It was a way for Dr. Jose Loera to give something back to Mexico — practice medicine under the supervision of a licensed physician in his native Chihuahua as part of the country's servicio social program.
"The purpose of the servicio social was to return or pay back the country for our medical education, which was literally free," said Loera, a 1970 graduate of Mexico City's Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico. "The other (purpose) was that physicians, after 12 months of supervised practice, had a tendency to stay in the place of assigned servicio social. I stayed another two years."
But Loera's more distant goal was specialization, which he said couldn't be obtained at the time in his native Mexico. He then went to Canada and studied at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton and at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Comfortable with his training, he later settled in the U.S. — not Mexico — about 17 years ago.
The number of Mexican-born professionals like Loera living in the United States has more than doubled since 1995, when it stood at about 210,000, according to a study commissioned by the Transatlantic Council on Migration and conducted by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). In 2007 the number was estimated at 552,000, reflecting an increase of more than 20 percent annually.
These are not the undocumented workers associated with evening-news mug shots or aerial photographs of a littered and barren desert. Instead they are educated professionals — some with multiple college degrees — who join their blue-collar counterparts in their journeys north.
"It's like a perfect storm (in Mexico)," said Dr. Ricardo Ainslie, a professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Texas whose focus includes the psychology of immigration. "You have an economic crisis that started in the mid-1990s, and it got a little better and now Mexico is in very bad shape economically."
The recent rate of immigration has slowed due to a sluggish U.S. economy and both governments' beefed-up efforts to control their land borders, but it is not stagnant. Immigration researchers at the MPI predict the immigration trend will not reverse for two decades, when the domestic supply of Mexican professionals is finally paired equally with its demand.
The number of all Mexican immigrants in the United States in 2008 was estimated at about 12.7 million, a 17-fold increase since 1970, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. That figure reflects that more than 10 percent of all persons born in Mexico had migrated to the U.S. as of last year, compared with 1.4 percent in 1970. Mexicans make up the largest segment of the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S., at about 7 million, but also represent the largest number of documented immigrants at about 5.7 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 20 percent of all Mexicans residing in the U.S. in 2006 lived in Texas, the second-highest percentage behind the State of California (38 percent).
And though the number of professional Mexicans in the U.S. accounts for a small percent of the entire workforce of this country, the same number represents about 8 percent of the professional workforce in Mexico. The pool of university-educated Mexicans in Mexico is growing slower than it is in the United States, the MPI study concludes.
The continued trend, paradoxically, is partly credited to improvements Mexico has made to its own education system. The MPI study concluded than the number of Mexican citizens graduating college between 1990 and 2000 grew by almost 7 percent annually. During the same time period the country's economy grew by only about 4 percent annually. As of 2007, about 7 million Mexicans had earned at least a bachelor's degree, up from 4.4 million in 1997.
Adding to its economic woes, Ainslie said, is that the Mexican government continues to reassess itself and discover more inadequacies.
"You have this problem — that the transition to democracy in Mexico has revealed tremendous structural problems," he said.
The "transition to democracy" Ainslie explains, is the shift in power that began in 2000 when the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) defeated the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in the presidential election. The victory followed more than seven decades of PRI rule.
"I think most people would not argue with the fact that the PRI ran the county," he said. "There are some people who used to say that not even a leaf fell without the president's permission."
Leaders north and south of the Rio Grande have long argued that building a prosperous and safe Mexico would re-instill a patriotism currently lost on some migrants, and that those forced to leave their homeland to succeed would return. Instead, the country finds itself mired in a sanguinary cartel war and Mexican President Felipe Calderon has publicly declared that the ranks of the country's law enforcement are infested with corruption.
Ainslie said that climate, for now, means individual needs will continue to trump national pride. Crime waves in Mexico, especially as they continue to target the middle to upper classes, will not slow soon enough in the minds of the Mexican-born professionals.
"People are tired, they are exhausted," he said.
Ainslie also speaks from first-hand experience. He declares himself a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico. He studies about and travels to Mexico frequently, but calls Texas his home. The Mexico City native was educated at U.C. Berkeley and received his PhD. from the University of Michigan.
"I always thought I was going to go back to Mexico (after school)," he said. "Then you get married and you have children. Your children love Mexico but it's not the same."
Instead, Ainslie finds himself a part of a growing lot — Mexican-born professionals who sympathize with the struggles abounding in their homeland but see no definitive reason to move back.
As a guest speaker to a group of Mexican-born professionals recently, Ainslie suggested that every Mexican citizen seeking prosperity couldn't just up and leave.
"I said Mexico is living a crisis and we have it very convenient here, it's very comfortable for us here," he said. "But every Mexican can't leave Mexico, that can't be the solution to this. We need to find ways of trying to help Mexico find solutions."
He received a surprising response.
"'I don't feel any responsibility to the country,'" Ainslie quoted one of the conferees as having said. "'I am here. I am glad to be here. My family is here and I have made my life here.'"
That idea, he said, is a departure from the traditional nostalgia and patriotism about home that many Mexicans, and Latin Americans in general, cling to even decades after their migration.
Ana Vila, a program assistant with the International Office of Migration's Mexico office, said the current climate of uncertainty has made up the minds of some Mexicans regardless of their love of country.
"Security has nothing to do with patriotism," she stated in an e-mail sent from Mexico City. "Quite simply there are families- generally established along the border- that feel their businesses or (chances of survival) threatened."
But some expatriates don't cite security or familial roots to defend their decisions.
"I believe that particular opportunities were better in the U.S., better in the sense that there were more incentives for post-graduate training and therefore better remuneration," said Loera, now the chief of geriatrics at Scott and White Hospital in Temple. "Very few people will talk about money and medicine but it's a very important factor. One, like any other ordinary citizen, wants to have a good standard of living."
But not all foreign-born professionals have the same success, he said. States and countries have individual certification requirements that force many professional immigrants, many of whom are specialists in their native countries, to assume lesser roles in the U.S.
"I know a number of physicians that work in research. In other words, they are not allowed to practice medicine, they can't touch patients," he said. "So, they become lab technicians, dentists, hygienists. Physicians that were specialists in their countries cannot practice at the level that they are trained for because they do not have the required examinations."
Loera said the same hurdle exists for professionals in other specialties, like engineering and architecture. He said, however, it would be difficult to draw a parallel to low-skilled immigrant labor where one readily accepts a higher wage than they would garner in their native country, though less than what their native-born counterparts earn.
In the case of medicine, he said, one can't fault a country or state for wanting its physicians to know and conform to uniform standards.
"In all fairness you have to make sure that people have the knowledge of Western medicine and have the ability to pass exams, that they will not require any form of monitoring that would be very costly," he said.
Still some high-skilled professionals don't have the luxury of entering their respective fields in any capacity.
The MPI study states that in 2007 about 55 percent of Mexican-born professionals in the U.S. with a bachelor's degree or higher worked jobs that required less education. More than half of those worked primarily in three job sectors: transport/production, construction/maintenance, and cleaning/food preparation. That fact hasn't thwarted analysts' outlooks however, as they predict that until at least the mid-2020s many Mexican professionals will continue to look with ambitious eyes toward their neighbor to the north.