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In the meantime, an estimated 700,000 undocumented immigrants from around the world continue to enter the U.S. each year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. TIME followed the fortunes of those from Tuxpan--both in the U.S. and in Mexico--and found that American misgivings about illegal immigration are mirrored by the illegals. Again and again, the immigrants asked themselves the question: Is coming to the U.S. worth it? The wages are undeniably good, as much as $15 an hour for manual labor in the Hamptons, 10 times the rate for the same work in Tuxpan. But even among the relatively well-off guests at the quinceañera, there has been a heavy price to pay for the opportunity: estranged marriages, wayward children, hostile neighbors here in the U.S. and a beloved hometown in Mexico whose long-term prospects seem to dim with each worker lost to the north.
THE STORY OF TUXPAN'S TRANSFORMATION from a provincial town of 30,000 into a major conduit of cheap labor for the Hamptons begins with a single wanderer. Mario Coria, 55, grew up so poor in Tuxpan that at age 11 he left for Mexico City to work in construction, a skinny kid carrying 80-lb. bags of cement and mortar on ramshackle scaffolding, sending nearly all his earnings back to Tuxpan. In January 1977, when he was 26, Coria had a chance encounter that would change his life--and that of Tuxpan--forever. He ran into a vacationing restaurateur from Bridgehampton who was asking directions to the Palace of Fine Arts in downtown Mexico City. Coria showed him the way, the men struck up a halting conversation in Spanish, and within two years, Coria had accepted the American's invitation to work as a gardener in the Hamptons. A tourist visa to the U.S. came included with his plane ticket, both easily arranged by a Mexico City travel agency.
The Hamptons, like much of the U.S., had a very different relationship to illegal immigrants 30 years ago. Back then, Coria was one of only a handful of Spanish-speaking immigrants who lived in the area. His blend of industry, attention to detail and, eventually, confidence in his vision as a landscaper made him a hit with the wealthy Hamptonites. One family liked him so much that they had their personal attorney help him apply for legal residency. But even after he was legal, he still found it tricky being gardener to the rich and famous. He is fond of recalling how he walked out on the actress Lauren Bacall after, he says, she yelled at him for cutting a clutch of lilies too short. Overall, however, his perseverance has been richly rewarded. Coria started out making just $3.25 an hour, but today he is a U.S. citizen and owns a house in the Hamptons town of Wainscott. He bought it for $125,000 in 1996, but similar homes are selling for more than half a million dollars today.