Mexicans head north for a better life. Way north.

Born, educated, and married in Mexico City, this young, upper-middle class couple turned to one another one day and said, "Let's leave."

"I could not picture the future or having kids in Mexico," says Maria Carral, a graphic designer. "We were both really tired of the insecurity, the traffic, the economic ups and downs.... We were ready to move on to a better life."

Like so many Mexicans, Maria and her husband chose to move north - but in their case, that meant Canada, not the United States.

For a small but growing number of Mexicans the promised land of "El Norte" means life above the 49th parallel. And while the US is fortifying its borders and tightening entry requirements, Canada is putting out the welcome mat.

"Canada has awakened to Mexico and vice versa," says Mendel Green, an immigration lawyer in Canada. "It's a fit."

To date, the number of Mexicans going to the far north is only a trickle compared with the flood still heading to the US each year. In 1995, just 482 Mexicans became permanent residents of Canada, according to the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration (CIC). By 2004, that number had more than tripled, to 1,648. (By comparison, the US gave 173,664 immigrant visas to Mexicans in 2004.)

"Canada needs immigrants," explains Canada's ambassador to Mexico, Gaëtan Lavertu, flatly. Canada's vast land, small population (32 million), and low birthrate (about 1.61 children per couple), combined with its strong economic growth (the fastest of all the G-8 countries in the past 10 years) explains this attitude. "We have always looked at immigration as a way to bring in new talent and faces. And now the dynamism of our economy requires it," says the ambassador.

It all started with NAFTA

This emerging migratory shift began with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a decade ago, and has gathered steam in the the past five years says Mr. Green, whose firm has been in operation for 45 years.

Carral and her husband, Andreas Anhalt, a chef, are part of this group of Mexicans who are looking at Canada in a new light. "When I was little, we thought Canada was for camping. If you wanted to send your kid to summer camp, Canada was the best," says Carral. "Now we are smarter."

"Word is getting out that Canada is a great place," says David Rosenblatt, another Canadian immigration lawyer whose firm runs weekend information seminars in Mexico that are attracting more than 1,000 people a night.

"We need skilled workers, but also blue collar - carpenters, roofers, welders. You name it," says Mr. Rosenblatt.

Green agrees. "We are bringing in senior IT [Information Technology] people and we're bringing in tool and die makers. Mexico produces everything we need. "

According to the Canadian Embassy in Mexico, there are between 40,000 and 50,000 Mexican-born Canadians living legally and permanently in Canada today, while 10,000 come each year to study, and some 200,000 visit every year as tourists.

The biggest growth, however, has been in the number of Mexican temporary workers going to Canada. In 1995, 5,383 Mexicans received temporary visas, the majority under a special seasonal agricultural workers program. By 2004 the number was 11,340 - making it the second largest group of temporary workers in Canada, after US citizens.

But some critics say Canada is being naive and creating a pipeline for illegal immigrants who will stay. The US border patrol, for example, estimates that more than half a million Mexicans enter the US illegally every year.

But Rosenblatt responds that very few Mexicans overstay their visas or come illegally to Canada. "They go back home to their families with a lot of money in their pockets, secure that they can easily return the next year if they please," he says.

Officials at the Mexican Ministry of Labor, which handles the paperwork for this force, agree, saying that 80 percent of the temporary workers come home, get rehired, and return to Canada the following year.

By the end of 2005, Canada expects to have invited in close to 240,000 new foreign immigrants, temporary workers, and refugees from around the world (as a percentage of its population, that is three times what the US currently allows in legally). The number of Mexican immigrants is still relatively low compared with the 36,411 Chinese and 25,569 Indians who moved to Canada last year. But, stresses Ambassador Lavertu, a trend is noticeable.

While most immigrants go to Canada's biggest cities - Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa - some of the provinces are recruiting, too. Thinly populated Manitoba, for example, is bringing in about 4,000 newcomers a year under a program that lets it nominate prospective immigrants even when they don't meet standard federal criteria.

"NAFTA brought us closer. Bilateral trade has tripled, Canadian firms have come to Mexico, education and tourism ties have been tightened ... and now immigration is rising," says Lavertu. "After 1994 [when NAFTA went into effect] we woke up to the Americas, especially to Mexico," he says. "And I think Mexico started looking over at us then, too."

In an effort to encourage immigration from Mexico and elsewhere, the Canadian government has been relaxing and simplifying its immigration rules over the past few years. Mexican tourists enter Canada just by showing a passport, and the process of applying for either permanent or worker status is far easier and usually cheaper than the often subjective process of getting a US visa.

US tourist visa: source of frustration

"Just getting a hearing [for a visa] at the US embassy is a feat," says Javiar Gomez, a Mexico City house painter who waited four months to hear whether or not he could get a tourist visa to visit his brother in Chicago last year. He didn't get the visa. "You have to pay [a nonrefundable $100 fee] before knowing if you will be accepted or not. Its infuriating," he says.

Temporary workers who want to go to Canada fill out one form. There's no charge. The same application to the US, according the US Embassy website requires, among other things:

• "A copy of the I-129 petition and the original approved I-797 petition. "

• "A BANAMEX receipt for the 1,150 pesos (adjusted according to exchange rate) application fee. There can be additional fees for individuals obtaining work visas."

• "Supplementary application form if applicant is male between the ages of 16 and 45."

Any Mexican can apply for an immigrant visa to Canada. But the US rules say that only Mexicans who have family or a sponsoring employer can apply for the same visa.

Three months ago, Carral and Anhalt paid an immigration lawyer about $860 to handle all the paperwork for both of them. They threw a disco farewell party, kissed their parents goodbye, and packed up for Toronto.

"The climate is terrible," admits Carral, reached by phone in Canada. "Our furniture has not yet arrived," adds Anhalt, who is working night shifts in an Italian trattoria and planning to open his own Mexican restaurant someday.

"But we are happy," says Carral. This week she starts a new job.

"It's not like a 'wow' job," she allows. "But it is a beginning, and it's a new home where we feel OK."

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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