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U.S. Holds Better Future for Professionals : Mexican Economy Leading to 'Brain Drain'

October 12, 1986|SALLY JACOBSEN | Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — Economic uncertainty is driving increasing numbers of highly skilled, well-educated Mexicans across the border to work and live in the United States, according to U.S. and Mexican analysts.

They say the "brain drain"--university researchers, engineers, nurses, accountants, businessmen and other professionals--hasn't yet turned into a flood, but they see it as a strain on a country that badly needs to keep its skills at home.

"(It) is a serious loss because we have a scarcity of resources," said Jorge Bustamante, president of the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana, a specialist in U.S.-Mexican relations.

Riordan Roett, director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, described the recent emigres as "the backbone of Mexican society."

Economy Blamed

"These are your entrepreneurs, these are your economic motors," said Robert Pastor, a Fulbright professor at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City.

The analysts primarily blame Mexico's poor economic conditions for the movement of skilled Mexicans to the United States.

The shift, said Bustamante, was almost insignificant until 1982, when the nation skidded into a deep economic slump from which it has yet to recover.

"After the crisis of 1982, we have noticed the beginning of a certain pattern (that) professionals, particularly from the research community at various universities, have found jobs in the United States."

'Not Massive'

"It's not massive . . . but it didn't take place in the past," he said.

"Before this crisis, you wouldn't hear of anyone wanting or doing it," said a senior government economist. "Before, very few people talked about leaving Mexico."

With the economy battered by plunging oil prices and headed for another recession this year, there's even more talk about going north, the economist said.

Some Mexicans now in the United States agree that they were prompted to leave by the nation's economic as well as political problems. Others say the United States offered greater professional opportunities.

A Mexican who left in January, 1982, now is a Texas real estate broker.

Wanted Better Future

"Everything was coming to a crisis in those days," he said, speaking on condition that his name not be used. "We wanted our children to grow up with a more definite future."

Another Mexican, businessman Roberto Contreras del Canizo, moved to Houston in August, 1984, after the sharp devaluation of the peso in 1982 nearly wiped out his company, which supplied equipment to the government oil monopoly Pemex.

"I was not convinced you can do anything in Mexico now," he said.

Contreras has since started his own company in Houston, importing and selling marble and manufacturing vanity tops.

'Sense of Security'

"In the United States, there's more a sense of security," he said.

Mexicans here believe the attraction for emigres is money. But those who have crossed the border say it costs more to live as well in the United States. Those who were part of the Mexican upper class find themselves now in the vast American middle class.

Still, professionals can earn three to five times more in the United States than in Mexico.

The typical take-home pay of a professor at the prestigious Colegio de Mexico, for example, is about $6,000 a year. In the United States, the minimum wage for unskilled workers is $3.35 an hour, which works out to roughly $7,000 annually. Salaries for Mexicans are higher in business and government.

Mexicans also find the workplace much different in the United States.

'Very Competitive'

"It's very competitive," said the Texas real estate agent. "You have to work harder."

"The rules are very different," agreed a researcher, who said individual merit counts more in the United States. In Mexico, connections are important.

As a result, the real estate agent said, some Mexicans don't succeed in the United States and go home after several years.

He said he has no plans to go back.

"I'm working twice as hard as I used to, but I don't care. I will do whatever is necessary to survive here."

His comments represent another "brain drain" problem: "It's difficult to attract brain power back," Roett said. "It takes a tremendous leap of confidence (to return)."

No Numbers

Bustamante said there are no numbers to show how many Mexicans have taken their skills across the border in recent years. The U.S. Embassy, which processes immigrant applications, says it has seen no surge in its statistics.

Indeed, one U.S. Embassy official said the number of Mexican professionals and skilled workers meeting the U.S. immigration qualifications has fallen off in recent years.

He attributed the decline to the U.S. economy's recent rocky times and tighter job market. For foreign workers to qualify for immigration, they must obtain a job in the United States that the Labor Department certifies cannot be filled by a similarly skilled American worker.

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