Immigrant Teens Less Likely to Commit Crimes and Use Drugs, Study Finds

"The Dream is coming," by Flickr user Justin Valas
DREAMers and supporters advocating their cause in Washington, D.C. Photo by Flckr user Justin Valas via Creative Commons

AUSTIN, Texas — Amid concerns that immigrants may present a threat to American society, recent research from The University of Texas at Austin indicates that immigrant teens are significantly less likely to engage in violent behaviors, crime and drug use than their U.S.-born counterparts.

The study, led by social work professor Christopher Salas-Wright and published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, draws on U.S. demographic data to show that immigrant adolescents are statistically less likely than U.S.-born peers to be involved in an array of violent and delinquent behaviors — such as serious fights, drug selling and gun carrying — and less likely to use alcohol, marijuana and other illicit drugs.

"In recent years, as we have seen growth in the number of immigrants in United States, we have also witnessed rising concern that immigrants may present a threat to American society," Salas-Wright said. "Our research adds to the growing body of evidence indicating that, despite experiencing adversity on multiple fronts, immigrants are substantially less likely than those born in the United States to be involved in antisocial and risky behavior."

Study findings also indicate that immigrant youths are more likely than U.S.-born peers to report cohesive parental relationships, positive school engagement and disapproving views with respect to adolescent substance use. When examining differences among immigrant youths, researchers found that violent behaviors and drug use were lower among those who had spent fewer than five years in the United States, and among those who had come to this country at age 12 or older. Approximately half of the immigrant adolescents self-identified as Hispanic, one-fifth as non-Hispanic white, and another fifth as non-Hispanic Asian.

The study was co-authored by Michael Vaughn of Saint Louis University's School of Social Work, Seth Schwartz of the University of Miami and David Córdova of the University of Michigan.

“In light of our findings, efforts designed to support the well-being of immigrant teens may benefit from being particularly mindful of teens who immigrated early on in life and spent longer periods of time in the United States,” Vaughn said.

The study used nationally representative data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health collected between 2002 and 2009. Analyses are based on self-reported questions from adolescents ages 12 to 17.

Study findings include:

  • Immigrant youths are 50 percent less likely to report binge drinking, drug use and drug selling than American-born youths.
  • Immigrants who arrived at age 12 or older are one-third as likely to have recently sold illegal drugs or used cannabis as youths born and raised in the United States.
  • Among older adolescents (ages 15-17), the odds of involvement in serious violent attacks and handgun carrying are 33 percent lower than among their U.S.-born peers.