The International Migration of Highly Skilled and Educated Venezuelans to the United States

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Understanding the process of international migration offers insights into how and why societies can change. The dynamics of contemporary international migration connect the agency of migrants, the socioeconomic and structural constraints they face, and the influence of political decisions and policy on societies. The international migration of highly skilled and educated (HSE) workers affects knowledge advancement in the global economy and technological innovation in science and engineering that address today’s challenges. The magnitude of HSE emigration from Venezuela in recent decades indicates the drastic effect of HSE migration on the country’s human capital composition, which has serious repercussions for Venezuelan societal progress.

Many factors influence the decisions of HSE professionals to migrate abroad. HSE immigrants generally seek to improve their welfare by balancing professional aspirations, such as greater occupational mobility and higher earnings, with quality of life considerations. In addition to these obvious motivations for migration, declining security and worsening living conditions at home increasingly influence HSE professionals’ migration decisions today. This trend is exemplified in Venezuela, where rising rates of crime, increasing political tensions, and growing criminal and political violence have led to the mass departure of HSE workers.

Historically, Venezuelans have strongly identified with and stayed in their country for its tropical setting and multiculturalism. Unfortunately, though, over the past fifteen years, the radicalization of political actors, crime, and a sharp deterioration in the quality of life have driven more and more Venezuelans to emigrate. Venezuelans have traditionally left the country to pursue graduate education and post-graduate training before returning home. However, today’s international migration is much larger, and characterized not by the departure of certain politicized elites, but by a large swath of the best-educated segment of Venezuelan society.

A variety of factors lie behind the mass departure of HSE Venezuelans, including political repression and systematic attacks by Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist government on national and international firms. Since 2000, a growing number of skilled professionals have left the country as their firms transferred corporate operations to safer and more secure locations in other nations. Simultaneously, the Bolivarian regime has made increasingly intrusive interventions into academic research centers at public and private universities, causing intellectuals to leave as well. The 2002 mass punishment of workers following a general strike at Petroleos de Venezuela, where the government fired some 20,000 highly qualified oil industry professionals, is just one example of this persecution of HSE professionals. Most of these workers migrated to other oil-producing countries around the world, such as Canada, Colombia, the United States, Australia, and the Gulf Emirates, where they were readily incorporated, and accelerated Venezuela’s collapse.

Official United States statistics indicate that 135,000 Venezuelans have come to the U.S. as permanent residents since Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1999, while 366,000 have entered as temporary workers, 8.8 million have entered with non-immigrant visas, and 11,000 have been granted political asylum. In 2016 alone, some 10,221 Venezuelans filed applications for asylum in 2016, indicating the despair Venezuelans felt as violence, political repression, and economic stagnation in their country led to hunger and starvation.  Recent data reveal a growing tendency for HSE professionals to enter global labor markets not only to access higher earnings and greater professional opportunities, but also to avoid social chaos and political instability at home. Although HSE professionals represent only a small part of the country’s total population, their migration disproportionately impacts Venezuela’s wellbeing.

The Latin American Migration Project interviewed a group of expatriate HSE Venezuelans to determine their motivations for migration. Although nearly ninety percent of respondents stated they had left Venezuela in search of “new horizons,” violence was also a prevalent motivation for emigration. 91 percent of respondents highlighted criminal violence as a reason for their departure, and 82 percent named political violence. The social and economic collapse of Venezuelan society also figured prominently in rationales for departure, with 44 percent mentioning the economic crisis, citing high unemployment, uncontrolled inflation, and falling real wages as reasons for leaving. Another 29 percent blamed their exit on the crisis in service provision, including the retrenchment of health, education, and other public services.

As spreading violence has ruptured social cohesion and prompted many capable, well-educated professionals —the core of the nation’s human capital—to migrate in search of improved living conditions, Venezuela has increasingly moved toward a state of general collapse. In 2015, Venezuela recorded the continent’s worst macroeconomic performance and the worst performance of any oil-based economy, experiencing significant economic contraction, the world’s highest inflation rate, and unprecedented shortages after one of the largest and longest oil booms in history. Estimates for 2017 augur even worse economic contraction, inflation, and scarcity.

Venezuela’s collapse has also unleashed a social and humanitarian crisis, characterized by high poverty levels, a complete breakdown of medical and healthcare systems, and extreme scarcity of consumer products necessary for a dignified life. Most workers in Venezuela earn less than 6,000 Bolivares Fuertes (around $2 U.S. dollars)[1] per month, which barely covers their basic consumption. Recent data from the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello shows that during 2016, 82% of Venezuelans were poor and 51.5% lived under conditions of extreme poverty. Studies reveal consumption of less than 2000 calories day per person, yielding widespread hunger and malnutrition. The breakdown also affects water and electricity supplies, disrupting daily living routines and undermining manufacturing and services. Medical supply scarcity has driven hospitals and clinics to collapse and created terrible working conditions for medical professionals, encouraging additional emigration.

Indices of violence in Venezuela have also risen rapidly to surpass those in other countries, forcing many HSE Venezuelans to leave in search of a safer society. In 2015, an estimated 28,000 people were murdered in a country of roughly 31 million people, yielding a homicide rate of around 90 per 100,000 persons. In the capital of Caracas, the murder rate was 119 per 100,000 persons, making it “the most homicidal city outside a declared warzone in 2015.” Consistent with these data, most respondents reported that they had personally experienced around three incidences of violence before leaving Venezuela. For skilled and educated Venezuelans of means, criminal and political violence is a clear motivation for emigration.

The outflow of HSE professionals from Venezuela underscores the failure of the Chavista/Madurista model of “21st Century Socialism,” the political and socio economic model instituted in Venezuela eighteen years ago, which has left the nation and its institutions in a state of near-total ruin and enmeshed its citizens in a tangle of political, governmental, and humanitarian crises. This new reality is exemplified by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s recent designation of Venezuelan Vice President Tareck Zaidan El Aissami as a “Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act. This label not only greatly hinders the ability of the government to govern effectively, but also reflects the growing insertion of the criminal economy into the Latin American state structure, accentuating the already serious crises of legitimacy that governments in the region face.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that those with skills and education have led the way in fleeing Venezuela for the United States and other developed nations. HSE professionals are increasingly joined by other Venezuelans searching to exit the unfolding nightmare in their nation. Until a miraculous transformation returns the nation to economic and political stability, this trend will continue.

If  political and democratic change is to occur in Venezuela,  macroeconomic balance must first be reestablished and institutional responsibility restored. Financial controls must be progressively modified to attract foreign investment return national capital presently invested outside Venezuela to the nation. Combined with policy incentives to encourage migration back to Venezuela, this dynamic will allow productivity to return and create new sources of employment for highly qualified professionals.

Stimulating the oil industry, the dominant industry in the country, is also vital to rebuilding Venezuela. Capital investment is urgently needed to repair the industry’s deteriorated infrastructure to restore productivity and prevent major accidents that have become all too common in recent years. The state, private industries, universities, and research centers must also collaborate to invest in equipment and grants to expand professional and educational opportunities in basic scientific and technological research, innovation, and development so that Venezuela can explore alternative sources of energy and further enhance its economy.

Moving forward, HSE Venezuelans, both inside and outside the country, must maintain their existing links between centers of knowledge within Venezuela and outside the country.  These actors  can use these social and knowledge networks to create new policies that entice persons with skills and education to return to the country. This strategy has been successful in other countries in the region, especially in Uruguay after the end of its long dictatorship, and an approach Venezuela should consider implementing.

The situation in Venezuela today is critical. A progressive humanitarian crisis and institutional collapse have generated the conditions for mass emigration of the nation’s most qualified citizens, who are increasingly followed by other waves of less skilled migrants. Only radical political change, the reestablishment of democracy, and the creation of functioning institutions can resolve the current crisis and create the environment for HSE professionals who have left in recent decades to return and rebuild Venezuela. .

 

[1] Venezuela has a restricted exchange control, which has, over time, generated a parallel exchange market. Today, the dollar value in the market is 2807.54 BsF per 1 U.S. dollar. The access to any official dollar exchange, though, is impossible, and the economy and all transactions come from the parallel market’s fluctuations.

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Magaly Sanchez is a Senior Researcher and Scholar in the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. She was previously a Professor at the Instituto de Urbanismo, Universidad Central de Venezuela, where she focused on Latin America, including metropolises, the coexistence of a growing informal world with all levels of society, violence, and youth’s radicalization. In the United States, her research focuses on Latino immigrant identity and the immigration of Highly Skilled and Educated professionals to the U.S. Douglas S. Massey is the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, where he also directs the Office of Population Research. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society and Past-President of the American Sociological Association, the Population Association of America, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 

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