Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times

SAN ANTONIO — The Mexican businessmen in Rolexes and Burberry ties meet on the north side of town, at Cielito Lindo Restaurant, or at new neighboring country clubs. Their wives frequent Neiman Marcus, Tiffany’s and Brooks Brothers at the nearby mall. Their children park Porsches with Mexican license plates in the student lots at Reagan High School.

They are part of a wave of legal Mexican immigrants who have been overlooked in the national debate over how to deal with their impoverished, illegal compatriots. Propelled north by cartel violence, they paid thousands of dollars to hire attorneys and obtain investors’ visas for themselves and their families (including maids). They have regrouped in gated developments in several Texas cities, where their growing influence has been compared to the impact of well-heeled Cuban refugees who arrived in Miami decades ago.

Nowhere is the evidence more striking than in San Antonio, Texas’ second-largest city and a short private-jet hop from Monterrey, Mexico, where many of the new immigrants built their wealth. They have poured into developments with names like The Dominion, Stone Oak and Sonterra that were cut into the rocky hills and oak groves north of the Loop 1604 highway that rings the city.

More than 50,000 Mexican nationals now live permanently in San Antonio, city officials say, turning an upscale enclave known as “Sonterrey” into the city’s second-fastest growing ZIP code.

Real estate agent Ana Sarabia caters to the new arrivals — finding them immigration lawyers, new schools, banks and office space — and sees them reshaping her hometown.

“I can see it transitioning,” said Sarabia, 45, who lived for a time in Mexico City. “This has always been a bicultural city. Parts of it have now become a new Mexico.”

There’s Lorena Canales, 40, who moved from Monterrey with her two youngest children two and a half years ago to start a bilingual day care after witnessing a gun battle outside of her local Wal-Mart.

Uriel Arnaiz, 40, relocated with his wife and 3-year-old son from Mexico City four years ago to open a high-end tequila import business after some of his son’s friends were kidnapped.

Jose Ramos, 55, moved two years ago from Monterrey to open a restaurant, Vida Mia, after a relative was kidnapped and killed.

It’s not clear whether new immigration policies being contemplated in Washington would impact this group of wealthy immigrants, who skip long immigration lines by hiring attorneys in Mexico to apply for business-related visas at U.S. consulates.

Most had to prove they were either employed by a multinational company, or had a valid business plan and enough money to start their own. Some had to show American investments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many moved in a matter of weeks, but some said the process has become more difficult in recent years, with tougher screening by U.S. consulates.

Costs vary depending on the type of visa. In some cases, it is cheaper than what a smuggler would charge for an illegal crossing. Attorney fees can range from $1,500 to $6,500, compared with coyote payments of $6,000 or more.

Arnaiz’s initial visa allowed him to stay in the U.S. for up to a year. He was able to renew the visa, which is required every two years for up to seven years if he wants to stay. His wife and son were eligible for visas for the same time period (children under age 21 are eligible). While staying in the U.S. on those visas, they were allowed to pursue permanent residency, or green cards, which they got in recent months.

“There’s a lot of requirements,” Arnaiz said. “You need to have a real, sustainable project.”

The visa for professions listed in the North American Free Trade Agreement is relatively quick and cheap to obtain, some said, with attorney fees ranging from $1,500 to $3,000.

During the last decade, the number of such visas issued to Mexicans annually skyrocketed from 686 to 7,601, according to the State Department.

The newcomers — nicknamed “migrantes fresas,” or rich migrants — are conspicuous even in this largely Latino city. Sociologists compare the “Mexodus” of professionals to the wave of exiles who fled to Texas after the Mexican Revolution in 1910, or wealthy Cubans who decamped to South Florida after the revolution in 1959.

Former San Antonio Mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, whose grandfather was exiled to San Antonio during the Mexican Revolution, calls them a “new diaspora with the potential to rival the impact Cubans had on Miami.”

Harriett Romo, a sociology professor and director of the Mexico Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has been studying a dozen Mexican families who immigrated through investor visas.

“What we’re seeing is that they move into kind of a new Mexican enclave — it’s not a barrio like you would see on the east side of L.A. or west side of San Antonio. It’s an upscale Mexican neighborhood with parties at the country club,” she said.

Romo found that the new residents don’t mix much with lower-income Mexican immigrants or Mexican Americans, the Tejanos who helped build San Antonio. They are focused instead on “changing the image of the immigrant,” she said. “They see themselves as having a very different experience because they come with official visas and more resources.”

Writer Sandra Cisneros, a Chicago native who has lived in San Antonio for almost 30 years, said the flow of wealthy immigrants “constantly refreshing the ties” to Mexico has changed the character of the city, which long had the feel of a small town and now has a population of about 1.4 million.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a Mexican-American and a rising star of the Democratic Party who has traveled south of the border to recruit businesses, said he hopes the newcomers stay.

“My hope is that they are planting firm roots and will become American citizens and fully participate in the community,” he said.

Immigration legislation

A bipartisan bill could be filed in the Senate as early as next week, followed in relatively short order by a House bill, also crafted by a bipartisan group, aiming at a compromise on the key issue of citizenship. The efforts are being applauded by President Barack Obama, who is using every ounce of his political clout to try to get comprehensive reform.

Obama said the time has come “to work up the political courage to do what’s required to be done. I expect a bill to be put forward. I expect a debate to begin next month. I want to sign that bill into law as soon as possible,” Obama said at a White House naturalization ceremony.

In addition to the issue of eventual citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, Congress is expected to address the need for temporary or guest worker programs.

— Hearst Newspapers