omaha, the cost of living—it’s just a great place to raise a family,” Schilling said. “This is what I keep telling people, come look at Nebraska, you’ll be surprised. We have the best zoo in the United States. We have a biocontainment unit that received evacuated overseas Americans for COVID treatment. It was one of four in the nation! Who knew what you could find here? 

びっくりしました (bikkuri shimashita)!” 
(English translation: Surprise!)

If relationships are essential to business, then Nebraska’s foreign consulates seem to understand their mission. “Let me tell you, there’s good people here,” Montes said. “The weather is cold, it’s terrible, but the people are warm. It’s easy to have good relations with people here. When I compare Nebraska to other states I’ve worked in… Well, it’s very good to be working here.”

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2023 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  
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