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Allow More Latin American Students into the U.S.

As expected, President Obama’s speech on Latin America, given on Monday in Santiago, Chile, was full of rhetoric but short of substance. He briefly mentioned the willingness of his administration to “move forward” with the pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, but didn’t say when he’s submitting them for a vote in Congress. He recognized (again) that drug consumption in the U.S. is fueling drug violence in Mexico and Central America, but stayed away from saying how his more-of-the-same policies will change anything.

Obama’s only tangible pledge was the announcement that his administration will work to increase the number of Latin American students in the U.S. to 100,000. This is laudable, but still unambitious. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), last year there were already over 65,000 Latin Americans studying in this country. This poorly compares to other regions and countries. For example, South Korea alone has over 72,000 students in the U.S. Increasing the number of Latin Americans studying here to 100,000 would still leave the region behind China (127,628) and India (104,897). These countries each may have populations greater than that of Latin America, but, as President Obama said yesterday, Latin America and the U.S. share a common history, heritage and values. One would thus expect that the U.S. would be especially open to students from the region.

Of course, the number of Latin Americans studying here doesn’t depend exclusively on the United States. It depends mostly on the ability of people in the region to afford pursuing a degree in a U.S. college or university. However, it’s telling that, despite Latin America’s growing incomes, fewer people from the region come to the United States to study than a decade ago. The IIE shows that in the school year 2001/02 there were over 68,000 Latin Americans studying in the U.S. After 9/11, new visa requirements had a negative impact on the ability of Latino students to come to the United States.

President Obama should be commended for looking at an area where the U.S. can help Latin America. Still, the U.S. should be more welcoming to students from south of the border. The region is at an important stage in its road towards economic development, and having more U.S. educated Latin Americans can have a significant impact on the region’s fortunes. Just ask Chile’s Chicago Boys, for example.