Hispanics Turn to Drugs After Assimilation
> 8/14/2007 3:22:24 PM

Political demagogues often drum up opposition to Hispanic immigration by warning that many such immigrants will bring drug problems with them into America. It might seem logical to assume that recent immigrants, facing all of the stress associated with a major relocation, not to mention racist abuse, would turn to drugs. After all, many of the drugs that come into the U.S. arrive from cartels in Hispanic countries. But as is the case with many assumptions based on stereotypes and gut feelings, it is simply not true that immigrants arrive with preexisting drug addictions.

Dr. Scott Akins presented a refutation of the immigrant-addict myth at the annual American Sociological Association meeting this week. Akins studied 6,713 Hispanics in Washington state to see if he could detect a difference in the drug abuse rates between immigrants who still held tightly to their original culture and those that were acculturated (as determined by self-reported identification with American culture and use of English). Less than 1% of non-assimilated Hispanics reported using drugs in the past month, while 7.2% of acculturated Hispanics had abused. This difference held even when education and poverty levels were controlled. The acculturated number is higher than the 6.4% that whites reported, possibly contributing to the popular image of Hispanics as frequent drug users. However, it appears that it is American culture which elevates the risk of abuse. Dr. Atkins speculates that traditional cultural taboos and family support structures can shield new immigrants from many of the dangers offered alongside the opportunities of American society.

The Washington study is not the first to find negative effects of acculturation. A 2006 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence expresses surprise at finding a "nativity health paradox" in South Florida. Dr. R. Jay Turner discovered that acculturation brought greater risk of drug abuse for Hispanic women. It is not clear why acculturation endangered only women, but a likely possibility is that the Hispanic support structures in South Florida, with its unique mix of Cuban and South American cultures, happen to be more female-centered than those in Washington.

These findings should hush all of the alarmist talk about the dangers of immigrants who refuse to assimilate. Not only is it wrong to accuse Hispanics of coming to us already addicted to drugs, but it may be unhealthy to ask them to abandon the culture that safeguards them from many of the new problems in their adopted country.

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