America's other assimilation problem

Posted: Jun 20, 2006 7:05 PM
So Fernando Guadarrama, 21, a construction worker from Mexico who has lived illegally in the United States the last seven years, made a little mistake.

When Mr. Guadarrama's pickup was pulled over in Colorado because his rear license plate light was out (according to The New York Times), he actually told the police officer that the only reason he had a Mexican driver's license was because, well, as an illegal immigrant, he couldn't get an American one. Fernando Guadarrama ended up in an orange jumpsuit in the Larimer County Jail being interviewed by an immigration agent, en route to deportation.

Mr. Guadarrama, now planning to move his wife and two small children back to Mexico and to start a small business, was oddly but refreshingly grateful: "I thank God every day for the United States. It allowed me to make enough money to have a decent life."

Well, the law's the law and all that, but guys like Fernando make you want to, at the very least, arrange a Minuteman honor guard to accompany him to the border, shake his hand, and hand him a check from a small consortium of U.S. investors for his new Mexican business venture. Imagine: In just seven years in the U.S., Fernando went from a teen to a husband and capitalist.

I'm sure he'd have preferred to avoid deportation, but you have to wonder whether Mr. Guadarrama has the very best of both worlds. He arrived here at 14 already well socialized into the mutually reinforcing disciplines of hard work and families ties. The money he made here will go a lot further in Mexico than Colorado. He leaves with a wife and two small children (American citizens both) in time to save them from the greatest danger facing Latino immigrants to this country: the assimilation of their children.

Assimilation a threat?

For most conservatives, the ABCs of successful immigration include assimilation and acculturation. A 1960s researcher with a maternal and child health project in Riverside County, California, expressed the naive (and nativist) traditional melting pot sentiments when she lamented the difficulty of getting Mexican immigrants to adopt American health ways. "So steeped are these people in their traditional ways ... that lifting them out of this abyss is a real job." A funny thing happened on the way from the '60s. Children of immigrants, instead of exhibiting better health than their parents, began to show signs of deterioration: The more acculturated teens were, the more risky behavior they displayed.

Marielena Lara and colleagues, in a 2005 review of the literature, notes the overall health findings are complex. But "the strongest evidence points toward a negative effect of acculturation on health behaviors overall -- substance abuse, diet and birth outcomes (low birth weight and prematurity) -- among Latinos living in the United States." This was true even though acculturated Latinos were more likely to use preventive health services of various kinds. Other studies point to other telltale signs of deterioration among the more acculturated: higher rates of reported domestic violence (Lorena Garcia et al, 2005), asthma (Eldeirawi and Persky, 2005), earlier sexual debut (Hahm et al, 2006). One 2005 study of the home environments of Cubans, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans by Mark F. Schmitz concluded: "The home environment of families in which the mother reported more U.S. ancestry showed significant declines in cognitive stimulation."

Of course, many children of immigrants are doing splendidly, assimilating into middle-class family, education and work values. But other children of hardworking immigrants like Fernando live in less-affluent neighborhoods where their children are pulled by their peers, their schools and the media into a highly individualized and sexualized culture of immediate gratification. Assimilation to this American culture predicts not only economic failure but the dissolution of the strong bonds of family and character that made Fernando Guadarrama such an all-American success story.