Immigrant Children Have a Better Childhood than Latinos Born Here

(Photo via El Diario)

Most of them live in poverty, receive government assistance, have no health insurance, and at least one of their parents did not finish high school. Still, Hispanic children who have migrated to the United States face fewer adversities during their childhood than Latino kids born here.

That is the conclusion reached by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which on Monday published its first medical report comparing the adverse experiences faced by Latino children living in immigrant families versus those of children from Hispanic families whose members are U.S.-born.

According to the report, entitled “Adverse Childhood Experiences Among Hispanic Children in Immigrant Families Versus US-Native Families,” over 80 percent of Latino immigrant children live under the federal poverty line (< 200 percent), compared to the 47 percent of Hispanic minors born in the U.S.

In addition, children who arrived as immigrants or who have at least one parent who migrated here, are more likely to have no health insurance or to receive public health coverage for low-income people. They also are more likely to depend on welfare assistance.

Latino children born in the United States or living with U.S.-born families, for their part, have more opportunities and financial resources. However, the AAP study found that they also present high rates of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACE), in contrast with the rates found in children from immigrant families (30 percent versus 16 percent).

As the pediatricians’ report explains, the acronym ACE refers to a broad term that defines the exposure children have to negative experiences such as abuse and domestic violence; exposure to substance, alcohol or drug abuse; discrimination; food insecurity, or other situations that may occur within dysfunctional families, including divorce or the incarceration of one of the parents. All these may have negative long-term effects on the health and development of the minor.

Still, when it came to divorce and financial difficulties, both groups had similar ACE rates. In addition, high ACE exposure in children from both types of families was also associated to poor maternal mental health and to living in a single-mother household.

“We know that these types of negative experiences, when chronic, may cause mental, cardiovascular and physical problems when they become adults, which may reduce their life expectancy. We know that Latino children in the U.S. are growing up and that, in the future, they will be part of the largest minority. That is why it is so important to focus on that population, as these children will become hardworking, productive adults, and we needed to know more about their needs,” said Dr. Tania María Caballero, co-author of the AAP report and a pediatrics research and clinical fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

“We are focused particularly on children who are Latino but whose parents were born in other countries or who are immigrants themselves. It is hard to separate those two things in many other studies and research because they put all Latinos together. We needed to gain a deeper knowledge of the differences between the two groups,” said Caballero.

The paradox of Hispanic health

Similar to results found by a number of other medical studies carried out among adult immigrants of Hispanic origin, a phenomenon regarding the health of Hispanics that many experts have called an “epidemiological paradox” was also observed among Latino children who have migrated to the U.S. It refers to the contrast between the favorable health results shown by Hispanic immigrants in general – even better than U.S.-born whites and Hispanics – despite the fact that the population presents high poverty rates, low education levels, housing difficulties, lacks health insurance and has reduced access to healthcare.

The report also indicates that resilience in immigrant families, their religious and spiritual values and their cultural identity may soften the effects of ACE exposure. This has been linked to a positive attitude among Hispanic youths and to the population’s capacity to face mental health issues, discrimination and stressful life events.

“These factors – resiliency and positive cultural values – are not being measured, so we do not really know if they are contributing to reducing the levels of ACE in these children. However, it is important to us as pediatricians to know that these factors exist, and that is a positive thing that we need to take into account in the future in order to better support these kids and the community in general,” said Caballero.

Discrimination and deportations

While the lack of one or both parents can have negative and traumatic effects on any child, death, divorce and incarceration are not the only reasons that could cause this absence in immigrant families. Even though the AAP did not consider the prolonged absence of a parent due to deportation or arrest by immigration authorities when measuring the levels of ACE on immigrant children, the report concluded that these factors should be added.

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“We need to ask questions regarding the experience of immigrant families associated to legal problems and deportation […] To immigrants, specifically, deportation is a very stressful event. Different immigration statuses within the same family also are a cause of much stress,” said Caballero.

“They are also affected by prejudice, racism and discrimination, especially now, with the discussion on immigration that is going on in the country, which may cause much stress,” said the researcher.

Studies cited in the AAP report say that Hispanic children are more likely to report racial and/or ethnic discrimination than white children, and that 80 percent of these experiences occur at school.

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