The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Immigrant Paradox 1

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Why are the young children of impoverished Mexican immigrants so healthy? The question mystifies medical researchers, who have dubbed it the “immigrant paradox.” The authors of an investigation of this paradox, scholars at the University of Texas at Austin, highlight the role of healthy social patterns in safeguarding the health of Mexican immigrants’ young children.

Parsing data from 2,819 children born between 1998 and 2000, surveyed as part of the national Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, the Texas scholars see what previous scholars have seen: the children of Mexican immigrants are remarkably healthy. In particular, the authors note the astonishing low rate of low-birth-weight infants found among Mexican immigrants, finding that rate of 4.8 percent lower than the overall national rate of 6.0 percent for babies born to American-born parents and dramatically lower than the rate of 13.7 percent found among non-Hispanic blacks.

But the relative rareness of low-birth-weight babies among a population that is “clearly socioeconomically disadvantaged” is only part of the “epidemiological paradox.” “In addition to the lowest rate of low birth weight,” the researchers remark, “children of Mexican immigrants have a significantly lower rate of chronic conditions, at 12.7 percent, compared to 17.2 percent of non-Hispanic white children and over 26 percent of black, other Hispanic, and Mexican American children of U.S.-born parents. Children of Mexican immigrants also have the lowest rate of asthma alone—fewer than one in ten have asthma, a rate similar to non-Hispanic white children and much lower than the one in five Mexican American children of U.S.-born mothers, other Hispanic, and non-Hispanic black children whose mothers report they have asthma.”

What explains this astounding pattern? The researchers suggest that the unexpectedly good health of children born to Mexican immigrants is the consequence of “healthy behaviors and high levels of social support” within this population. The authors especially stress that, compared to other mothers surveyed in their study, immigrant Mexican mothers are “least likely to have used tobacco, alcohol, or drugs during pregnancy.” A striking social pattern also emerges in the researchers’ comparison of these immigrant Mexican mothers with other mothers: “Three-fourths [of the immigrant Mexican mothers] were married or cohabiting with the focal child’s biological father at birth, and they were the most likely to attend religious services weekly.”

When the researchers look more closely at the marital status of immigrant Mexican mothers, they discover that marital status—not just living arrangements—can make a difference. The researchers find that when compared to children with married biological parents, children whose parents were cohabiting or in some other non-marital relationship at the time at their birth were “at an increased risk of chronic conditions and asthma at age 5.” The data clearly point to “the importance of family structure for young child well being.”

Unfortunately, the distinctive healthiness that researchers see among children of immigrant Mexican parents is not found among the children of Mexican-American parents born in this country. The authors indeed find it troubling that while they can discern “no significant differences in health outcomes at age 5 between children of Mexican immigrant mothers and non-Hispanic white children,” they find that the children of U.S. born Latinas of Mexican heritage are “over fifty percent more likely to be diagnosed with at least one health condition and twice as likely to be diagnosed with asthma relative to non-Hispanic white children.”

The analysis of the Texas scholars suggests that as Mexican immigrants take up permanent residence in the United States, the “healthy behaviors and high levels of social support” that safeguard child health for the first generation simply do not persist across the generations. Pointing to what they label as “patterns of generational unhealthy assimilation observed in the general population,” the researchers identify a cultural dynamic that should trouble anyone who cares about how family, personal discipline, and religion can undergird a healthy way of life.

(Yolanda C. Padilla, Erin R. Hamilton, and Robert A. Hummer, “Beyond the Epidemiological Paradox: The Health of Mexican American Children at Age 5,” Social Science Quarterly 90.5 [December 2009]: 1072–88.)