The New — and Rich — Immigrants from Mexico: How Their Money is Changing Texas

Fearful of the rampant criminality in their country, many of the well-to-do are leaving Mexico for safer communities in the U.S.—and investing huge sums in order to qualify for visas to stay.

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Brandon Thibodeaux for TIME

Mauricio Martín with his daughters, Vera, 3, and Emilia, 6, outside of their home in The Woodlands, Texas, on Jan. 9, 2013.

In a land haunted by frequent mass murders, a kidnapping may seem a small thing, but to Mauricio Martín it was a moment that altered his life’s trajectory. Cartel thugs snatched his brother from the streets of Mexico City five years ago and demanded bribes until granting his safe return six weeks later. “After that, everywhere I went I was a little scared. My children were not free to go anywhere,” Martín says now from his posh home in a suburb north of Houston.

But he’s been in Texas only six months. He stuck it out for years in Mexico City following his brother’s kidnapping. The last straw? Bad business. “In business and government there’s a lot of corruption, so everything you try to do there you have to pay bribes or do things that are not right, so there’s a lot of obstacles,” he says.

He has joined a small exodus of wealthy Mexican migrants weary of fearing for their lives and battling corrupt officials for business interests. The flight may mean a brain drain for Mexico and a boon for regional Texas economies. Many of these well-to-do immigrants are foregoing traditional destinations such as San Antonio and San Diego in favor of big business markets in Dallas and Houston.

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They’re ramrodding stereotypes along the way, forking over big bucks and filling entire neighborhoods of million-dollar homes, often paying with cash. Last year the home builders at Toll Brothers sold some 20% of their luxury homes in Houston to Mexican nationals. Division president Karl Mistry says that, no surprise,security and privacy are major draws.

Martín, who still maintains his rubber manufacturing plant in Mexico City while running his own real estate company in Houston, approximates that 70% of his affluent neighborhood is comprised of folks like himself. As new stories of horrific violence circulate through their ranks,their numbers continue to grow. Meanwhile, their counterparts in Dallas have taken to calling themselves migrantes fresas, which literally means “strawberry migrants.” The word fresa (strawberry) is supposedly used to describe high society.

“It’s not the same migration we’re used to seeing, low-income families migrating to the U.S., undocumented, looking for any type of job,” says Dallas realtor Raul Arriaga. “They are well-educated, they have money, they come here with EB-5 visas.”

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The visas are for sale, though the price is steep – creating 10 jobs and investing a cool million, or, if the candidate chooses to put his or her money in a high-unemployment area, a bargain $500,000. The program has been around since 1992, but recent improvements have led to increased use over the past few years (though the national annual limit of 10,000 EB-5 visas has yet to be reached).

Since February 2010 Mexican investors have poured nearly $45 million into Dallas via the EB-5, constructing the likes of an upscale taco restaurant, a boutique hotel in long-neglected South Dallas and the newest development, a 21-story residential tower in swanky uptown Dallas that will create 1,000 jobs.

Asian investors still claim the lion’s share of foreign investment in the city, but Mexican doctors, lawyers and business people are emphatic about their role in the region’s future. “Instead of taking money out of the United States and into Mexico, it’s going to be the other way around,” says the realtor Arriaga. “Mexico is going to bring a lot of money right here into the United States of America.”

Can a country teetering on the edge afford the loss? “You really want human and physical capital to flow into Mexico, not out of Mexico, because it is a poorer country than the United States,” says Pia Orrenius, an immigration expert at the Dallas Federal Reserve. “I think they’re really flowing the opposite direction than they should, as a result of the violence and insecurity of Mexico.”

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Daniel Healy says it’s not a zero-sum game, and he promises that it’s good for business on both sides of the border. As chief of the Civitas Capital Group, he sends teams to dangle the pricey green cards in front of wealthy Mexican audiences and orchestrate their investments once they sign on. “What it does is it facilitates cross-border business,” Healy says. “They tend to be entrepreneurs and business owners who have been successful in Mexico. Often they come here, start businesses here, or expand their businesses here, and that ends up benefiting both the U.S. and Mexico because the ties grow tighter.”

Concerned for Mexico’s future, many of the new migrants remain skeptical of the nascent presidency of Pena Nieto. “I still haven’t seen enough,” says Dallas-based lawyer Adriana Contreras. “Things can’t just change overnight. I need to see something other than words.”

It’s unclear whether the exodus will grow large enough to transform either economy, but it may yet prove transformative if the Mexican government is spurred to lure back their best and brightest.

What would it take? “In Mexico my children could not go alone to the park and ride their bicycles,” says Mauricio Martín, reflecting on his six months in the U.S. “They can do that here.”

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