Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Other Immigrants: The United States Is Luring Many of Mexico's Best and Brightest Northward

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Other Immigrants: The United States Is Luring Many of Mexico's Best and Brightest Northward

Article excerpt

LAST YEAR, THE PEW RESEARCH CENTER's Hispanic Trends Project reported that net migration from Mexico to the United States "has stopped and may have reversed." Mexicans can only hope that this trend included the highly skilled workers and researchers who have been moving to the United States in droves in recent years. Alas, that is unlikely.

Amid all the controversy in the United States over illegal immigration by low-skilled workers, few Americans recognize how significantly the influx of Mexican talent has benefited the United States--and how much it has hurt Mexico. The number of college-educated Mexicans living in the United States rose from some 300,000 in 2000 to 530,000 in 2010. This is a grievous loss in a country where the average citizen has only a little more than eight years of schooling. According to education researcher Alma Maldonado, Mexico has only 30,000 citizens with a PhD, and 11,000 of them live in the United States.

For the most part, the United States has not paid for the education and training of these talented newcomers. They were educated in Mexico, and many who obtained graduate degrees did so with the support of the Mexican government--in some cases, in the form of scholarships to study at U.S. universities. In many ways, the United States is getting a free ride.

Many of Mexico's best minds are now contributing to American (and global) science on the strength of intellectual assets they developed in Mexico. Their achievements have contributed only marginally to the growth and prestige of Mexican academia and industry, and their absence from their native country deprives young Mexican students of important teachers and mentors. Take, for example, Ignacio Chapela, a microbial ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He was able to write his still controversial 2001 Nature article in which he claimed to reveal the flow of transgenes from genetically modified corn into Mexican wild maize because he was intimately familiar with the southwestern state of O axaca, where he said the contamination had occurred. (Chapela had used borrowed money to open a rudimentary laboratory in the region in the 1980s.) Rodolfo Dirzo, a professor of environmental science at Stanford, is currently working in Kenya and Tanzania, studying the impact of human behavior on elephants, giraffes, and other big fauna, and the feedback effects on human health. But Dirzo's project wasn't born at Stanford or in Kenya; it grew out of his years as a researcher in the Lacandona and Tuxtlas rainforests of southern Mexico.

"All my experience [was] acquired in Mexico," observes Jorge Soberon, a biologist who served as executive secretary of the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity in Mexico before accepting a faculty position in the United States, "but my current productivity looks good for the University ofKansas, where I work." Not even when Mario Molina was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his work revealing the threat posed by chlorofluorocarbons to Earth's ozone layer did Mexico win wide recognition. Molina currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego.

THERE ARE MANY REASONS WHY SO many of Mexico's knowledge elite leave home. The most obvious is that they are welcomed abroad with open arms. American universities and industries support a free market in brainpower, in which the most qualified--and sometimes those willing to work for lower pay--get the job. Those conditions cannot always be found in Mexico. The U.S. government works hard to attract foreign talent, and it is under constant pressure to do more by, for example, increasing the supply of visas for highly skilled foreign workers. Earlier this year, the Senate approved an immigration reform bill that would eliminate caps on the number of green cards available to foreign citizens working in the United States who hold a U.S. graduate degree in science and other critical areas. …

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