Drug war drives affluent Mexicans to U.S.

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Drug war drives affluent Mexicans to U.S.
Sun, 08-28-2011 - 12:18pm


Drug war drives affluent Mexicans to U.S.

Tens of thousands of well-off Mexicans have fled that nation's drug violence by quietly moving north into the U.S. in recent years. Unlike the much larger population of illegal immigrants, they are being warmly welcomed.

By Mary Beth Sheridan

The Washington Post

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — For years, national-security experts have warned Mexico's drug violence could send a wave of refugees fleeing to the United States. Now, the refugees are arriving — but they are driving BMWs and snapping up half-million-dollar homes.

Tens of thousands of well-off Mexicans have moved north of the border in a quiet exodus over the past few years, according to local officials, border experts and demographers. Unlike the much larger population of illegal immigrants, they are being warmly welcomed.

"It goes counter to the conventional wisdom about the Mexican presence in the United States," San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro said. The influx "is positive, it is entrepreneurial ... and one of the keys to a very successful, growing city like San Antonio."

Castro estimates Mexicans own at least 50,000 of the approximately 500,000 homes and apartments in his city of 1.3 million, which has a vibrant Hispanic culture. Many are in gated communities that have sprung up in the city's sunbaked northern hills. In one neighborhood called Sonterra, built around a country club, so many of the residents are from the Mexican city of Monterrey that the development has been dubbed "Sonterrey."

"I've never seen so many Maseratis and Porsches in my neighborhood," said Carl Bohn, a businessman who lives in Sonterra, a tranquil area of homes with red-tiled roofs, palm trees, colonnaded entrances and backyard pools.

No strangers here

Affluent Mexicans have long visited the United States for business and shopping. What's different now is they are coming to stay, fleeing cartel wars that have left more than 37,000 Mexicans dead in four years, according to U.S. and Mexican officials and analysts. The number of investment visas granted to Mexicans has risen sharply over the past five years.

"It's a very substantial flow; I would say probably the largest since the 1920s, the last great period of upheaval in Mexico," said Henry Cisneros, a former mayor of San Antonio who served in President Clinton's Cabinet. "We have whole areas of San Antonio that are being transformed."

The size of the new wave is difficult to measure because some of the new arrivals hold dual citizenship or U.S. work visas, or already had American vacation homes. One Mexican think tank, the Security and Civic Culture Observatory, estimated last year that 230,000 people had fled the violence-racked border city of Juarez, with half going across Mexico's northern border.

But Aaron Terrazas, a policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, found in a recent study that most of those fleeing Juarez appeared to be moving to other parts of Chihuahua state, not the United States. Still, Terrazas said he found a noticeable increase in one segment of those actually leaving Chihuahua: the highly educated.

The well-heeled Mexicans are arriving as illegal immigration from Mexico is on the decline because of the weak U.S. economy, border crime and more opportunities for young Mexicans at home. Illegal immigration has plunged from an estimated half-million Mexicans per year a decade ago to 200,000 or fewer.

Some targeted by cartels

Not all the new arrivals are wealthy, of course. There are prominent cases of Mexican journalists, mayors and police chiefs hounded by the cartels who have fled to the United States. Some members of the "Mexodus" — as it was dubbed in a recent study by four U.S. and Mexican universities — simply moved their mom-and-pop restaurants across the border.

"All these businesses are Mexican," said Alejandro Quiroz, a Mexican-born businessman, sitting outside a Starbucks in Sonterra and gesturing to a bank and gourmet Mexican takeout shop. Women in designer sunglasses and high-heeled shoes left the Starbucks, chatting in Spanish.

"Generally, people come with capital," Quiroz said. "They buy houses, cars. And then they say, I want to invest in a business."

In another sign of the influx, private jet flights between San Antonio and Mexico nearly doubled between 2008 and 2010, reaching 3,997 in 2010, according to city officials.

The number of investment visas given to Mexicans has risen sharply. A total of 10,512 E-1 and E-2 investment visas were granted to Mexicans from 2006 to 2010, a 73 percent increase over the previous five-year period, according to the State Department. Mexican professionals have obtained tens of thousands of other kinds of visas in recent years. Some complain, however, that the process has gotten more difficult, with increased fees and government scrutiny.

But many of the newcomers don't need visas. Take Pablo Jacobo "Jack" Suneson. He was born in Laredo, making him a U.S. citizen, although he grew up with his Mexican mother just south of the border. They ran a well-known craft shop, Marti's, in Nuevo Laredo.

That was back when tourists thronged Nuevo Laredo's bars and shops. But with the rising drug violence, "a whole industry has evaporated along the northern Mexican border," he said.

Suneson now operates Marti's out of a building a few blocks from the Alamo. He sells the finest Mexican crafts — $189 silk scarves by the trendy designers Pineda Covalin, and $198 salt-and-pepper shakers by the Taxco silver artist Emilia Castillo.

"This is where the new boom, the new action is. It's not in Monterrey or Guadalajara, where they should be bringing up a new middle class," Suneson said. "It really should be happening there."