[Marxism] “There’s something about life in the United States that is not conducive to good health..."
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Sun May 19 08:40:33 MDT 2013
NY Times May 18, 2013
The Health Toll of Immigration
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
BROWNSVILLE, Tex. — Becoming an American can be bad for your health.
A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the
longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart
disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. And while their American-born
children may have more money, they tend to live shorter lives than the
The pattern goes against any notion that moving to America improves
every aspect of life. It also demonstrates that at least in terms of
health, worries about assimilation for the country’s 11 million illegal
immigrants are mistaken. In fact, it is happening all too quickly.
“There’s something about life in the United States that is not conducive
to good health across generations,” said Robert A. Hummer, a social
demographer at the University of Texas at Austin.
For Hispanics, now the nation’s largest immigrant group, the
foreign-born live about three years longer than their American-born
counterparts, several studies have found.
Why does life in the United States — despite its sophisticated health
care system and high per capita wages — lead to worse health? New
research is showing that the immigrant advantage wears off with the
adoption of American behaviors — smoking, drinking, high-calorie diets
and sedentary lifestyles.
Here in Brownsville, a worn border city studded with fast-food
restaurants, immigrants say that happens slowly, almost imperceptibly.
In America, foods like ham and bread that are not supposed to be sweet
are. And children lose their taste for traditional Mexican foods like
cactus and beans.
For the recently arrived, the quantity and accessibility of food speaks
to the boundless promise of the United States. Esther Angeles remembers
being amazed at the size of hamburgers — as big as dinner plates — when
she first came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago.
“I thought, this is really a country of opportunity,” she said. “Look at
the size of the food!”
Fast-food fare not only tasted good, but was also a sign of success, a
family treat that new earnings put in reach.
“The crispiness was delicious,” said Juan Muniz, 62, recalling his first
visit to Church’s Chicken with his family in the late 1970s. “I was
proud and excited to eat out. I’d tell them: ‘Let’s go eat. We can
afford it now.’ ”
For others, supersize deals appealed.
“You work so hard, you want to use your money in a smart way,” said Aris
Ramirez, a community health worker in Brownsville, explaining the
thinking. “So when they hear ‘twice the fries for an extra 49 cents,’
people think, ‘That’s economical.’ ”
For Ms. Angeles, the excitement of big food eventually wore off, and the
frantic pace of the modern American workplace took over. She found
herself eating hamburgers more because they were convenient and she was
busy in her 78-hour-a-week job as a housekeeper. What is more, she lost
control over her daughter’s diet because, as a single mother, she was
rarely with her at mealtimes.
Robert O. Valdez, a professor of family and community medicine and
economics at the University of New Mexico, said, “All the things we tell
people to do from a clinical perspective today — a lot of fiber and less
meat — were exactly the lifestyle habits that immigrants were normally
As early as the 1970s, researchers found that immigrants lived several
years longer than American-born whites even though they tended to have
less education and lower income, factors usually associated with worse
health. That gap has grown since 1980. Less clear, however, was what
happened to immigrants and their American-born offspring after a
lifetime in the United States.
Evidence is mounting that the second generation does worse. Elizabeth
Arias, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, has
made exploratory estimates based on data from 2007 to 2009, which show
that Hispanic immigrants live 2.9 years longer than American-born
Hispanics. The finding, which has not yet been published, is similar to
those in earlier studies.
Still, the data does not break down by generation. Ms. Arias cautioned
that subsequent generations — for example, grandchildren and
great-grandchildren — may indeed improve as they rise in socioeconomic
status, which in the United States is strongly correlated with better
Other research suggests that some of the difference has to do with
variation among American-born Hispanics, most of whom still do better
than the rest of the American population. Puerto Ricans born in the
continental United States, for example, have some of the shortest life
spans and even do worse than whites born in the United States, according
to research by Professor Hummer, dragging down the numbers for
American-born Hispanics. But Mexican immigrant men live about two years
longer than Mexican-American men, according to the estimates by Ms. Arias.
Why is a harder question to answer, researchers say. Some point to
smoking. Andrew Fenelon, a researcher at Brown University, found in 2011
that half of the three-year life expectancy advantage that Hispanic
immigrants had over American-born Hispanics was because they smoked
less. The children of immigrants adopt health behaviors typical of
Americans in their socioeconomic group. For second-generation Hispanics,
the group tends to be lower income, with higher rates of smoking and
Other researchers say culture contributes. Foreign-born Hispanics are
less likely than American-born Hispanics to be raising children alone,
and more likely to be part of large kinship networks that insulate them
from harsh American economic realities that can lead to poor health.
“I’d love to have my wife at home taking care of the kids and making
sure they eat right, but I can’t afford to,” said Camilo Garza, a
34-year-old plumber and maintenance worker whose grandfather immigrated
from Mexico. “It costs money to live in the land of the free. It means
both parents have to work.”
As a result, his family eats out almost every night, leaving his dining
“It’s a decoration,” said Mr. Garza, who is overweight and a smoker.
“It’s a place where we set groceries before sticking them in the
The lifestyle takes its toll. The county in which Brownsville is
situated, Cameron, has some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes
in the country. The numbers are made worse by a lack of physical
activity, including walking. Immigrants said they felt so conspicuous
during early attempts to walk along the shoulder of the roads that they
feared people would suspect they were here illegally. Ms. Angeles
recalled that strolling to a dollar store provoked so many stares that
she felt like “a bean in rice.”
“In Mexico, we ate healthily and didn’t even know it,” said Ms. Angeles,
who has since developed diabetes. “Here, we know the food we eat is bad
for us. We feel guilty. But we eat it anyway.”
Still, immigrants have better health outcomes than the American-born. A
2006 analysis by Gopal K. Singh, a researcher at the Department of
Health and Human Services, and Robert A. Hiatt, a professor of
epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San
Francisco, found that immigrants had at least a 20 percent lower overall
cancer mortality rate than their American-born counterparts.
Mortality rates from heart disease were about 16 percent lower, for
kidney disease 18 percent lower, and for liver cirrhosis 24 percent lower.
“When my daughter was born, my doctor told me that if I wanted to see
her 15th birthday I needed to lose the weight,” said Gerry Ortiz, 37, a
first-generation Mexican-American in Brownsville. He managed to lose 75
pounds, motivated in part by his grandfather, a farmer in rural Mexico
who at 93 still rides his bicycle every day. He stares down at the
family from a black-and-white photograph hanging in Mr. Ortiz’s living
room. Four of the family’s six siblings are obese and have diabetes.
And health habits in Mexico are starting to look a lot like those in the
United States. Researchers are beginning to wonder how long better
numbers for the foreign-born will last. Up to 40 percent of the diet of
rural Mexicans now comes from packaged foods, according to Professor Valdez.
“We are seeing a huge shift away from traditional diets,” he said.
“People are no longer growing what they are eating. They are
increasingly going to the market, and that market is changing.”
Joseph B. McCormick, the regional dean of the University of Texas School
of Public Health in Brownsville, said, “The U.S. culture has crept
across the border.”
Perhaps more immediate is the declining state of Hispanic health in the
United States. Nearly twice as many Hispanic adults as non-Hispanic
white adults have diabetes that has been diagnosed, a rate that
researchers now say may have a genetic component, particularly in those
whose ancestry is Amerindian from Central and South America, Dr.
Hispanic adults are also 14 percent more likely to be obese, according
to 2010 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The
rate is even higher for Hispanic children, who are 51 percent more
likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white children.
“We have a time bomb that’s going to go off,” said Dr. Amelie G.
Ramirez, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University
of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. “Obesity rates are
increasing. Diabetes is exploding. The cultural protection Hispanics had
is being eroded.”
But at least for now, the older generation is still enjoying its
advantage. In the De Angeles snack bar, a favorite meeting place for
elderly Brownsvillians, one regular who is 101 still walks across the
bridge to Mexico. Maria De La Cruz, a 73-year-old who immigrated to the
United States in her 40s, says her secret is raw garlic, cooked cactus
and exercise, all habits she acquired from her father, a tailor who died
“He had very pretty legs, like mine,” she said, laughing. “You want to
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