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Mexican entrepreneurs flock to Dallas

by ALFREDO CORCHADO and OBED MANUEL THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS | August 26, 2018 at 2:07 a.m.

LAS COLINAS, Texas -- On any given weekend, walk into the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Colinas and listen to the sound of Spanish spoken not by gardeners, or the wait staff, but by country club members.

"It's like I never left Monterrey," said David Benitez, president of Intelligent Mexican Marketing, a company responsible for popularizing products such as Barcels, Takis snack food, Gamesa cookies and Topo Chico mineral water in the U.S.

Pointing to familiar faces in the room, he adds, "Monterrey came to Dallas."

Benitez is one of hundreds of thousands of elite and upwardly mobile Mexicans who have moved to the U.S. and are reshaping the image of the Mexican immigrant from construction and farmworkers to high powered executives and job creators. Over the past decade, Dallas has become a magnet and harbinger of a new kind of Mexican migration -- one that is key in deepening economic integration between the two countries in uncertain times.

"We're in the midst of a turning point," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Institute and author of Vanishing Frontiers, a book that underscores the economic and cultural integration between the United States and Mexico. "We have more legal Mexican migration to the United States, which means higher educated individuals. Some of it is driven because of the economic integration going on between the United States and Mexico, but especially Mexico and Texas. And some of it driven by security concerns in Mexico. A lot of them are business owners, especially from Monterrey, hence the Monterrey -- North Texas connection."

The transformation comes at an unprecedented moment. Undocumented migration from Mexico is at an all-time low, with border apprehension of Mexicans falling from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to less than 175,000 this year. These newcomers fit a profile that belies that of their predecessors, who labored to help build some of the most iconic landmarks in North Texas, from the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to Cowboys Stadium.

These upwardly mobile Mexicans cross with legal documents, often through special investor visas. Some are binational citizens of two countries, more educated, with deeper pockets and a craving for fine things in life, from spending weekends at the country club, to museums and fine dining. And they're generating jobs.

In short, said Francisco de la Torre, Mexican Consul General in Dallas, "Mexican companies don't come to Texas to fill a job. They're here to create jobs."

NAFTA LEGACY

The sea-change is underscored by a 2015 study by Mexico's Ministry of the Economy showing that Texas has the lion's share of Mexican investment, with more than 1,100 Mexicans companies operating in the Lone Star State employing more than 2,200 people.

The study, said Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, Mexico's Consul General in Austin, reflects deepening ties ushered in by the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA is currently being re-negotiated by the U.S., Mexico and Canada, making some companies nervous about future economic ties. Already tariffs imposed by the Trump administration are leading to rising prices on Mexican products and some, including Benitez, do not discount future job cuts.

Whatever the future holds, the ties between north and south are impossible to ignore.

"First came trade and now comes investment and 'boy is this true,"' said Gonzalez Gutierrez, describing the trend as a "silent economic integration. Perhaps no one has noticed, but suddenly you realize that there are 20,000 plus jobs depending on Mexican investment. The floodgates have opened. This is perhaps the most profound long-term economic impact between both countries."

Dozens of Mexican companies have set up shop in North Texas, according to Southern Methodist University's Mission Foods Texas-Mexico Center. Jennifer Apperti, manager of the center, said the study is a work in progress and expects the number of companies to rise dramatically in the months to come as they continue compiling a full business profile of the region, firm by firm. She said the center is in the early stages of tracking specific economic ties between Dallas and Monterrey, both sister cities, and calls those links "critically important."

The North Texas-based companies include Lala, Mission Foods, Bimbo, and more recently, Cinepolis. In March, La Moderna, one of Mexico's largest pasta producers, opened a $50 million, 150,000-square-foot state-of-the art production, manufacturing and distribution factory in Cleburne.

"North Texas just made the most sense for us," said Luis Miguel Monroy, chairman and chief executive of La Moderna, who was in Cleburne for the opening along with a list of dignitaries who included Gov. Greg Abbott. "Demographics, geography, and a touch of sophistication all come together nicely here."

HIGH-END VISAS

Since 2000, almost 150,000 employment-based visas have been issued to educated, middle- and upper-class Mexicans moving to the U.S. for permanent jobs and investment opportunities, according to records released by the U.S. State Department.

These visas cover five categories and require most of their recipients to be high-level executives being transferred to manage a U.S. office, highly educated professionals who have demonstrated superior proficiency in their field or investors with enough capital to make a $500,000 investment.

Put simply, these exclusive visas are granted to the cream of the crop of foreign professionals looking to permanently reside in the U.S.

From 2000-2017, almost 550,000 nonimmigrant visas were issued to Mexican diplomats, small-scale investors, students and professional free-trade agreement workers. Interest in these visas has steadily been on the rise since 2000, while the issuance of permanent, employment-based visas has not matched the '05-'07 levels.

These categories of renewable visas do not allow their holders to reside in the U.S. indefinitely, but they do allow them to make investments, set up international business offices, study at U.S. universities and enter the country for work opportunities so long as they have a standing job offer from U.S. companies.

The transformation comes with some conditions from some business leaders, like Victor Arias, a headhunter and managing director at RSR Partners in Dallas. He applauds the new arrivals and is friends with many wealthy newcomers who he sees on weekends at the country club in Las Colinas. A native El Pasoan from modest beginnings, he also cautions them not forget those who came before them.

"American society will default to looking at their success stories because they are bringing in capital, and are very different from those who come because of economic need," he tells them. "If our more successful brothers coming from Mexico ignore the plight of the immigrant that won't help the bigger picture."

Inside the country club at Las Colinas, some of the uneasiness resulting from Mexico's embedded class system is evident. Benitez sits in a corner, still in gym attire, a racket case near him. Busboys from Mexico rarely make eye-contact.

Over a cappuccino, Benitez said he could have moved to San Antonio, where many of his friends already lived. Or he could have settled down in Houston, a city with historic ties to Mexico.

Instead he went with his gut feeling and decided on Dallas, a city that provided the old comforts of Monterrey and has proven to be pivotal for his business. His company is responsible for popularizing some 300 Mexican and Latin American brands into the American mainstream. In his search for the heart of American consumerism, Dallas, not Houston, or San Antonio, was key.

"If it's a Mexican brand that's relevant in Texas, it's pretty much us," said Benitez, who came to Texas on a visa for work and is now raising his family in Preston Hollow. He's poised to become a U.S. citizen and boasts that his young family feels very much at home in Dallas.

"Dallas is important because it provides a different perspective, a mix of everything and everyone," he said. "Here you have the most Americanized market within Texas."

SundayMonday Business on 08/26/2018

Print Headline: Mexican entrepreneurs flock to Dallas

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