‘Immigrant Paradox’ Doesn’t Protect Youngest Kids From Substance Abuse

New research has found that when Hispanic children come to the U.S. before the age of 14, they lose the protective factor that is the immigrant paradox. This paradox holds that first-generation immigrants have better health, better mental health, fewer risky behaviors and other favorable outcomes when compared to second- and third-generation immigrants. Researchers have tried to figure out just what protects these first-generation immigrants, but we now know that there is a limit. It is possible to be too young to be a part of the immigrant paradox.

The Immigrant Paradox

If you haven’t heard of it before, the immigrant paradox refers to the fact that first-generation Hispanic immigrants are healthier and generally better adjusted than their children and grandchildren. Rates of mental illness and substance abuse are lower in first-generation immigrants. This population is also healthier physically and lives longer. We call it a paradox because there are many reasons to think the opposite should be true of first-generation immigrants. They are at greater risk for poverty and discrimination. They face language barriers and stress associated with acculturation. Many have fled their countries of origin as refugees. In spite of these factors, they thrive when compared to subsequent generations.

Age of Immigration and Substance Abuse

One of the most important aspects of the immigrant paradox is substance abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse are serious problems for both individuals and for public health. First-generation Hispanic immigrants to the U.S. are less likely to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with stress and other issues than are later generation immigrants or white Americans. Unfortunately, recent research has found that there is a limit to this protective status afforded to first-generation immigrants. The age of immigration has an impact on later life choices in terms of substance abuse. To understand how age of immigration could impact later substance abuse, it is important to understand what is likely at the heart of the immigrant paradox. Most researchers who study the effect agree that first-generation immigrants enjoy better health because of a close connection to their culture and native values. The Hispanic culture in most non-U.S. countries protects people from risky behaviors, including substance abuse. Second- and third-generation immigrants are more likely to be disconnected from that protective culture. What researchers have now found is that it is possible to be too young to maintain that important and protective cultural connection. Hispanics who immigrated before the age of 14 do not benefit from the immigrant paradox. They were too young at the time of immigration, researchers hypothesize, to have a strong cultural connection and to have absorbed the protective values of their original culture. Young immigrants come to the U.S. and acculturate more quickly than older immigrants. They take on the values and culture of the U.S. along with the risky behaviors typical of young people here.

Protecting Young Immigrants

The research into the immigrant paradox and acculturation of young Hispanics is important. Too many young people fall victim to the lure of substance abuse and suffer serious consequences. If we can better understand how most immigrants are protected from these risky behaviors, we can figure out how to translate that for everyone else. What is clear is that strong family support systems and an attachment to native values and culture are important for everyone and can help protect young people from making mistakes and bad choices.

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