Assimilation Blues: Immigration and the Dysfunctions of the Dominant Culture

When it gets down to it, most opposition to immigration has nothing to do with the legality or illegality of those entering the United States. After all, if obeying the law were the real issue, there would be a simple way to satisfy those who claim they only want to make sure immigration is done the “right way.” Namely, we could pass a law making legal entry as simple as filling out a postcard, waiting seventy-two hours for a background check, and then coming on in. For the vast majority of those seeking to come here, this would be such a minor inconvenience that following the law would be well worth it, and as such, the amount of undocumented entry would slow to a trickle. That none of the voices being raised against immigration currently suggests such a policy indicates that “illegality” is just a cover for less flattering motivations, chief among them racial and cultural biases against a large number of those in the arriving group.

If you scratch a Nativist hard enough, you’ll usually be able to discover the extent of their prejudices. Complaints about the unwillingness of Latinos to assimilate, learn English, and adopt “American” values, typically spill out after just a few seconds of extended conversation. They just aren’t enough like us, is what we hear from the anti-immigrant camp.

Yet, according to a recent study, refusing to culturally assimilate may be the best thing newcomers could do, and should probably be encouraged, rather than criticized. For it is precisely when Latinos adopt cultural habits and lifestyles more like those of the dominant U.S. culture that they become more likely to use drugs and abuse alcohol. In other words, it isn’t their cultures that are the problem, but rather ours.

The study of nearly 7000 adults, including roughly 1700 Latinos in the state of Washington, found that assimilated and acculturated Hispanics were almost thirteen times more likely to use illegal drugs than those who adhered to traditional cultural norms. Furthermore, the least assimilated Latinos were far less likely to use drugs than whites. Acculturated Latinos were about twice as likely as the non-assimilated to binge drink (drinking five or more drinks at a time), and more than three times as likely to go on alcohol-fueled “benders,” during which they drink non-stop for several days.

So perhaps it is those of us in the U.S. who need to assimilate to the norms of other cultures, rather than vice-versa, at least if we wish to reduce the problem of drug and alcohol abuse.

Actually, there has long been evidence suggesting that newcomers to the U.S. are typically less dysfunctional and less criminally inclined than those already here. A study at the University of North Carolina in the late ’90s found that it was only after immigrant families became more “Americanized” that they experienced dramatic increases in drug use, weapons use, violence and sexual promiscuity (Elias, 1998). And other studies, slightly different in methodology from the current one, have found that Mexican immigrants have drug abuse rates one-half as high as their U.S.-born, Mexican American counterparts. In other words, multiple studies indicate that it is acculturation and Americanization, not immigration, which presents the larger problem (Vega, et al., 1998).

Still more research has found that immigrants nearly always exhibit lower crime rates than the native-born (Martinez and Lee, 2000a). This is an important point, given how often right-wing commentators, from Bill O’Reilly, to Michael Savage, to pseudo-populist Lou Dobbs pontificate about crimes committed by the undocumented. Indeed, there is even a substantial body of research to suggest that immigration often stabilizes communities and serves as a buffer against criminal violence in poor neighborhoods, in part because immigration brings with it cultural attachments to family and community that often deter crime (Martinez and Lee, 2000b)

Evidence from Miami indicates how flawed the “immigration brings more crime” argument is. Despite the city’s large presence of immigrants, Cubans, Jamaicans, and Haitians are less likely to be involved in homicides than the native born, and as the rate of Latino immigration to Miami increased in the 1980s, the murder rate there declined. Haitian immigrants, in fact, commit murder less often than whites and have the lowest rate of homicides of any ethnic group in Miami (Martinez and Lee, 2000a). Likewise, there are no significant differences in the rates of homicides between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites in Miami (Rose and McClain, 2003). While it is true that Miami led the nation in terms of its homicide rate throughout most of the 1980s, this was also the case in the late 1940s and early 1950s, long before the immigration explosion that would transform the town in more recent decades (Martinez, 2003). Although crime rates by Latino immigrants tend to climb over time, as with drug and alcohol abuse rates, such a trend is more about the breaking of traditional cultural ties and the adoption of mainstream U.S. values of material acquisition and consumption than anything else.

Of course, it is possible that Nativist forces could use the recent studies, and those from previous years, to argue against immigration. Sure, they might say, assimilation ends up increasing crime and drug abuse among those who come into the country. But since assimilation is somewhat inevitable, what better reason to keep them out? Indeed, one can almost imagine conservatives seizing upon these studies to argue that the border should be closed for the good of the immigrants themselves! Unless their entry is restricted, more and more Latinos will become addicts, as they adopt the harmful ways of the dominant culture! So stay home, stick with your traditions, and be healthier and happier as a result!

Putting aside the cynicism with which any critique of the dominant culture by right-wingers should be met (after all, it’s the very culture of capitalism, materialism and consumption which they trumpet as best for everyone), there are other problems with this line of reasoning.

First, we can hardly expect people to avoid migrating, nor ask them to do so when they are economically struggling, just because doing so might eventually result in the manifestation of certain dysfunctional behaviors. If my family is barely making ends meet today, the fact that coming to the U.S. might lead to someone in the next generation drinking too much or committing a crime (because they’ve adopted mainstream U.S. cultural values), is not likely to prove much deterrent. Nor would it be particularly humane to ask such a family, suffering now from economic deprivation, to put off greater opportunity because of such a down-the-line risk.

But even more importantly, arguing that since assimilation increases bad behavior, immigrants should be kept at home (for their own sakes, or ours) presumes that just because one comes to the U.S., one has to become like us. It is to presume that there can be no healthy middle-way between the cultural norms of the immigrant’s homeland and those of their adopted country. But why should that be? Why can’t we (and why shouldn’t we) seek to strengthen the migrant’s attachment to the opportunity structure of the new country (via education, jobs and housing access), while nonetheless valuing and encouraging the retention of the norms of their place of origin? That assimilation is currently expected, and often forced upon newcomers, is not to suggest that it must be.

One can imagine, for example, teachers who were trained not simply to teach Latino immigrants English, or civics, but also expected to learn about the cultural norms and values of those they would be teaching, so as to build a better (and importantly, a two-way) bridge between the new and the old. Doing so would ease the transition for immigrant families, thereby smoothing the cultural rupture that can prove so discomfiting, and ultimately problematic for the newcomer. If Latinos were not being told, by media, politicians and even their schools that who they are is defective, inferior, and in need of rapid and almost complete transformation, resisting the adoption of dominant norms, including destructive ones, might prove easier.

In other words, absent the presumptions of cultural, ethnic and even racial supremacy which animate so much opposition to the arrival of Latino immigrants–and which ultimately force said immigrants to change themselves to our liking, or else remain ostracized–the problems that often develop in the generation after migration, and among the assimilated may be held in abeyance. But for that to happen, it will be up to those of us in the dominant culture to change our ways, to dial back the ethnocentrism and xenophobia that creates the rapid assimilation pressures in the first place. It will be up to us to welcome the newcomer as a cultural and moral equal, and to see what of their norms might actually be beneficial to us.

This would mean that diversity programs in schools would need to do more than simply teach students about the “other” so as to figure out how best to make them fit in with “our thing.” It would mean evaluating the cultural norms of the dominant group, so as to figure out what was not only different, but also sometimes dysfunctional about our ways. It would mean that “cultural competence”–an overused buzzword among educators, social workers, even folks in the corporate world–would have to connote more than is presently the case. Rather than describing a mere understanding of those who are from different cultures than our own, presumably to render our cross-cultural interactions more productive and less stressful, true cultural competence would have to mean coming to grips with how the things we consider culturally normal might be dangerous, pathological and in need of change, at least as much if not more so than the norms of those from outside the dominant group.

After all, there must be a reason why the U.S. has alcoholism and drug abuse rates so much higher than those in the rest of the world (and disproportionately, it should be noted, among whites, whose counterparts in Europe drink alcohol regularly, but develop dependency far less frequently). There must be a reason why the U.S. has much higher rates of criminal violence than elsewhere, even when compared to countries that have lots of poor folks, lots of violent media (Japan) and lots of guns (Australia).

Oh, and for those in the racist camp (like the hate-addled minions trolling white supremacist sites such as Stormfront or American Renaissance) who would argue that the U.S. has more violence because we have more blacks, it should be noted that the violent crime rates in most Caribbean nations, where the population is virtually all black and brown, are historically very low. Likewise, even if we excluded all murders committed by African Americans, the murder rate in the U.S. would be three times higher than the average for Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom or Japan, and twice as high as the next highest crime nation in the west, Italy (Zimring and Hawkins, 1997). Furthermore, the homicide death rate for non-Hispanic white youth in the United States (almost all of whom are killed by other whites) is six times higher than the rate for French youth and twenty times higher than that for Japanese youth (Currie, 1998).

Indeed, even if one were to exclude from consideration all the crimes of violent aggression committed annually by blacks, the United States would remain the most violent nation, with the highest violent crime rate of any nation in the industrialized world (Pallone and Hennessey, 2000). And even after excluding all violent crimes committed by African Americans, the U.S. crime rate is more than four-and-a-half times higher than the average rate for nations typically thought of as white (Pallone and Hennessey, 2000). In other words, the problem is not with those to whom we derisively refer as minorities. The problem is very much a part of majority culture as well.

At the end of the day, it is long past time for us to interrogate what it is about the dominant culture in this nation that leads to so much dysfunction and social pathology. We owe it both to new immigrants and ourselves to look in the mirror and to realize that when we point the hostile finger at someone else, we have, as the saying goes, four fingers pointing back at us.


Currie, Elliot, Crime and Punishment in America. NY: Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Elias, Marilyn. “Sports means sex for boys, not girls,” USA Today. August 26, 1998: 1D.

Martinez, Ramiro Jr. and Matthew T. Lee, “On Immigration and Crime,” Criminal Justice 2000: The Nature of Crime: Continuity and Change. Volume 1. National Institute of Justice, 2000.

Martinez, Ramiro Jr. and Matthew T. Lee, “Comparing the Context of Immigrant Homicides in Miami: Haitians, Jamaicans and Mariels,” International Migration Review. (3) 2000: 793-811.

Martinez, Ramiro, “Moving Beyond Black and White Violence: African American, Haitian and Latino Homicides in Miami,” in Violent Crime: Assessing Race and Ethnic Differences, Darnell Hawkins, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Pallone, J. Nathaniel and James J. Hennessy, “Blacks and Whites as Victims and Offenders in Aggressive Crime in the U.S.: Myths and Realities,” in Race, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, Violent Crime: The Realities and the Myths, Nathaniel J. Pallone, ed. Haworth Press, 2000.

Rose, Harold M. and Paula D. McClain, “Homicide Risk and Level of Victimization in Two Concentrated Poverty Enclaves: A Black/Hispanic Comparison,” in Violent Crime: Assessing Race and Ethnic Differences, Darnell Hawkins, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Vega, William A., Bohadan Kolody, Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, Ethel Alderete, Ralph Catalano, and Jorge Caraveo-Anduaga, “Lifetime Prevalence of DSM-III Psychiatric Disorders Among Urban and Rural Mexican Americans in California,” Archives of General Psychiatry (55) 1998: 771-78.

Zimring, Franklin and Gordon Hawkins, Crime is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. NY: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Leave a Reply