Wealthy Mexicans Are Increasingly Investing in the U.S. to Escape Cartel Violence

Mexican businessman Juan Jose Pardo had finally seen enough of the drug killings in his country, and was increasingly worried over the safety of his wife and two children.

“You feel that the problem is approaching,” he said. “We decided it’s better to start taking action instead of waiting for something to happen.” Pardo is one of a rapidly increasing number of wealthy Mexicans to who are attempting to escape the violence by investing $500,000 or more in American business projects -- thereby earning legal and permanent residency status in the U.S.

“It appears to be the easiest way to get your papers so you can immigrate,” said Pardo, who manages a clothing center and tourism company in Mexico City.

Members of the Mexican elite are filing for EB-5 visas, which can grant the well-heeled financiers and their families green cards in exchange for investments in projects demonstrated to create or sustain 10 U.S. jobs.

The majority of the investments are arranged through so-called “regional centers,” designated public or private economic units, which according to law accept a minimum of $500,000 for economic growth projects in rural or high unemployment areas, or a minimum of $1 million for projects outside such areas.

Mexicans last year made up a small fraction of EB-5 applicants -- who are approved around 75 percent of the time -- with just 34 filings, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

By contrast, more than 1,200 Chinese applied for the visa. But Marco Ramirez, director of USA Now, a Texas regional center that markets itself exclusively to Central and South Americans and operates in the Texas counties of Webb, Zapata, Starr, Hidalgo, Willacy, Kenedy and Cameron, says his organization has raised $90 million from 160 Mexican investors since June 2010, and expects to have about 280 commitments by the year’s end.

“A good way to call it is an exodus. Those who can leave are leaving,” he said. Meanwhile, by the end of the year Star of Texas Regional Center expects to land 100 Mexican investors who will contribute to a $70 million fund for projects that will revitalize hurricane-damaged areas of Galveston Bay, according to the center’s founder, Jim Hayes. The numbers cannot be confirmed, but seem to agree with a sharp increase in EB-5 interest among Mexicans reported by immigration consultants. Stephen Parnell, joint senior partner of consultancy firm Which EB-5, said inquiries to his company from Mexicans have “at least doubled” in the past year.

“They feel under pressure for the potential for kidnap and extortion,” he said. Ramirez said 40 percent of his clients “have already had a situation of insecurity,” adding that at the least they have paid street taxes and at the worst lost family members to violence. Supporters say the Mexican investments are a tonic to stagnant communities normally shunned by risk-averse lenders and only a preview of much larger investments to come.

“They have $500,000 to put up -- that doesn’t mean that’s all they have … They’re going to get bored in our country; they’re going to set up shop here,” Ramirez said. They also defend the program by pointing to its rigorous approval process, which requires applicants to demonstrate the money they invested was lawfully earned and prove after a two-year period that the investment created or sustained 10 jobs in the U.S.

The process, they argue, ensures all EB-5 holders who receive permanent residency rights have done so to the benefit of U.S. communities. But some critics see things differently, asking whether rich Mexicans should be able to effectively buy residency in the U.S.

And Mexican politicians argue the migration of Mexico’s biggest spenders could deal a serious blow to its economy -- possibly spurring even more illegal immigration to the U.S. The regional center program, launched in 1993, is set to expire in September 2012.

But Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, pointing to projects in his state like two EB-5-financed ski resorts as indications of the program’s success, is sponsoring a bill to permanently charter it. “Making the EB-5 program permanent should receive bipartisan support,” Leahy said at a March press conference.

Meanwhile, Pardo -- who plans to invest in CMB, an organization of two regional centers overseeing projects in and around U.S. military bases -- will bide his time in Mexico City as he waits to hear whether his initial EB-5 filing is approved. He applied at the beginning of the year but probably won’t hear for months to come.

Even if his application is approved, Pardo must face a stark irony before he can finally immigrate: to escape the violence in Mexico, he will first have to enter its bowels with his family. He and his family must travel to the U.S. Embassy in the crime-afflicted city of Ciudad Juarez in order to pick up their visas.

“They know you’re an outsider,” he said of Juarez’s hordes of criminals. “Everything is going to be looking suspicious, and you’re going to be drawing attention.”