Cronkite-Carnegie Initiative

Contrary to often-repeated claims in Arizona's vitriolic immigration debate, the majority of Hispanic immigrants crossing the border are not associated with higher crime rates.

Unfortunately, it's more likely to be their American-born children.

According to research cited by a criminal justice professor in New York, first-generation Hispanic immigrants are less likely to be involved in illegal activity than are U.S. citizens. Jose Luis Morin, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says it is the strength of family and cultural traditions that ground Hispanic immigrants in being productive members of society.

But something happens with second and third-generation immigrant families when Latino youth incarceration rates are rise.

In fact, incarceration rates among young Latino males are higher than any other ethnic group. Morin says Latino children in America are three times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison, to exhibit low self-esteem, depression, and have emotional withdrawal.

Among the reasons young Latino males seem to have higher incarceration rates is they feel too conflicted to be Hispanic or American, according to speakers at the Young Latino Male Symposium held at Arizona State University in October 2010.


It's normal for immigrant families to acculturate to U.S. culture, traditions, and social norms. This process is almost expected when a person moves into a different environment. The

process carries benefits of social acceptance.

But there can be dangers with too much acculturation, says Ana Perez.

Perez, the executive director of the Central American Resource Center in San Francisco, says acculturation can often result in misconception and denial of one's ethnic or native community.

"That's what's keeping you healthy," she says. "Eating ethnic foods in public, speaking Spanish in public, being seen with your ethnic parents, hold on to that ancestry."

Perez says it is the social fabric of Hispanic families that keeps children healthy and, most importantly, away from crime.

Holding on to that ancestry and continuing on a good path involves the parents as much as the youth, says Jerry Tello, an internationally known expert in family strengthening.

"If you work with youth, you can't heal youth without healing the parents and the family," Tello says. "We have to recognize the assets that come in the form of tortillas or whatever."

There is another danger from completely ignoring Hispanic roots and jumping into U.S. acculturation. According to another expert in the field, the more acculturated Latino males are to U.S. culture, the more likely they are to use drugs, and drug use is a common factor associated with incarceration.

David Becerra of Colorado State University says people will acculturate to whatever environment is around them. Becerra says a study shows that eighth grade Latinos have the highest rates for hard-core drugs among any other ethnic group. And this acculturation mess gets challenging for Hispanic parents.

"Because a youth comes in contact more with schools and things, it's going to speed up their acculturation process more than the parents," said Becerra, assistant professor in the School of Social Work. "There creates a gap in … acculturation between the youth and the adults. A lot of times this is confusing for parents because what worked in their country of origin, the parenting strategies and techniques don't work anymore."

What helps Latino youth the most is balancing acculturation by holding onto strong cultural traits such as speaking Spanish, respecting elders, and sticking together as a family, Becerra says. Unfortunately, he said, lawmakers in states like Arizona don't understand the benefits and institute policies aimed at banning ethnic studies or bilingual education that take away the power of culturally protective measures. The measures also speed up the acculturation process for better or worse, Becerra says.

"Your politicians are promoting all of these things for political purposes without really understanding the impact it's going to have on our youth," he said.


Nancy Rodriguez says although studies show Latinos tend to have stronger family ties than other ethnic groups, they also are exposed to more negative behaviors because of sheer family size and closeness. These negative behaviors can encourage more anti-social behavior in a child. Rodriguez, an Arizona State University criminology professor, says more than three-quarters of Latino fathers interviewed during prison time in Arizona were incarcerated as teenagers.

And their kids are hurting. Although there is little research available on the effect of parental lapses in the life of a child, Rodriguez cites a 40-year-old >study from Britain about how children were affected by parents being gone for long periods of time.

"What those longitudinal studies tell us is that children who had a father in prison fared worse on multiple health and anti-social behaviors, so that's really, really important," she says.

Although having a parent in jail is not the main trigger to anti-social behavior, incarceration exposure can definitely pose a greater risk for such behavior, Rodriguez says.

According to a 2008 Arizona Youth Survey, more than 44 percent of Latino youth are exposed to family history of anti-social behavior, compared to about 37 percent for non-Latino youth. The percentage of anti-social peers among Latino youth is also higher than rates for non-Latino youth by almost 16 percent.

And while family and friends of non-Latino youth seem to offer rewards for pro-social behavior, Latino youth get less rewards for such behavior, the study states.

Psychologist Vera Lopez defines anti-social behavior as going against mainstream norms and values. These behaviors usually violate some type of shared moral code about what is right or wrong within a community. Pro-social behavior is consistent behavior with established social norms.

"When you think about children who share pro-social behavior, they do all of these things they are supposed to do," says Lopez, associate professor in social justice and inquiry at ASU.

Interpretation of norms, however, depends on location and culture, she says, which is one more example of why the acculturation process can be difficult. Rewarding good behavior, or pro-social behavior, is key and should begin early. Communication with teachers, community members, and family members is also important, Lopez says.

"There's a paradox because we haven't accurately corrected the data," Lopez says. "So if you think, 'Latino families are supposed to be family people. Why do they have kids that are messed up?' But like every other group, families are families. Everyone has issues."


As educators and parents wonder how to help the Latino child escape the troubling trend of rising incarceration rates, some are asking for more visible mentors in a child's life.

Rodriguez says a mentor can have a powerful impact on a child's perspective and be one way to steer that child away from following the same incarceration pattern. Perez is one such mentor in her community. But it's not easy. She often hears Hispanic community members telling her she is working with "throw-away kids" and is asked why she is wasting her time.

Bobbi Nez of Big Brothers Big Sisters Association in Phoenix feels more supported in her mentoring role. Nez, a STARS program specialist with the organization, works with children who have had parents incarcerated. According to the BBBSA website, about 1 in every 30 children has a parent in jail. In fact, Arizona was the highest state for incarceration rates in the West by 2004.

The program specifically lines up local adult volunteers with local kids of all ethnicities. Nez says about one-fourth of the kids enrolled in the local BBBSA are Latino. But if someone asks for a male, minority volunteer, Big Brothers and Big Sisters has trouble delivering.

"That's our biggest challenge," she says.

Yet, Nez does her best to continue making a difference. And she speaks from experience. Her father was incarcerated when she was a kid. Nez and her brothers reached out to her mom, her grandparents, and to the community to find good and consistent mentors to help. Nez also helped her mom with a tourist business, she says, so she got used to interacting and helping customers. This interaction helped her from experiencing traits of social withdrawal. "It probably really helped us," she says.

Mentors offer a strong example of pro-social behavior, she says. A national 15-month study started in 2004 showed that children with BBBSA school-based mentors didn't go to the principal's office as much, get in fights, or have suspensions. They were also less likely to skip school and more likely to consider higher education, the study states.

"If a kid has at least one person they know they can count on, or go to, they have a better chance of succeeding," she says. "For these kids a lot of time, the mentor is the consistent person that they know is going to come back, they know is going to be there, they know is going to encourage them."

But she still hears of tragedies.

"We hear stories of, you know, a young man meets his dad in prison for the first time, like he's never had any contact with him before that," she says.

Yet with the program, Nez says the kids find the potential to choose a different path and, overall, are staying clear of the incarceration trend among Latino youth.

"Sometimes it's hard because as much as we can do we don't have a direct impact on family or environment," Nez says. "But we can try to do as much as we can for the kids to make a better choice for themselves."