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Wealthy, business-savvy Mexican immigrants transform Texas city

Settling in San Antonio with private jets and Porsches, their influence has been compared to that of well-heeled Cubans who took refuge in Miami decades ago.

March 24, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • A school bus stops in one of the gated communities in San Antonio where affluent Mexican families are making a fresh start.
A school bus stops in one of the gated communities in San Antonio where affluent… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

SAN ANTONIO — The Mexican businessmen in Rolexes and Burberry ties meet on the north side of town, at Cielito Lindo Restaurant, or at new neighboring country clubs. Their wives frequent Neiman Marcus, Tiffany's and Brooks Brothers at the nearby mall. Their children park Porsches with Mexican license plates in the student lots at Reagan High School.

They are part of a wave of legal Mexican immigrants who have been overlooked in the national debate over how to deal with their largely impoverished illegal compatriots. Propelled north by drug cartel violence, they paid thousands of dollars to hire attorneys and obtain investors' visas for themselves and their families (including maids). They have regrouped in gated developments in several Texas cities, where their growing influence has been compared to the impact of well-heeled Cuban refugees who arrived in Miami decades ago.

Nowhere is the evidence more striking than in San Antonio, Texas' second-largest city and a short private-jet hop from Monterrey, Mexico, where many of the new immigrants built their wealth. They have poured into developments with names like the Dominion, Stone Oak and Sonterra that were cut into the rocky hills and oak groves north of the Loop 1604 highway that rings the city.

More than 50,000 Mexican nationals now live permanently in San Antonio, city officials say, turning an upscale enclave known as "Sonterrey" or "Little Monterrey" into the city's second-fastest growing ZIP code.

Real estate agent Ana Sarabia caters to the new arrivals — finding them immigration lawyers, new schools, banks and office space — and sees them reshaping her hometown.

"I can see it transitioning," said Sarabia, 45, who lived for a time in Mexico City. "This has always been a bicultural city. Parts of it have now become a new Mexico."

There's Lorena Canales, 40, who moved from Monterrey with her two youngest children two and a half years ago to start a bilingual day care after witnessing a gun battle outside her local Wal-Mart.

Uriel Arnaiz, 40, relocated with his wife and 3-year-old son from Mexico City four years ago to open a high-end tequila import business after some of his son's friends were kidnapped.

José Ramos, 55, moved two years ago from Monterrey to open a restaurant, Vida Mia, after a relative was kidnapped and killed.

It's not clear whether new immigration policies being contemplated in Washington would affect this group of wealthy immigrants, who skip long immigration lines by hiring attorneys in Mexico to apply for business-related visas at U.S. consulates.

Most had to prove they were either employed by a multinational company or had a valid business plan and enough money to start their own. Some had to show American investments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many moved in a matter of weeks, though some said the process had become more difficult in recent years, with tougher screening by U.S. consulates.

Costs vary depending on the type of visa. In many cases, it is cheaper than what a smuggler would charge for an illegal crossing. Attorney fees can range from $1,500 to $6,500, compared with coyote payments of $6,000 or more.

Arnaiz's initial visa allowed him to stay in the U.S. for up to a year. He was able to renew the visa, which is required every two years for up to seven years if he wants to stay. His wife and son were eligible for visas for the same time period (children under age 21 are eligible). While staying in the U.S. on those visas, they were allowed to pursue permanent residency, or green cards, which they got in recent months.

"There's a lot of requirements," Arnaiz said. "You need to have a real, sustainable project."

The visa for professions listed in the North American Free Trade Agreement is relatively quick and cheap to obtain, some said, with attorney fees ranging from $1,500 to $3,000.

During the last decade, the number of such visas issued to Mexicans annually skyrocketed from 686 to 7,601, according to the State Department.

The newcomers — nicknamed "migrantes fresas," or rich migrants — are conspicuous even in this largely Latino city. Sociologists compare the "Mexodus" of professionals to the wave of exiles who fled to Texas after the Mexican Revolution in 1910, or wealthy Cubans who decamped to South Florida after the revolution in 1959.

Former San Antonio Mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, whose grandfather was exiled to San Antonio during the Mexican Revolution, calls them a "new diaspora with the potential to rival the impact Cubans had on Miami."

Harriett Romo, a sociology professor and director of the Mexico Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has been studying a dozen Mexican families who immigrated through investor visas.

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