When I was growing up in the 1970s, I was frequently reminded that I needed to eat every last grain of rice and “think of the starving children in China.” My grandparents on both sides had emigrated to California at the start of the 20th century and America provided not only economic opportunities but a better life, with plenty of food and far better medical care.
A century later, the U.S. remains a land steeped in the proverbial “milk and honey,” but literally in excess. Public health researchers are discovering that, for immigrants, life in the U.S. is not automatically tied to better health.
For undocumented immigrants, obtaining medical care in the U.S. is certainly fraught with difficulties (including being fearful of seeking out any at all). New studies have found that the longer some immigrants live in the U.S., the greater their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes — the very diseases that too many Americans have. What’s more, life expectancy for their wealthier American-born children tends to be lower, with some studies finding that foreign-born Hispanics live about three years longer than those born in the U.S.
“At least in terms of health, worries about assimilation for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants are mistaken,” as the New York Times puts it. Immigrants are indeed assimilating, but adopting some American habits is not necessarily advantageous. Robert O. Valdez, a professor of family and community medicine and economics at the University of New Mexico, indeed points out that the fiber-rich diet with less meat that many immigrants were “normally keeping” in their native countries is precisely what medical professionals advise Americans to eat.
The Disadvantages of the American Lifestyle
In particular, public health experts have singled out the typical American diet as being over-loaded with sugar, fat and additives, low in fiber and over-reliant on processed and fast food. Too many Americans do not perform enough physical activity; more than one-third of American adults are obese and many children are, too.
As some who’ve immigrated to the U.S. note in the New York Times, the demands of their jobs — working 78-hours a week as housekeepers, doing yard work or in restaurants — mean that they simply do not have time to cook meals and eat with their children. “It costs money to live in the land of the free. It means both parents have to work,” says Camilo Garza, a plumber whose grandfather immigrated from Mexico. Some Hispanic residents of Brownsville, a town right on the border of Texas and Mexico, say that one reason they are wary of going out for a walk is the fear that people will think they are in the U.S. without documentation.
In addition, immigrants to the U.S. end up being separated from their family and communities, from the support network they are used to. The result can be stress, depression — from the challenges of working for long hours, job insecurity, anti-immigrant sentiment and many more factors — and other mental health issues that immigrants have often been far more hesitant to be diagnosed with.
For all of this, life in America has plenty of advantages. We complain about how polluted our air is, but just read about the smog in Pakistan or Beijing and you realize that, while we absolutely need to cut down on emission levels, things could be far worse. Many in the U.S. have had their lives thrown upside down as a result of extreme weather events. But as a student from Jamaica told me after Hurricane Sandy, “Professor Chew, it is really bad for people there and why do we not hear about it on the news?” Another of my students was a refugee from Liberia; the families of others left Nigeria, Bosnia and Pakistan, for economic opportunities and to be free from political conflict and violent civil unrest.
America can still be a land of promise and opportunity for those who have more recently arrived. It is not that “America is bad for immigrants’ health.” Immigrants in the U.S. and their children find themselves in circumstances in which they cannot care for their health and those of their children in the ways those with more economic resources can.
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