New Research Debunks the Connection Between Immigrant Youth and Crime

September 28, 2015 - By Jerry Otero

A glance at recent media coverage shows how a pervasive and virulent anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric has infused the political debate. From unfair characterizations of Latinos as drug-dealing criminals and rapists to a multitude of other disparaging narratives, Latino immigrants are painted as a deviant, job-taking, tax-avoiding, drain on the system.

Young Latino immigrants fare worst of all in the media and public debate, where it is widely assumed that they are more delinquent than their native-born counterparts. Portrayed as disruptive and at high risk for maladjustment, young Latino immigrants are then perceived as being more likely to commit crimes, have drug problems and behave violently in comparison with native-born adolescents.

So there’s no better time than the present to hear about new research published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology that specifically debunks the connection between immigrant youth and crime. Lead researcher and University of Texas at Austin social work professor Christopher Salas-Wright, Ph.D., recently discussed his work with NBC News Latino, explaining, “ …despite greater social disadvantages compared to U.S.-born Americans, immigrants tend to be less involved in problem behavior such as violence and crime and misuse of alcohol and (other) drugs.”

Of significance are personal and interpersonal protective factors that serve to buffer against the negative challenges facing young immigrants – including cohesive parental relationships, positive school engagement and disapproving family views on delinquent behavior and problematic drug use. These strengths play a crucial role in the overall well-being of all youth.

Cohesive parental relationships increase one’s capacity to effectively cope with life challenges. Healthy family dynamics count as a strong protective factor for the prevention of a variety of health and social problems like problematic drug use, violence, unintended pregnancy and teenage dropout. Adolescents who are connected and feel a sense of belonging to school do better in the long run. Internalized family values provide young people with fundamental skills that guide and protect them and that keep youthful experimentation from turning into problematic use.

Building upon a growing body of research that shows immigrant youth to be on a positive developmental track, Dr. Salas-Wright’s findings further confirm that many first-generation immigrant children not only do better in school and have more positive attitudes toward teachers and other adults, but are also less likely to be delinquent or engage in risky behaviors like problematic drug use or drug- selling than their second- or third-generation peers.

The biased ideology of drug war propaganda fuels many myths about young Latino immigrants that are used to criminalize them. But study after study show us that young Latino immigrants are less prone to commit drug law violations and indeed, are more likely to be victims of crime – not perpetrators.

Isn’t it time that the popular perception of young Latino immigrants and their families begin to resemble the reality – of children who are clearly on a positive developmental trajectory with parents committed to their children’s success? Isn’t it also time to see that our nation’s immigrants are bright, honest, hard-working people with integrity and motivation to succeed – and indeed some this nations’ greatest assets?

Jerry Otero is the youth policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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