Seeking safety by immigrating to the United States, thousands of Mexicans are fleeing the violence of Juárez. They represent a new trend in Mexican immigration. Making the most of legal immigration visas available to middle and upper economic classes, some may push those visas beyond legal usage. Recent estimates of the increased numbers of new immigrants in El Paso range from 5,000 to 60,000.
It is clear to see why they flee. The rapid decline of Ciudad Juárez, the narco war-zone sister-city from which they escape, is stark:
- The city saw 4,600 murders in 2008-09,
- 110,000 abandoned houses–estimates suggest 30% of the population is gone,
- 75,000 people are newly unemployed,
- 10,000 businesses are closed–approximately 40%, due to demands of extortion payments from organized crime or due to assaults resulting from not paying extortion demands.
Signs of an influx of Juárez’s white-collar workers, equipped with visas, now quietly appear around El Paso: newly rented houses or apartments and new businesses opening. If patterns seen in the past prevail, at least some of those visas are destined to be overstayed.
The risk taken by breaking U.S. immigration law by overstaying a tourist visa pales in comparison to the opportunity to escape one of the most dangerous cities on earth by relocating in the city next door, one of the safest cities of its size in the nation. El Paso tallied 12 murders in 2009, compared to 2,643 in Juárez.
There are two U.S. visas at play in this new movement.
Tourist Visa Entrance
Many Mexican citizens who cross into El Paso have tourist or “laser” visas. Legally this allows them to visit the U.S. but not to work in the country.
Laser visas comprise most of the 1.5 million visas the U.S. government issued at its Juarez Consulate from 2000-09. They’re good for ten years, usable for legal U.S. visits of no longer than six months. Only Mexicans who prove they have a steady income and a Mexican residence are eligible for the $130 tourist visas.
Once foreigners legally enter the U.S. they may blend into the fabric of the country and elude detection. It is difficult, even impossible, to account for them in our current system unless they attract attention by engaging in illegal activity. It is thought that between 40-75% of foreigners now present in the U.S. without authorization actually entered the nation with proper documents.
By living in El Paso, laser visa holders from Juarez elude immigration detection systems and can still present the appearance of being “commuters.” If they lack a criminal record, they are apt to avoid detection, staying under the radar of border surveillance.
Investor Visa Entrance
Another avenue of legal entry to the U.S. is open to the wealthy and ambitious. Mexicans who can show their ability to invest at least $500,000 to open a business and hire at least 10 full-time employees are eligible for an investor’s visa.
Bringing start-up money and jobs, Mexican entrepreneurs are another important faction of the new wave of immigrants.
Last year more than 200 business people from Mexico reportedly investigated opening operations in El Paso, according to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Successful Juarez businesses commonly expand operations into the sister city of El Paso.
The number of investor’s visas granted rose from about 800 in 2007 to nearly 1,400 in 2008, the last year documented by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to information reported by the El Paso Times.
Facing threats of kidnapping and extortion fees, as evidenced in the previously cited Juarez 40% business closure rate, business owners are fleeing threats and attacks by escaping into El Paso.
El Paso’s New Look — Not so Different
Chihuahua license plates, formerly in the city for weekend shopping, are now visible daily throughout El Paso. But in a city already over 80% Hispanic, new arrivals from Mexico blend right in. How many are there? No one knows for sure.
“The El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation estimates 5,000 recent arrivals in El Paso. Allen puts the number at 30,000. Juárez’s Autonomous University calculates that 60,000 have made the move,” reports Alfredo Corchado in The Dallas Morning News.
Everyone agrees: El Paso’s population is growing significantly in this largely immigrant-friendly city.
Mexican immigrants have been traditionally regarded as economic refugees who flee poverty in desperate search of survival. But in these days of the narco war, the new immigrant wave brings refugees who are wealthy enough, or well-connected enough, to escape a war zone.
Editor’s note: This column was previously published on All Voices