The rich flee Mexico drug violence
Fearing for their lives, affluent seek asylum in Houston, other Texas cities
By James Pinkerton
The Houston Chronicle, March 8, 2009
Mexican businessman Jorge Hernandez abruptly relocated his family to Houston last year, terrified that family members would be abducted by kidnappers.
He had ample reason to be afraid. He left in August, days after a father was kidnapped for ransom as he dropped his child off at the same school Hernandezs children attended in a north Mexico city.
'One night, I told my wife Pack the bags were leaving,' Hernandez said. 'The fear we felt caused us to get in the car and drive for 12 hours to get to Houston.'
The 43-year-old businessman joined a growing number of affluent and middle-class Mexicans fleeing comfortable lives in Mexico for the comparative safety of Houston and other major Texas cities. They are desperate to escape an unprecedented wave of lawlessness in their home country where warring drug cartels whose fighting claimed more than 6,000 victims last year have also taken up kidnapping as a lucrative business.
Monterrey, the nations third-largest city and Mexicos industrial powerhouse, had two kidnappings a day last year, according to the El Manana newspaper.
Businessmen like Hernandez have been joined by hundreds or perhaps thousands of middle-class Mexicans seeking asylum at U.S. ports of entry across from Mexican border towns where violent gun battles have raged. Last year, 2,231 Mexican citizens sought asylum in the U.S., a significant increase from 1,366 in 2006.
'It seems to me there are more people coming now than there have been in the last couple of years, and the flow is increasing,' said John W. Meyer, a Houston immigration lawyer hired by Hernandez to process his visa.
How to get a visa
Meyer and other attorneys held a seminar last month in The Woodlands to explain the process of obtaining a business or investor visa and drew a crowd of 65 potential clients from Mexico.
Among the popular visas for these new arrivals is the L-1a, or inter-company transfer visa, used by businessmen whose firms have a U.S. presence.
Theres also the investor visa, which requires an applicant to invest $1 million in a new enterprise that creates 10 full-time jobs for U.S. workers. The newcomers are also applying for the NAFTA TN visa named after the North American Free Trade Agreement which allows Mexicans and Canadians to work for U.S. companies in certain professions.
Most of these Mexican expatriates are business owners who can afford to commute to Mexico several days a week and can enroll their children in private schools and buy homes in Houston.
Many Mexicans who qualify for work or investor visas have settled in neighborhoods near the Galleria and The Woodlands, officials said.
'Weve seen some of that increase over the last couple of years,' said Nick Wolda, president of the visitors bureau in The Woodlands. 'For the Mexican audience, The Woodlands is a desirable location: the schools, the parks, the pathways. What were finding is people coming here are investing in businesses, or being transferred from companies.'
Rise in asylum claims
Meanwhile, many Mexicans in border towns wracked by violence are crossing international bridges and requesting asylum. 'We have seen an increase in the number of asylum claims at our ports of entry, and this is one factor among a number that we are seeing as part of the situation along the border,' said Mike Friel, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In El Paso, asylum claims by Mexican citizens have increased from 12 in fiscal year 2005 to 80 last year, according to CBP records.
'Were seeing complete families fleeing from our sister city Juarez. They are middle-class business people. … Their loved ones are being kidnapped, and they are asking extremely high amounts of money,' said Elvia Garcia, outreach coordinator for the Paso Del Norte Civil Rights Project in El Paso.
Garcia said other nonprofit legal agencies in El Paso have been inundated with calls from hundreds of Juarez residents who have crossed the border on tourist visas and now want to seek asylum.
Huge brain drain
Ricardo Ainslie, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has produced a documentary on Mexicos kidnapping industry. He said the kidnappings have motivated many of the nations leading professionals to leave.
'In Mexico, there is a real anxiety about it because its a huge brain drain. The money and talent is leaving Mexico in huge numbers to San Diego, San Antonio and Austin,' Ainslie said.
Hernandez said he had to leave Mexico when he saw the drug gang battles in the streets and the police and military presence. But while the family was drawn to Houston because of the culture and educational opportunities for his wife and three children, it has been hard to transition.
'Your family suffers,' Hernandez said. 'But when you turn on the TV and listen to the news from Mexico, thats when you say to yourself you made the right decision to leave.'