A nun at Holy Name Catholic Church in North Camden travels regularly to the state of Puebla to meet the wives, children and parents of parishioners who, as illegal immigrants, can't risk the trip themselves.
Curvy glass bottles of Coca-Cola labeled Hecho en Mexico (Made in Mexico) end up on tables at San Lucas Restaurant on Federal Street.
And Edgar Lopez, 25, the son of a farmer from Chiapas state, rents in a neighborhood fringed by the Pavonia rail yards.
These cross-border journeys are signs that the city, once a gateway for immigrants, has again become a first stop for newcomers to the United States. The 2000 Census shows that almost one in 10 Camden residents, or 7,100 people, were born in other countries, primarily the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Mexico and Nicaragua.
The city now has the largest number of foreign-born residents since its phenomenal growth during the early decades of the 20th century. Between 1870 and 1920, Camden shot up like a teenage boy on steroids, from a population of about 20,000 to 116,000.
Immigrants lured by industry, notably Campbell Soup, RCA, and New York Shipbuilding, largely fueled that growth. They came primarily from Ireland, Italy and Germany, and their increase in numbers outpaced that of the city as a whole. In 1920, about one in five Camden residents, or 20,300 people, were born in another country.
But by 1990, with the city more like a shriveled old man and government the main employer, Camden was no longer much of a destination for newcomers to this country. Only 4 percent of the city's residents were foreign-born.
Today, although it is nothing like the hub for immigrants that it once was, the city is again the first home for people such as Edgar Lopez and his 19-year-old brother.
In the United States for about a year, they cut grass in suburban office parks for a landscaping company located about 40 minutes outside the city. They prefer to live in Camden because they can afford their house on Howell Street after setting aside a share of their $350 weekly salary each to send back to their parents in Chiapas.
Camden is also a place where Lopez can join a pickup game of futbol or soccer on his Sundays off, and he can choose ranchero songs by the great Vicente Fernandez from the jukeboxes at lunchtime.
"Hay muchos paesanos nuestros aqui," Lopez said. (There are many of our people here.)
"The population in the city has shifted," said Camden City Councilman Israel Nieves, born and raised in Puerto Rico and director of the county's Office of Hispanic Affairs. Puerto Ricans, who are not immigrants but U.S. citizens, have predominated among Latinos in the city for decades.
But, as Nieves said, "when you say Hispanics now, you have to mention not only Puerto Ricans. It's more diverse."
Immigrants from Latin America have come to Camden partly because of the strong Puerto Rican presence.
"They've found, like, a safe haven," Nieves said. "It allows not just Mexicans but Latinos from the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua to stay without being pursued or chased by La Migra [immigration agents]. They feel protected in this area. They don't attract attention."
It is no longer jobs that attract immigrants to the city, as it was at the turn of the century. The city's foreign-born residents chose it, they and their advocates say, because of cheap housing and the ability to blend in.
For some immigrants, the choice did not even exist. "We just knew we were going to the U.S. We didn't know where," said Sagot Apba, 34, the daughter of a U.S. soldier stationed near Saigon during the Vietnam War. "In New York, they told us: 'You go to Camden.' It was not decided by us."
Catholic Charities resettled Apba and her family in Camden about two years ago. They are among about 6,000 refugees from Southeast Asia that the agency has hooked up with a place to sleep, English classes, furniture, food, and public assistance until they are able to establish themselves.
After sharing a two-room apartment with a Vietnamese family for nearly a year, Apba, her mother and her 18-year-old sister moved into the low-income development of shining twin homes that replaced Westfield Acres several years ago.
Apba, the breadwinner, until recently worked two shifts at J&J Snack Foods in Pennsauken to save the money to qualify for a low-income loan to buy the house.
"When I was in Vietnam, I was looked down upon," Apba, who was a street vendor in Saigon, said through a translator. The children of American soldiers have been treated as pariahs by Vietnamese society.
"Here, I feel much better. I feel equal with everybody else. . . . Right after I got off the plane, I thought, 'Now I'm in heaven,' " she said. "Whatever I have now, I try my best to work harder and harder to build, to help people, to build this country."
Advocates for immigrants point to that ambition as the key reason they can revitalize troubled cities such as Camden. But it is also one of the reasons many soon leave it.
"When they first arrive, at that time they don't have anything," said Bai Nguyen, a senior case manager at Catholic Charities. "They build up their lives, save money, and move on to better places."
Of those the agency resettled since 1978, Nguyen estimates about 30 percent have made the city their permanent home.
Contact staff writer Gaiutra Bahadur at 856-779-3923 or email@example.com.