SAN ANTONIO, Texas — For years, national security experts have warned that 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 houses.
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 that Mexicans own at least 50,000 of the approximately 500,000 houses 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 northern hills. One neighborhood built around a country club has so many residents from the Mexican city of Monterrey that it has been dubbed "Sonterrey."
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"I've never seen so many Maseratis and Porsches in my neighborhood," said Carl Bohn, a businessman who lives in what is formally called Sonterra, a tranquil development of homes with red-tiled roofs, palm trees, colonnaded entrances and backyard pools.
Affluent Mexicans have long visited the United States for business and shopping. What's different now is that 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 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.