ON A RECENT morning, Elias Medina left his two-story brick rowhouse in South Philadelphia, walked along the trash-strewn sidewalks to a nearby SEPTA stop and boarded a bus to Center City. There, he took a PATCO train to an upscale suburb in Camden County, where he works at a well-known Italian restaurant.

Medina, the restaurant's cook, often works 10 or 12 hours a day, and he was the first to arrive. He immediately began preparing the kitchen for that day's service: He cleaned a pasta drainer, peeled potatoes, sliced hot peppers and chopped onions. He swept away the unwanted stems and skins into the garbage can. As he worked, the music of "Stand by Me" kicked happily in the air.

Medina, 31, is 5 feet 5 with an easy smile and short-cropped hair. He is also a father, a husband and a small-business owner. Since arriving in Philadelphia 15 years ago from a small town in Mexico, Medina has risen from dishwasher to cook in several upscale restaurants.

His story is a classic immigrant tale; it's also an increasingly common one in Philadelphia. Over the past decade, Mexican immigration - both legal and not - has been one of the most significant factors in the city's population growth, an increase that is most conspicuously felt around the Italian Market area in South Philly. And among Mexicans who've immigrated to South Philly since 2000, the majority hail from the same region as Medina: Puebla.

"We came here because, over there, we are so poor, we are farmers," Medina explained one day as he sat in his living room with his then-9-month-old son, Miguel, cooing on the couch. "We don't make enough money to support the family. We came here to work, to send a little money to support the family."

Whatever the reasons, though, the influx of immigrants into the United States remains a controversial and divisive topic, one that is sure to be revisited during the 2012 election. But lost amid the politics of the issue is a much more basic story, one that is changing Philadelphia and affecting the lives of thousands of its residents: what it takes for immigrants to actually make it here - and what it takes to stay.

It's a journey that often involves perilous and heart-wrenching choices that native-born citizens may find hard to fathom. It's also a journey that, for many of Philadelphia's most recent immigrants, starts in a single place.

Working the fields

The state of Puebla sits between Mexico City and Veracruz in east-central Mexico. Roughly the size of Maryland, it's one of the most mountainous and industrialized states in Mexico. Because its industry is concentrated in a handful of cities, Puebla's rural outposts tend to be very poor.

Medina grew up in one of those outposts. His town of San Lucas Atzala had no hospital and a single church. From the town center, one can see two of the highest peaks in Mexico, Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl. It's a "beautiful town," says Medina. "Everything is natural."

Like many in the region, Medina's family had little money when he was growing up. His first years were spent sleeping on the dirt floor in their one-room adobe house. When he was 6, his mother bought a mat for him and his brothers, a considerable expense for the family. Chilly nights were spent on the mat curled up with his brothers, "two brothers, three sometimes," he says.

Medina's father, like most of the men in town, made a living as a farmer, growing corn, string beans, plums and apples. Each week, his father would travel an hour by bus to the city of Puebla, the capital of the state, to sell the produce.

School was a 15-minute walk from home, though Medina attended only until he was 10. Two months shy of finishing fifth grade, his parents told him they could no longer afford to send him: The school supplies and uniform cost too much. Instead, Medina began working with his father in the fields.

Several years later, Medina was still working with his father when he received a call from his older brother Bulmaro. Three years earlier, Bulmaro had crossed the border from Tijuana into California and eventually made his way to Philadelphia, where a friend lived. A year later, Medina's oldest brother, Alejandro, also made the crossing, eventually joining Bulmaro in Philly.

When Bulmaro called, it was April 1996, and he was reaching out to see if Medina also wanted to make the crossing. At the time, there was no phone in the village, so Medina and his parents rode by donkey cart to a nearby town to wait for Bulmaro's call at a local business.

When they finally connected, Bulmaro told his brother he could best help the family by coming to Philadelphia. Over the next week, Medina mulled it over. The money he would make in Philadelphia could go toward buying his parents a bigger house, one with separate rooms. Finally, with his parents' approval, Medina decided to go. He stuffed a pair of jeans, a couple of pairs of socks and three shirts in a backpack. He carried 500 Mexican pesos (about $70 then). When he left, he remembers, his parents made the sign of a cross. He was 16 years old.

Leaving home

Medina and a friend began the journey north on April 20, 1996. Crossing the border would, of course, be the most difficult and dangerous part of the journey. But it was only part. It's more than 1,800 miles from Puebla to Tijuana (roughly the distance between Philly and Casper, Wyo.), and it took four buses and one plane ride to make it to the notorious border town. When the two friends finally made it there, they knew they had to find a coyote, a smuggler who could get them across the border safely.

"We were walking around the street and saw a guy, and asked . . . 'How do things work?' " Medina recalled.

The smuggler told them it would cost each of them $1,300, to be paid after the crossing, a typical crossing fee at the time, says Medina. Bulmaro would wire the money once Medina was safely inside the United States.

After spending a night at a hotel, Medina and his friend ventured into town the next morning to buy supplies: cans of peaches, pears, tuna, refried beans, packets of flour tortillas, bottled water.

Their trip to the border started later that day. Medina and his friend were part of a group of about 30 people who traveled with two smugglers; the group first drove 25 minutes outside the city. Once out of the vans, they spent the next 10 hours walking through the shrub-filled desert, sometimes along a small road. Medina carried a gallon of water in each hand, his blue backpack sagging with the weight of the food cans. The sun was blazing, and the group took just two 20-minute breaks over the course of the 10 hours. They finally stopped in an area not far from the border, where they hid behind a stand of thin trees and waited.

Before 9/11, the border was something of a patchwork, with varying degrees of enforcement and security. The coyotes knew when and where to cross the 10-foot chain-link fence that separated the countries.

At the time, Medina had little sense of how dangerous the crossing was. Rather than scared, "I was excited," he says. "I was asking, 'How much longer? How much longer?' "

About 6 p.m., one of the coyotes ran back to the group and yelled for everyone to run. One by one, each member of the group climbed over the fence.

As night fell, the group used the light of the moon to continue on through the desert. For the next 72 hours, they would walk at night and sleep during the day.

When the group finally arrived at their destination - a large canyon somewhere north of the border in California - two minivans picked them up. They piled on top of each other in stacks, one person lying on top of the other, in the back of the van. Medina ended up on the bottom of one five-man pile.

The minivans were covered with tinted windows, and blankets were put on top of the undocumented immigrants, with cardboard on the side to further hide them. The vans drove for five hours, ending up at a house somewhere in central California, where the group members were finally able to shower and eat.

At the house, the smugglers demanded their payments, and Bulmaro wired the money for Medina's crossing. With a portion of the money, the coyotes bought plane tickets from L.A. to New York, and drove the travelers the next day to LAX.

The group was warned to be cautious at the airport, told to pair up so they didn't look as if they were part a large group. Medina picked an elderly man to be his "uncle."

For Medina, the journey still wasn't over. At LaGuardia, he boarded a van with some other members of the group and rode to a bus station in Manhattan. From there, Medina and his friend boarded a Peter Pan bus to Philly. When he finally arrived, Medina took the Broad Street Line to South Philly, where he made his way to Bulmaro's house.

"I was crying," he says. "I was happy. I gave him a hug. I said, 'Thank you for everything.' "

The journey had taken 20 days and covered more than 5,000 miles. The next day, Medina began working as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant on Passyunk Avenue.

Two worlds

At the restaurant, Medina worked six days a week, making about $10 a day. He didn't understand a word of English, so he constantly asked the waiters "How do you say . . . ?" as he picked up a fork, a spoon, a bread basket.

On his first day, the restaurant owner asked his name. "Elias," he said, but the owner didn't understand him, so they compromised: "From now on, I will call you 'Pete,' " the owner said.

After about a year, the owner and a cook showed him how to prep dishes, making salads, desserts and pasta. The cook told Medina: "When you make it for yourself, make it for everybody else. Put a lot of love in the dish."

When the cook decided to leave the restaurant, Medina asked the owner to give him a chance. "Give me one week, two weeks," he said. The owner did, and Medina got the job.

In September 2000, Medina's father died after falling ill, and Medina returned to Mexico. While at home, he met a young woman from his neighborhood, Norma Morales. A month later, they wed in their town's City Hall.

But Philadelphia and his job here pulled at him. He could make more money here than he could in Mexico, so in early 2001, Medina returned to the city, leaving Norma, who was pregnant at the time. Medina continued to work in the Passyunk Avenue restaurant and wired money back to Norma in San Lucas. In November, he finally returned to San Lucas to see his wife and baby, who had been born in July.

He and Norma soon made a difficult decision. They would make the journey across the border together without their son, whom they would leave behind in the care of Norma's mother.

In February 2002, Medina and his wife crossed from Agua Prieta, a border town in northeastern Mexico, through the Arizona desert. In the aftermath of 9/11, border security had become much tighter, and it took them three tries before they were able to cross successfully. Later that year, they paid $3,000 for a friend to bring their son from Mexico to Philadelphia.

A limited life

In the past decade, Medina has proved himself to be a valuable employee and a talented cook. After working at the restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, he moved to the Victor Cafe in South Philly, where he eventually rose to become head chef.

In 2006, when Sylvester Stallone came to town for Rocky Balboa, he filmed various scenes at the restaurant, and Medina got a bit part in the movie. He's one of the Mexican guys in the downstairs kitchen during one scene.

Medina also got to cook for Sly. "He only eats meat - steak, veal chop," Medina says of Stallone. "He's a nice guy."

Medina now works at the Italian restaurant in South Jersey, and he and his wife now have three kids: Carlos Elias, 10, Alicia, 5, and baby Miguel. His wife's parents and brother have also come to Philadelphia and live with them in their rented house near 9th Street and Moyamensing Avenue.

Since he first arrived 15 years ago, Medina has seen more and more Mexicans move to Philly. When he first got here, he says, there were only a dozen or so Mexicans in South Philly. In fact, there were so few that he had to buy tortillas from a man who drove a truck around the neighborhood selling real Mexican products.

By 2005, though, there was a steady stream of immigrants moving to the neighborhood - mostly from Puebla - and Medina and his family decided to open a store, even while he continued working his restaurant job.

The store doesn't make much money, and Medina has been wanting to sell it for a while now. It's been robbed three times, and last year, a man came in with a knife, threatened Medina's wife and stole $800.

Over the years, Medina has become familiar with some of the unsavory aspects of living in Philadelphia. Seven years ago, he was walking near 10th Street and Snyder Avenue when six white men approached; one asked for a dollar. They punched him, and one man tried to shock him with a stun gun. When Medina fell to the ground, the men continued to kick him. It was Medina's payday, and the men stole the $600 he had just been paid.

Last year, at the Checkers fast-food joint at 20th Street and Oregon Avenue, a black man punched Medina as he was waiting in line to order, knocking out four teeth. He's been called "wetback" more times than he can count. "Sometimes, I think I want to" go back to Mexico, he says. "Other times, I don't care. This country also has good people. Some people say, 'You stay here.' If I go home, I don't have nothing to give to my kids."

He tells his American friends that he wishes they could sometimes experience what it's like to be an immigrant here, just to see how tough everything is.

Medina's life is bound by the fact that he is an illegal immigrant. He has no credit card or driver's license. With a wife and three kids, it's harder to save money than he thought; he's often short on cash, making him late on rent or unable to pay his cellphone bill.

But he's earned the respect of his employer. "He's honest, trustworthy, has family values," said the owner of the restaurant where Medina now works, and who previously employed Medina's two older brothers. "I've never met an individual or family like [theirs] in my entire life. That's how appreciative I am to them. I consider them my own family."

Medina's own family has continued to migrate to Philly. Several years ago, his two younger brothers also crossed the border and now live in Philadelphia. Their sister, now 18, is in her senior year in high school in San Lucas. She lives with their uncle and their ailing grandmother. Each week, the brothers wire money home to help with her care.

Medina doesn't think he can go back to Puebla again to see his grandmother. Border crossings have become too risky, and there is too much violence because of the Mexican drug cartels.

Despite building a life here, Medina never fulfilled his initial dream when he first considered coming to the United States. His parents died before he could buy them a bigger house.

But he still has dreams. He would like to stay, and he still hopes he can find some pathway to citizenship for himself, his wife and older son. His two younger children, born here, are already U.S. citizens, as are his older brothers, who were sponsored by an employer. "I want to open up a small restaurant," he says with a smile and a shrug. "I want to buy a house. That's my big dream."