It is not unusual to see negative depictions of immigrants in the media and in popular culture. In particular, immigrants are often viewed as dangerous and prone to involvement in problem behaviors such as violence, crime and substance abuse. However, our research, and the research of scholars across the United States, suggests that these depictions have little basis in reality. In fact, a growing body of evidence on the topic of the “immigrant paradox” suggests that, despite experiencing adversity on multiple fronts, immigrants are substantially less likely than native-born Americans to be involved in the vast majority of violent, antisocial and high-risk behaviors.
During the past few years, we have used nationally representative data collected by the National Institutes of Health to systematically examine the behaviors of immigrants and nonimmigrants in the United States. Our research on this topic, which has been published in journals such as Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology and Drug and Alcohol Dependence, tells a fascinating story. We found that, compared with native-born Americans, immigrants tend to be more socioeconomically disadvantaged yet contrary to traditional social science theorizing are far less likely to report involvement in violent and antisocial behaviors, including: property destruction, shoplifting, theft, reckless driving, fight starting, use of a weapon and blackmail. These findings held even when controlling for an array of sociodemographic, family and mental health confounds. We found similar results for substance abuse as immigrants were substantially less likely than native-born Americans to meet diagnostic criteria for alcohol, cannabis and other illicit drug use disorders. As summed up by the title of a Washington Post article that recently commented on our research, “Immigrants are less likely to do just about every bad thing a person can do.”
Although these findings represent good news for society, our research also suggests that the protective relationship between immigrant status and violence, crime and substance abuse tends to weaken over time. That is, we found that each year an immigrant spent in the United States was associated with small but significant increases in the probability of engaging in problem behavior. Thus, the children and grandchildren of immigrants tend to increasingly resemble native-born Americans with respect to their involvement in misbehavior.
Overall, this research has a number of important implications. First and foremost, it provides evidence that runs counter to stereotypes that portray immigrants as dangerous, criminal and threatening to society. While certainly some immigrants take part in problem behaviors, they are far less likely to do so than are nonimmigrants. Second, evidence that the protective effect of immigrant status tends to diminish over time raises a number of provocative questions. Is there something about being in the United States that seems to increase the probability of immigrants and their children becoming involved in problem behavior? Or perhaps first-generation immigrants are simply highly motivated to succeed and tend to be surrounded by other like-minded immigrants? It may be that the protective effect of immigrant status simply wears off with successive generations. We believe this latter explanation to be the most likely. As such, it is important to ask what can be done to help maintain the factors that seem to protect immigrants upon arrival. Researchers point to factors such as family networks, social support and prosocial cultural beliefs as key elements that are protective for immigrants. Therefore, a strategy that maintains and not disperses immigrants from their culturally embedded social networks during the resettlement phase is likely good policy.
In all, research on the “immigrant paradox” is important because it helps to dispel myths about immigrants. But these findings, particularly evidence that the protective effect of immigrant status tends to diminish over time, also constitute an important challenge to those working to help immigrants to preserve the psychosocial and cultural factors that help them to do well and stay out of trouble.
Christopher Salas-Wright is an assistant professor of social work at The University of Texas at Austin. Michael Vaughn is a professor of social work at Saint Louis University.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram.