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 2

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The riddle of healthy babies born to impoverished Mexican immigrants continues to fascinate epidemiologists. Among the latest to probe this riddle is a team of scholars from the UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh. This team replicates and extends earlier research that confirms the importance of good health habits and strong family support within this population, while also bringing to light another factor in the equation: the decided aversion of immigrant Mexicans to maternal employment.

To assess influences on the health of immigrant Mexicans’ children, the team scrutinizes data collected from a national probability sample of 8,114 infants born in 2001. In these data, the researchers limn unmistakable “traces of the immigrant paradox.” In particular, the authors point out: “The incidence of premature births for Latina mothers in Spanish-speaking (less acculturated) homes equaled 2.1 per 1,000 live births, compared with 1.8 for whites, despite the wide gaps in maternal education and income.”

The researchers acknowledge that “about one-fifth fewer Mexican-American mothers rated their toddler’s health as excellent (52%), compared with white mothers (68%).” Nonetheless, they trace an overall pattern of good health for the toddler children of immigrant Mexican mothers: “Generally healthy birth attributes, displayed by Latino newborns, continue to exert positive health and cognitive-developmental effects through 24 months of age.”

In trying to account for this “immigrant paradox,” the authors stress the “healthy prenatal practices among Latina mothers and robust birth outcomes.” These researchers especially marvel at the beneficial consequences of such practices among “Mexican-heritage mothers and less acculturated (Spanish-speaking) Latinas, despite being situated in poor families.” These relatively impoverished mothers manifest laudable “rates of breastfeeding and strong mental health, compared with white mothers.” They also manifest a decided aversion to substances that might be harmful to their children: The researchers calculate that 1,000 white mothers will smoke a total of 70 packs of cigarettes during their last trimester of pregnancy, compared to just 7 packs for Mexican-American mothers and just 1 pack for Latinas in Spanish-speaking homes. Similarly, while 161 out of every 10,000 white mothers report having had at least one alcoholic drink per week during the final trimester of pregnancy, only 16 Mexican-American mothers per 10,000 and less than 1 Spanish-speaking Latina per 10,000 reported such late-term alcohol use.

Good health practices do not develop in a social vacuum. The authors point out that more than four out of five (83 percent) of the Mexican-American mothers in the study lived with the father of their child (compared to 90 percent for whites). Even more striking was that “just 26% of Mexican mothers were employed full-time, and another 13% part-time.” Readers may wonder not only if this low rate of maternal employment among immigrant Mexicans helps account for the relative good health of their babies but also if this distinctively low rate of maternal employment does not help explain why, compared to other mothers, “Mexican-American mothers report less frequent deployment of harsh discipline as they socialize their toddlers.”

(Bruce Fuller et al., “The Health and Cognitive Growth of Latino Toddlers: At Risk or Immigrant Paradox?” Maternal and Child Health Journal 13.6 [November 2009]: 755–68.)