Notwithstanding the present immigration-reform frenzy, the subject has been intensely discussed in its many aspects—pros and cons, changes and varieties—in recent and longstanding debates. Immigration is considered an essential part of the history and formation of this country. Depending on one’s point of view, we should accept immigrants for the economic, cultural and social benefits they bring, or we should reject them because they are like a plague that erodes our system and therefore we must curb their continued arrival, even more so when it’s disorderly and illegal.
However, the subject of immigration is extremely complex and goes far beyond local and national levels, past and present. It has been part of humanity since time immemorial, and its causes are as diverse as history itself. Survival is almost always the driving force of immigration, from ancient nomads wandering in search of food or better places to live to those escaping war, famine or persecution. Add to this expansion, conquest, colonization and much more. These days there are more migrating people than ever before in history. They are an essential part of a worldwide economic and social system that punishes so many and rewards just a few.
When a people or country reaches a high level of development, it often becomes a dominant force and a magnet for people from less developed countries. This can also happen because of war or conflict between nations or internal disturbances, when the losers must move as slaves or refugees to the winning country or to third countries that will benefit from their labor, skill or intelligence.
In recent years, particularly the last few “globalized” decades, it’s been common for students, professional and scientific types to emigrate to more advanced countries for training, hoping to return and improve the world, their home countries or at least their personal lives. Often they don’t return, giving rise to the phenomenon known as “brain drain,” wherein the country that initially invested in the education of its most brilliant minds winds up losing them. This often occurs as a result of the aforementioned wars and conflicts.
Many intelligent minds have come to the United States, a dominant country par excellence. They have been immediately accepted and their talents then exploited. Scientists, intellectuals, inventors, literati, film, TV and theater directors, musicians, artists and many more have enriched the U.S. and helped it become the great country it is. In Silicon Valley the cyber revolution has drawn people from India, China and many other countries. It is not by chance that the new immigration reform gives a special importance to this group of immigrants and opens the opportunity for them to stay permanently.
Recent statistics tell us that there are 40,000 Mexicans with a doctorate; 14,000 of them live in the United States, others live in Europe and less than half live in Mexico. Most are graduates of the top Mexican universities and the price of the wasted resources invested in them is high, not only the initial monetary cost, but also the subsequent loss of talent. The reasons why they emigrate instead of practicing where they were trained have much to do with the lack of opportunity, incentives and recognition in Mexico, which do exist in the countries that welcome them. There are many distinguished Mexicans who have realized important inventions or made medical, technological or scientific advances in countries other than their own.
Mexico allocates a very low percentage of its gross domestic product to the promotion of science and technology. Among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mexico occupies a very low place in this category, although its economy ranks 11th or 12th in the world. Mexico’s politicians and businessmen pay little attention to efforts to convince them to invest in the development of science and technology. Accustomed as they are to obtaining immediate benefits, this long-term investment in the country doesn’t attract them, in spite of the consequences.
The entire Mexican political, economic and social framework, including governmental, legislative, judicial, business and educational systems, is advanced in many areas, but historically has been devoured by special interests and an immense network of endemic corruption that no one has been able to put an end to. And though there has been relative progress, many see this reality as inevitable, bolstered by the drug-cartel violence of the last decade.
I remember that when I lived in Mexico it was a source of family pride when someone left to specialize outside the country. I know of those who stayed to live and work in the United States and those who returned to practice in Mexico and are doing well—although at times they’ve had to face problems of injustice, bureaucracy or corruption. Thus, the “brain drain” would appear to be good business for those countries that can afford to accept them, and bad for those that lose them.
The original Spanish-language version of this column is available at ptreyeslight.com.