Despite President Donald Trump’s vows to build a wall with Mexico and deport huge numbers of Latin American immigrants, there is a little-known phenomenon that could have a positive impact on hemispheric relations in the long term: Growing numbers of U.S. students are choosing Latin American countries for their study-abroad programs.
While most U.S. students in these programs go to European countries, the percentage of students who pick Latin American destinations for credit-earning studies is rising fast. And among Americans who travel abroad for non-credit experiences – such as internships and volunteer work – Latin America already is the No. 1 destination.
The data comes from the newly released Open Doors report by the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE) and the U.S. State Department.
While the figures are from the 2016-17 academic year, which started during the U.S. presidential campaign but before the November 2016 elections, they reflect an ongoing trend that is likely to continue.
The number of U.S. youths studying abroad has more than tripled over the past two decades, to 325,339 students this year, the report says. Of that total, 53,000 went to Latin American and Caribbean countries, an almost 6 percent increase over the previous year.
The number of U.S. students going to Argentina rose by nearly 4 percent, to Mexico by 10 percent, and to Colombia by 25 percent. By comparison, the percentage of U.S. students going to Europe rose by an average of 3.5 percent.
Among the additional 23,000 Americans who went abroad for non-credit internships or volunteer work, more than 38 percent chose Latin American and Caribbean destinations, compared with 14 percent that went to Europe, and 10 percent to Asia, according to IIE data.
These figures are important because, in the long term, they are likely to help increase U.S. attention to Latin America. One of the reasons why Latin America has long ranked low among U.S. foreign-policy priorities has been that most U.S. policy makers have had little to no personal connections with the region.
Most of the U.S. policy makers who studied abroad, like former President Bill Clinton, did so in the United Kingdom. A U.S. college student who spends a year in a Latin American country is much more likely to pursue business opportunities or remain interested in that place. Student mobility creates long-term cultural and political bonds between countries.
Unfortunately, there is also bad news for the future of U.S. relations with the world, and Latin America in particular, in the latest student mobility picture. In part because of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and actions, the number of foreign students coming to the United States is expected to decline in 2018, according to a separate IIE report.
While nearly 1.1 million foreign students were enrolled in U.S. colleges in 2017, a more than 3 percent increase over the previous year, an IIE survey of U.S. colleges conducted in October – eight months into the Trump administration – shows that there is a drop in foreign student enrollments for the 2018 school year.
The survey of 522 U.S. colleges shows that the expected drop in foreign enrollments for the 2018 academic year is due to visa application issues or denials, the cost of higher education in the United States, and a Trump-created climate of hostility toward several groups of immigrants.
“A significant proportion of institutions report that the U.S. social and political environment and feeling unwelcome in the United States are factors contributing to new international student declines,” the IIE report says.
It added that, “The rhetoric surrounding the (Trump administration) policies and ensuing public debates on immigration, along with apprehensions of personal safety and tense race relations, concern prospective international students and their families.”
That’s bad news for the U.S. economy: In addition to contributing significantly to U.S. research and entrepreneurial leadership, foreign students support more than 450,000 U.S. jobs, and add over $39.4 billion a year to the U.S. economy, according to IIE figures.
The good news is that Trump’s jingoism is having little or no effect on the number of Americans going to study or do internships abroad. The bad news for the United States is that fewer foreign students are enrolling in U.S. colleges, which hurts the economy and will have a lasting negative impact on America’s influence abroad.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.