MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) _ Lizbeth Zepeda headed north in search of the American Dream. She thinks she found it _ without crossing the border.

Zepeda and her family moved four months ago to this gleaming city of mirrored office buildings, highways and strip malls. Her husband easily found construction work that paid $54 a week, nearly 70 percent more than his job in Chiapas, a poor southern state.

Sidestepping the expense and danger of sneaking into the United States, more and more Mexicans like Zepeda are finding an attractive alternative in prosperous business havens in northern Mexico. Foreign investment under the North American Free Trade Agreement has created an abundance of jobs and labor shortages.

Mexico's vision of a borderless future can be seen in Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon state, which is governed by the pro-business party of President-elect Vicente Fox.

Fox, a former top Coca-Cola executive, asserts that free trade and economic development could erase the huge income gap between the United States and Mexico in 10 years, after which restrictions on Mexican immigration could be lifted.

Labor shortages in Monterrey could help stem the tide, Fox told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

``I think this shows that flow (to the United States) will be reduced real soon, because they will have opportunities here now,'' Fox said.

To be sure, millions of Mexicans still dream of going to the United States, where jobs easily offer 10 times the pay in Mexico.

The number of people illegally crossing the border appears stable, with 1.5 million apprehensions a year, said Nicole Chulick, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington.

Yet the shift to northern Mexico could point the way as penetrating the border grows more dangerous. U.S. authorities are cracking down on easier routes, forcing immigrants to pay smugglers who direct them to walk miles through scorching, remote deserts. The latest U.S. figures show that 157 Mexicans died crossing the border between last October and June.

Zepeda's family took a safer route after struggling to live on her husband's $32 weekly salary in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas capital.

Although the four now live in a cramped room in downtown Monterrey, her husband earns $54 a week and Zepeda has applied for government-subsidized housing _ rows of tidy homes stacked side-by-side in the steep mountainsides of the city's outskirts.

Life is somewhat better than in Chiapas, she says. ``Everyone pays well. But everything is expensive.''

Another job haven is Reynosa, a border city near McAllen, Texas, that draws up to 300 newcomers a day to work in factories assembling products for export, mostly to the United States. Many eventually continue on to the United States, but some stay.

The influx of new arrivals is overwhelming, creating shortages of housing and other services in some border areas, said Omeheira Lopez, director of the Center for Border Studies and the Promotion of Human Rights in Reynosa.

Such concerns are hardly slowing efforts to lure more jobs to northern Mexico.

Monterrey, 120 miles south of the Texas border, already is home to factories owned by Johnson & Johnson, Honeywell, Whirlpool and other American brands. Their offices in the city's industrial park, surrounded by green grass and fountains, stand in contrast to the scrubby desert and sheer mountains surrounding the capital of Nuevo Leon state.

Government officials have mounted a campaign to draw even more employers to this city of 1.1 million, playing up its proximity to the United States, modern infrastructure and friendliness toward business.

The competition for workers has forced employers to offer wages five times higher than in the rest of the country, where the urban minimum wage is set at $4.

Like nearly every plant in Monterrey's industrial park, Delphi Automotive Systems _ an auto parts maker that plans to cut 900 jobs in Europe _ has a giant sign outside appealing for applicants. The shift to a cheaper labor area is part of a trend by international companies to cut costs on salaries.

Carlos Zambrano, Nuevo Leon's secretary of economic development, says unemployment of less than 2 percent has attracted Mexicans from all over to jobs as waiters, maids and construction workers. But the state's goal is to create ``intellectual jobs, rather than just hard labor,'' he said.

The labor market is so tight that businesses are forced to become creative. Ricardo Briomes, a car wash manager, gave up finding more workers and instead tried to squeeze more productivity from existing ones, offering bonuses to those who wash more cars and bring in more customers.

Jorge Alberto Antonio, 16, earns enough vacuuming cars to send $107 home each month to his family, which grows corn in southern Veracruz state.

He says crossing the U.S. border is too dangerous. But for Juan Ramon Molina, a 35-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, it's the only option.

Unable to pay the loan on his house, he left behind his wife and two children and traveled for two months to reach a Monterrey immigrant refugee house, guarded by an unfriendly dog humorously named `La Migra' _ Spanish slang for the U.S. immigration service.

Although Central Americans here easily find work in Monterrey, Molina plans to move on to the United States, where dollars can buy far more than Mexican pesos sent to his family in El Salvador.

He knows several migrants who were deported and even one who lost a leg trying to climb aboard a train crossing the border. But Molina just shrugs.

``As an illegal,'' he said, ``there's always danger.''

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On the Net:

Monterrey background information:

http://www.nl.gob.mx/pagina/Negocios/Investment/GenerAspects.html