Donald Trump Has It Backwards: U.S. Drug Culture Corrupts Immigrants

A new study finds that, even in towns along major drug trafficking routes, immigrants use illicit drugs at lower rates than the general U.S. population.
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People cross illegally into the United States from Mexico on March 16, 2006. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

People cross illegally into the United States from Mexico on March 16, 2006. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Presidential candidate Donald Trump is often quoted railing against immigrants in the United States for bringing drugs and crime across the border. In reality, it appears that assimilating into U.S. culture actually corrupts migrants: In Los Angeles County, which is home to nearly 10 percent of all Hispanics living in the U.S., foreign-born Mexicans use illicit drugs less than Mexican Americans. Once individuals move to the U.S., research has shown that alcohol and drug use increase with each generation as acculturation takes hold, and a new study finds that, even along major trafficking routes where drugs are readily available, illicit drug use is lower among immigrants than it is on national levels.

"In the U.S., we're a drug-using culture," says Oralia Loza, an associate professor at the University of Texas–El Paso. But a strong cultural identity can have a protective effect against stress, negative health outcomes, and drug use, according to Loza, and people living along the border may not be as culturally challenged as immigrants living in other parts of the U.S.

"El Paso is kind of unique in that it is a bicultural, bi-national region," Loza says. "There's a lot of cross-border mobility. There's a lot of Mexican influence and tradition that's practiced on the U.S. side of the border."

Even along major trafficking routes where drugs are readily available, illicit drug use is lower among immigrants than it is on national levels.

Loza and her colleagues wanted to know that, if the same pattern of immigration generation and drug use would hold in our nation's border towns, such as El Paso, a city that falls on a major drug trafficking route and where the vast majority of residents are Hispanic.

In their new study, published online last week in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, the researchers analyzed survey data from 873 Hispanic adults living in El Paso about their use of alcohol and tobacco over the preceding month, and their lifetime use of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.

The authors found that, with each subsequent immigrant generation, illicit drug use increased; immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, as well as second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans, used more drugs and alcohol than previous generations. At the same time, the proportion of each subsequent generation of immigrants who considered illicit drug use a problem decreased. The authors suggest that recent immigrants are less likely to use drugs and alcohol because they usually migrate for a purpose: to work and send money home to their families.

"You have more to lose if you're engaging in illegal activity," Loza says. "You've worked so hard to get here, your family worked so hard to get here. That might not be something you're willing to lose or compromise."

But the pattern of increasing drug use with each generation fell off by the fourth generation. "At that point you may not be identifying as much with your ethnicity or your culture," Loza says. In other words, once individuals identify more with U.S. culture than that of their forebears, the immigration generation may no longer be as a strong predictor of drug use behavior.

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