NEW YORK (AP) -- Andres Florentino was 18 when he left Mexico in search of a better life. But unlike thousands of others like him, he headed east instead of settling near the border.
After crisscrossing the United States, Mr. Florentino became part of a wave of mostly young Mexicans settling in New York, lured by a demand for cheap labor and the perceived low-key enforcement of immigration laws.
The new immigrants are slipping unnoticed into New York's large Hispanic neighborhoods and have formed a huge underground community, observers say.
They work in the city's countless restaurants and fruit and vegetable stands and in the garment industry's sweatshops. Some say they make as little as $25 a day, working 12-hour shifts.
The Mexican Consulate estimates that up to 150,000 Mexicans have arrived in the past two years. "Everywhere we go we see more and more Mexicans," said Manuel Alonso, Mexico's consul general in New York.
Elizabeth Aivars, director of the city's immigrant affairs office, said the 150,000 figure has been tossed about but no hard numbers exist.
Signs of the influx are largely invisible to statisticians but are clear to people such as Arturo Cruz, a promoter who books Mexican bands at the Roseland Ballroom.
Big-name Mexican bands that once only plied the Southwest now make regular stops in New York.
Over Labor Day, Los Tigres del Norte performed at the Roseland. More than 3,000 people, the vast majority from Mexico's central state of Puebla, paid $40 each to see the band, Mr. Cruz said.
Grocers also see evidence of the influx. Hundreds of New York supermarkets now stock 2-pound bags of corn tortillas -- not a big-ticket item among many other Hispanic consumers.
And a Mexican baseball league has more than 40 teams.
Jorge Costa, director of the Citizens Advice Bureau, which helps aliens obtain legal residency, has watched Mexican migration to New York for the past 11 years.
He said the Northeast's strong economy drew Mexicans like a magnet from a stagnant Sun Belt in the late 1980s.
Also, aliens felt thought the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York was less dedicated to catching them than were INS offices along the border. Charlie Troy, an INS spokesman in New York, denied that assumption. "We're quite effective," he said.
However, Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington, said that Mexicans in the Northeast "might feel safer. There is no border patrol in New York City."
On arriving in New York, often carrying a crumpled piece of paper with an address and telephone number, new immigrants learn of jobs and housing from fellow Mexicans.
Mr. Florentino was taken in by Ana Maria Rojas, a seamstress in her late 50s who arrived in 1972. She says she's legal and happy, though she makes the same wage she made 20 years ago -- $30 a day.