Purpose -- The purpose of this paper is to examine the main factors influencing the decision of migrants from South America (SA) living in the USA to return to their countries of origin. In particular, it is aimed at understanding the role played by higher education in this decision. Although it is not feasible to refer to the tasks performed by immigrants in the USA as determinants in their decision to return to their homelands, it is nonetheless worth verifying whether these tasks are closely related or not to their qualifications. Design/methodology/approach - The program evaluation methodology proposed by Heckman and Robb to correct the “contamination bias” in a program evaluation setting is adopted in this document. Findings - This exercise shows that the probability of remaining in the USA for those with university degrees or more advanced education levels is 12.6 percent higher than for those with only secondary or lower education. In addition, it is shown that SA immigrants are usually engaged in tasks requiring certain qualifications commensurate with their level of education, although such relationship varies in intensity among migrants from different countries. Research limitations/implications - This exercise does not take into account migrants in the USA not included in the US Censuses. Practical implications - The results obtained mean that the flight of human capital from SA countries to the USA is being accentuated by the “negative selection” of returnees, and that migrants' qualifications actually determine the complexity of tasks they may perform in the USA. Originality/value - The paper overcomes the lack of longitudinal data of migrants by implementing a methodology providing new evidence about return migration and brain drain of SA immigrants in the USA. In addition, new data are used to analyze the relationship between education and the complexity of the tasks SA migrants are performing in the USA.