Nation & World

It’s not just poor and uneducated Mexicans who move to the U.S.

Enrico Ramirez Ruiz, an astrophysicist, in rear at right, oversees students at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He's among the many Mexican academics who've moved to the United States to work.
Enrico Ramirez Ruiz, an astrophysicist, in rear at right, oversees students at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He's among the many Mexican academics who've moved to the United States to work. Tribune

If Donald Trump thinks all Mexican migrants are criminals, it’s because he hasn’t met the likes of Pablo Meyer, a computational biologist, or Enrico Ramirez Ruiz, an astrophysicist.

They are two of the thousands of Mexicans with doctorates who’ve left their homeland, mostly for the United States, in a brain drain that saps Mexican academia of super-hot minds.

Some of them sought jobs in Mexico and couldn’t find them, securing slots instead on the faculties of U.S. universities. Others long to return. Still others did come back, only to get fed up with bureaucracy or disgusted by crime and return to the United States, where academia and industry recognize talent without regard to citizenship.

It’s the flip side of presidential candidate Trump’s calls for higher border walls to keep Mexican immigrants out. Highly skilled Mexicans also travel north and are met with open arms. By one estimate, 11,000 Mexicans with doctoral degrees reside and work in the United States. Another estimate says 27 percent of all Mexicans who hold such degrees work north of the border.

The United States reaps clear benefit from such an exodus.

“Americans are free riders in terms of Mexican brains,” said Mauricio Tenorio Trillo, a Mexican historian at the University of Chicago who got his master’s and doctorate at Stanford University in California.

One of those brains resides in the head of Pablo Meyer, 38, whose academic path led him from Mexico to France and on to Rockefeller University in New York City, where he got a doctorate delving into the mysteries of gene sequencing. His Ph.D. in hand, Meyer arrived back in Mexico to look for a job. He went to the National Medicine and Genomics Institute, the Institute of Cellular Physiology and to the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the National Polytechnic Institute.

“There were no open positions,” Meyer recalled. “Older people were not retiring and there was no funding for new positions.”

Recognizing Meyer’s sharp intellect, the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, part of IBM Research, hired him for a research position at its lab in Yorktown, N.Y., where he studies metabolic networks and is part of a team with a patent pending.

President Enrique Pena Nieto pledges to boost government spending on science and technology to the equivalent of 1 percent of the gross national product by the end of his term in 2018. It’s barely over half a percentage point now.

Jorge Soberon, a theoretical ecologist, abandoned a 30-year academic career in Mexico City a few years ago to take a senior post at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

“Moving from Mexico City to Lawrence in Kansas was very different in terms of stress and traffic,” Soberon said. “The entire city of Lawrence could fit in the Estadio Azteca,” the Mexican capital’s main soccer arena, which can accommodate 95,000.

Soberon said he tired of university bureaucracy in Mexico.

“You have to be on many more committees,” he said, and administrators make heavy paperwork demands on professors. “They have to produce stupid reports. … There’s absolutely no trust. … If you (say you) are on the committees of 20 students, (you hear), ‘OK, prove it.’”

For scientists like himself, there was an added problem.

“If you are an experimental scientist and you need to get reactives, it’s much more of a hassle to get them in Mexico. It can take weeks. You have to deal with Customs,” he said.

Since he moved to Kansas, other Mexican academics are pestering him.

“I have friends calling me. ‘How did you do it? How can I do it?’” he said.

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