From Santa Maria del Refugio, a once rural, now almost suburban, community of 2,500 in central Mexico’s Guanajuato state, young men have gone to the United States seeking the social mobility they could not find at home.
Their money, and many of the workers themselves, have since returned, as the U.S. economy slowed in the global recession. For the first time in 40 years, net migration is effectively zero. About the same number of Mexicans left the United States last year as arrived. Migration experts expect the northward flow to pick up again as the U.S. economy improves. It is also possible that as Mexico provides more opportunity for upward mobility, some potential migrants will stay home.
In Santa Maria, dollars scrimped and saved in the United States have transformed a poor pueblo into a town of curbed sidewalks, Internet cafes and rows of two-story homes rising on a hillside where scrawny cattle once grazed.
The same model could apply to rural communities in the United States. Unfortunately, brain drain is framed as an evil to combat. (For example, see "Hollowing Out the Middle.") A tremendous opportunity is squandered. What about taking advantage of the brain drain that will inevitably occur?
Brain drain is understood as failure. Talent quits on her hometown. The region isn't cool enough to retain the best and brightest. Regardless, migration is a success story. Communities that keep all graduates from leaving are the failures. The lack of geographic mobility is an indicator of poverty. The stuck are the least fortunate. Politicians touting retention are not to be trusted. They do not understand economic development. They are the problem, not brain drain.