Immigrant kids grow unhealthy living here
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Oct 5, 2004

SAN JOSE, Calif. - The health of immigrant children gets worse the longer they live in the United States, according to a new study released Tuesday by the Los Altos, Calif.-based Packard Foundation.

 The report blames the trend on the unhealthy lifestyles and diets in their new home country and limited access to health care.

 When they arrive, children of immigrants - both legal and illegal, who are mostly from developing countries in Latin America and Asia - have lower rates of asthma and obesity than American-born children. Children born to immigrant mothers are also less likely to have low birth weights or die as infants than children born to native U.S. mothers.

 But those relative strengths can dissipate by the time children of immigrants become teens - often because they've gone years without health insurance, adopted sedentary lifestyles and bad eating habits or are sexually promiscuous.

 A stinging indictment  

"It's kind of sobering," said Margie Shields of San Mateo, Calif., who edited the report for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.  

A stinging indictment of American lifestyles and the nation's health care system, the report says part of the phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that immigrant Latina mothers tend to smoke less, drink less and have fewer sexually transmitted diseases than American-born women, said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is also director for the school's Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture.

 Mexican diet healthier

 In addition, Hayes-Bautista said, the diet of Mexican immigrants in their homeland is healthier than that of many Americans, who think of Mexican food as a couple of tacos, refried beans and flour tortillas laden with lard.  

"The classic Mexican diet doesn't include fast food because it's too expensive for many families - and it also includes Mexican legumes and beans with lots of fiber and complex carbohydrates," he said.  

Ellen Wu, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, said another reason is that American kids tend to spend more time surfing the Internet and playing video games than with soccer balls.  

"The new term is 'obesogenic,' " said Wu, whose Oakland agency is the only multi-ethnic agency health-care advocacy agency in California. "Everything around us is headed toward making us fatter."  

One of the reasons for the rise in asthma rates, Wu said, is that many immigrant kids end up living in highly polluted inner-city neighborhoods.

 One out of every five children in the United States has an immigrant parent, and many of these children do not speak English at home, the study found.