Impact Abroad:The Global Brain Drain

The Global Brain Drain America's Gain Is Often Another Country's Loss

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Immigration is frequently an uneven transaction. When a scientist from India or a professor from Guatemala or a physician from the Philippines moves to the U.S., America's gain is the native land's loss. Since few American professionals head out to settle elsewhere in the world, the redistribution of talent serves only to widen the gap between the land of plenty and the lands of poverty. Worse still, the cycle tends to perpetuate itself: as more people leave their native country for the U.S., more are likely to leave, to join relatives or cash in on connections or simply follow examples.

Though nothing new, the brain drain has recently seemed more than ever to be taking from the poor and giving to the rich: whereas 30 years ago most well- qualified newcomers to the U.S. arrived from Europe, now they stream in from the poorer countries of the Third World. "It is indeed paradoxical," says Dr. D.N. Misra, adviser to India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, "that the underdeveloped countries, which have the greatest need for scientists, engineers, managers and other professionals, are in fact losing many of their best-educated young men to the developed countries." Even among unskilled workers, the U.S. tends to attract the most enterprising -- those who are adventurous enough to quit their homes and strike out for new opportunities in America.

The first to leave are outstanding students who win admission to U.S. universities and who, not surprisingly, accept challenging jobs and high salaries in America upon their graduation. Each year, for instance, some 6,000 Taiwan Chinese arrive to study in the U.S.; no more than 20% ever return home. Many of the top achievers at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur are snapped up by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "These students are dedicated individuals of discipline, diligence and dignity," says Robert Ringler, an associate dean of the University of California, Los Angeles, who is an adviser to Asian students. "They are a treasure to any country, and it is a shame that their homes sometimes don't have the resources to nurture and hold on to them."

No less costly to Third World nations is the steady migration of well- trained professionals in search of a life, any life, in America. The wage differential between the U.S. and Mexico, for example, is 15 to 1. For many others, even poverty in the U.S. is preferable to an uneasy prosperity at home: thus lawyers and doctors from Central America may be found washing cars or working as bellhops in Miami. Other highly skilled people are driven to emigrate not by economic choice but by political circumstance. During their genocidal 45-month reign in Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge killed roughly 2 million people, many of them white-collar workers. As a result, around 70% of the Kampucheans in the U.S. are professionals.

Whatever the cause, the cost for countries that lose minds and hearts to the U.S. can be high. The presence of 8,000 Israeli engineers in the U.S. has, according to Yosef Kucik, emigration adviser to the Israeli government, "created a severe bottleneck in the development of sophisticated industry in Israel." Around half of the 1,000 students who graduate each year from the 27 medical schools in the Philippines go abroad, leaving one doctor tending to as many as 20,000 people in some of the archipelago's rural areas.

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