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Flip side of Mexican immigration: brain drain

Posted on April 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm

By Gabriel Medina Arenas

María Arrieta, 47, who holds a doctorate in plant genetics, has worked as a research assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has published papers about the mitochondrial genome in some of the most prestigious journals in her field.

Salvador Moguel, 49, with his doctorate in molecular biology, is an associate professor of biology at Union College across town in Lincoln, Neb., where he researches transgenic maize, transgenic alfalfa and nitrogen assimilation in green algae.

Gabriela Calzada, 46, is a post-doctoral student in veterinarian immunology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her expertise is in immunology and animal virology.

They are not exactly your stereotypical Mexican immigrants.

These people—all born in Mexico—are just three of the 31.8 million documented and undocumented Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (children of Mexicans, but born in the U.S) who currently live in the United States and account for more than 10 percent of the total population, according to the 2010 census.

Arrieta, Moguel and Calzada don’t belong to the estimated 6.7 million undocumented Mexicans living here. They are not uneducated, low-wage, basic-skills workers in agriculture, construction or domestic services.

Rather they are part of another serious cultural conflict.

While most news of Mexicans making their way north focuses on people at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, these three represent what’s happening at the other end of that scale. They are part of a brain drain that is robbing Mexico of its well-educated men and women.

Maria Arrieta says: “My dream is to go back to Mexico to teach all that I learned in the U.S. I want to be a positive influence in the academic and personal level.” / Photo by Gabriel Medina

Two reasons exist for this brain drain, according to Juan Ramón de la Fuente, former chancellor of the Mexican National Autonomous University: the lack of job opportunities in Mexico and Mexico’s high level of insecurity.

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, an Argentinean professor and Hispanic immigration expert at New York University, spoke recently at UNL and offered additional reasons for this brain drain.

Suarez-Orozco, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, said highly educated Mexicans want better working conditions. They want jobs in which they have better research opportunities and labs, as well as better salaries and opportunities to get specialized scholarships and fellowships.

The number of Mexican-born professionals who live in the U.S. doubled between 1997 and 2007, from 259,000 to 552,000, an annual average growth rate of 11 percent. During that same period, the number of people in Mexico who earned a bachelor’s degree grew only 6 percent.

“Never before in the history of the United States have so many highly educated immigrants arrived into our country in such high numbers,” Suarez Orozco said. “Today a quarter of all physicians in our country are immigrant-born, 40 percent of all the engineers in the United States are foreign, a third of all the folk with doctorates in the United States are foreign-born.”

Mexico’s supply of educated people is growing five times faster than the population, but job opportunities for professionals are not expanding as fast, according to the Migration Policy Institute. One reason this is happening is because Mexico’s government and the private sector are not creating enough high skilled jobs.

To stop this brain drain the Mexican government and the private sector need to create more high-skilled jobs; they have to hire people based on their credentials and not on friendship or nepotism; they have to raise the salaries of highly educated people and they have to keep on fighting against organized crime.

Roughly 73,000 Mexicans hold a doctorate. Of those, about 20,000—or 27 percent—live in the United States, according to the U.S. Current Population Survey, published by the Census Bureau.

Nearly half of these people—46 percent—came between 1990 and 2009. Thirty-four percent came between 1970 and 1980, and 19. 8 percent came before 1970.

About 60 percent of the Mexicans who earn master’s degrees or doctorates are living in the U.S., according to the Institute of the Mexicans Living Abroad, an agency operated by the Mexican government.

Arrieta, Calzada and Moguel are among them. Their immigration stories, which might surprise some Americans, have put them at odds with some of their fellow Mexicans.

“I don’t feel I’m better than them,” Moguel said of the lower-skilled, undocumented immigrants, some of whom he and his wife count among their friends. “I feel very fortunate because I had the opportunity to study for a Ph.D.,” he said.

Moguel said he encourages his undocumented friends to try to send their children to an American college. “I want more Mexicans to become whatever they want, regardless of the legal status of their parents.”

Before Arrieta taught at UNL, she did her doctoral work and was a research assistant at Indiana’s Purdue University. She took biochemistry and genetics classes in the mornings and cleaned houses in the afternoons. Her husband’s $900-a-month stipend as a Fulbright scholar at Purdue wasn’t enough to pay the bills for them and their three children.

“It was a very difficult time,” Arrieta said.

But it was also exciting. “I was learning many interesting things at school, so I didn’t mind doing that job for about a year,” she said. “Besides we really needed the money, and we had children to take care of.”

In Mexico, she said, such jobs would be seen as degrading. “But that’s not the case in the U.S.”

Calzada worked for almost 15 years as a professor at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, the largest and most prestigious in the country. But regardless of her experience, she didn’t get tenure because, she said, she lacked good connections.

“I felt very disappointed,” Calzada said. “The way things work in Mexico is not fair. I knew people with less experience than me who got tenure in the same university. The difference is they had more influential friends than me.”

An MPI study projects that Mexico’s domestic supply of professionals will exceed demand until about 2025. After that demand will exceed supply. That means that Mexico will educate more professionals than the job market needs until 2025, but after that year the country will lack enough high-skilled people to fill in the required job positions.

“The problem is very serious,” said Alejandro Diaz-Bautista, an economics professor at Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, Mexico, and an expert in immigration and economics integration between Mexico and the United States. “This brain drain in developing countries like Mexico is an obstacle for economic growth, modernization and the improvement of quality of life.”

Diaz-Bautista said the brain drain is one reason the Mexican economy can’t compete with those of the U.S., Europe or Japan.

Salvador Moguel says: “There are no equal opportunities in Mexico, like there is in the U.S. Your credentials are not enough for you to get a good job.” / Photo by Gabriel Medina

In Mexico, between 1990 and 2000, the number of people who graduated from college increased 6.7 percent, but the economy grew only 3.5 percent, suggesting too few jobs were created. Forty-five percent of Mexicans who graduated from college that decade did not find a job appropriate to their education level.

Even though Salvador Moguel earned his master’s degree at the State University of New York and his doctorate at New Mexico State University, he wanted to go back to Mexico to work and live.

The problem: He didn’t get a good offer.

Moguel started living in the U.S. in the 1990s when he was working on his master’s degree. He returned to Mexico and worked for a few years. When he decided to enroll in a doctoral program, he planned to do it at Mexico’s UNAM.

But they didn’t accept him. And he was surprised at the reason.

“They told me they didn’t think I could be a good researcher because I was almost 30,” he said.

So he earned his doctorate in the U.S., then returned to Mexico to look for a job. When he didn’t get one, he once again returned to the U.S. to teach and conduct research.

“There are no equal opportunities in Mexico, like there is in the U.S.,” he said. “Your credentials are not enough for you to get a good job.”

Between 1997 and 2007, the presence of Mexican professionals working in foreign countries grew 153 percent, from 411,000 to 1.4 million people, according to the Mexican Public Education Ministry. About 5 million Mexicans with more education than the average Mexican—8.6 years in school—decided to come to live in the U.S. in those years.

UNL economics Professor Hendrik Van den Berg said this trend, which is worldwide, is likely to continue or even increase: Educated people from undeveloped countries will keep on migrating to developed countries to get a better life.

“The only way to stop this brain drain is to have a booming Mexican economy,” he said. “That’s what Brazil has been able to do. Their economy is going well, and I know quite a number of Brazilians that were highly educated and were here illegally. But now they are back in Brazil.”

According to the MPI, the Department of Homeland Security issued 300,000 temporary working visas to highly skilled Mexicans in 2009 alone.

This brain drain may worry the Mexican government, but it invests only about $3,400 toward the education of each Mexican student enrolled in public institutions of higher learning, an amount insufficient to fully educate and train the next generation. Government officials respond that Mexico is a developing country, that it lacks the necessary funds.

This migration of qualified people has cost Mexico approximately $7 billion according to the country’s Public Education Ministry.

“The Mexican government and the universities don’t pay good salaries to professors with doctorates,” Calzada said. “The problem is that their budget is not big enough to do good scientific research.”

However, other developing countries—such as Brazil and India—are finding ways to invest more money in education, with the result that they are retaining more of their human capital.

“The Mexican government needs to create long-term policies that stimulate the private sector, so they hire or repatriate Mexican-educated individuals that work in foreign countries,” Juan Ramon de la Fuente, former chancellor of the Mexican National Autonomous University, said last June during a conference in Madrid titled “Redefining the Brain Drain.”

De la Fuente, currently president of the International Association of Universities, said the brain drain has occurred for two reasons: People can’t find enough job opportunities and Mexico’s high level of insecurity.

By March 2011, nearly 37 percent of the unemployed in Mexico had at least a high school education, according to the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information Technology. This suggests that neither the private nor the public sectors in Mexico are creating enough jobs for highly educated and skilled people.

“These people represent a tremendous potential for Mexico’s future economic development,” said Rodolfo Tuirán, Mexico’s education undersecretary and a demographic expert. “Their migration needs to be reversed, or Mexico risks its future.”

María Arrieta is a rare example of a Mexican scientist who achieved her dreams in the U.S. and became a permanent resident but then returned to Mexico on December 2011.

Her work in the U.S. was paid for by grants, and she was tired of depending on them for support. Arrieta looked unsuccessfully for another job in the U.S., then found an opportunity at DuPont in Mexico.

She wants to support her country.

“My dream is to go back to Mexico to teach all that I learned in the U.S.,” she said. “I want to be a positive influence in the academic and personal level.”

She believes Mexican people need to be honest. That will help curb corruption and even the brain-drain.

Arrieta also recognized that she returned to Mexico because she missed the people. She found Americans to have a colder and more independent concept of friendship than she remembered back home. Two of her three children are grown and have graduated from college in the U.S. They plan to stay in the U.S. some years and then to go back to Mexico. Her youngest daughter would like to get a bachelor’s degree in Europe and live there.

“My children got jobs so I will be alone now,” she said. “If I would stay here and I were dying, not even my best friends would know about it. In Mexico even the neighbors would know and help me.”

Arrieta’s health is a concern for her. While she lived in the U.S., she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her fight was extremely difficult, but she survived. Now that she lives in Mexico again, she worries that the tumors will return and she will receive inferior medical attention.

“I feel very grateful with the U.S. for all the opportunities, academic support and personal support, but it’s not my country,” she said. “I will always belong to Mexico.”


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