Bicultural Competence: A Means to Crime Reduction among the Children of Immigrants?
Caitlin Killian, Emory University 3200 J.B.
Public sentiment against immigrants and immigration ebbs and flows. During certain periods of time over the past century, immigrants have been blamed for corrupting morals, stealing jobs, and raising the crime rate; at other times, they have been largely forgotten and invisible. In the 1980s and 1990s immigration is once again a popular topic, and one of the perennial questions that have resurfaced is: what is the relationship between immigrants and crime? While much research reveals that most immigrant groups actually commit less crime than the native population, the more worrisome finding is that their children are more criminal. I will discuss this finding and examine solutions for preventing crime among the children of immigrants. Specifically, I propose that cultural socialization and bicultural competence may insulate the second generation from engaging in illegal acts. Finally, I will suggest future directions for work on immigration and crime.
Findings on immigrant crime
Overall, with some clear exceptions, the findings suggest that immigrants commit less crime than do members of the native population, but that the second generation commits more crime than natives. Canadian studies from the 1950s to the I990s reveal that immigrants are half as likely to be criminals as are natives (Yaeger 1997). The statistics are similar in Australia where immigrants from New Zealand, Germany, and Yugoslavia are only slightly more likely to commit crime than natives, and Asians are much less likely to engage in crime (Yaeger 1997). In the United States the pattern holds, although there is little research that is not more than 25 years old (Yaeger 1997). Most modem British studies conclude that neither Asians nor blacks of foreign origin are more crime-prone than natives (Yaeger 1997), although the findings for black immigrants are contradicted by other studies (Smith 1997). In Switzerland, Italians are less likely to commit crimes than native Swiss, and in Germany, although immigrant crime is on the rise, it is still less than the rate for native German males (Yaeger 1997). Terlouw and Bruinsma (1994) found that Dutch natives are the most frequent drug offenders overall in the Netherlands, committing more crime than even illegal North African and Eastern European immigrants.
Those immigrant groups that do commit more crime than the native population may include West Indians in Great Britain, and do include Moroccans and Antilleans in the Netherlands, and Hispanics in the United States (Tonry 1997). Another study found that in 1991, Latin Americans and Caribbean immigrants had higher crime rates, 14 and 18 per 10,000 population, respectively, than the general population in Canada where the rate for native-born Canadians was 10.6 and for the foreign born in general 5.5 per 10,000 population (Thomas 1993). The New York State Department of Correctional Services reported that in 1994, 13 percent of their prison population was foreign-born, but that 80 percent of the incarcerated immigrant population was comprised of Caribbeans and South Americans (New York State Dept. of Correctional Services 1995). Other groups, such as Asians, commit substantially less crime (Batta, Mawby and McCulloch 1981), although those Asians that migrated as ‘boat people’ engage in more crime than earlier waves pointing to structural rather than cultural reasons for illegal activity.
Not surprisingly, the data on different rates of offending by immigrant group carries over into the rate of offending for the second generation, such that some groups reach parity with natives, some surpass them, and others never reach native levels (Yaeger 1997). But the second generation is clearly more criminal than the first, especially in terms of property crimes (Yaeger 1997; Tonry 1997). In Tonry’s (1997) cross-national comparison of nine ~~stern countries, only in Sweden, where immigrants are more criminal than the general population, were immigrants found to be more crime-prone than their children (Martens 1997). Thus the findings on immigration and crimepoint to two consistent factors: children of immigrants commit more crime than their parents and different immigrant groups engage in crime at different rates. Why are the children of immigrants more criminal than their parents, and how can this be prevented?
Prevention of crime among members of the second generation
Various crime theories can help us understand why children of immigrants are more criminal than their parents. Cultural theories would argue that members of the second generation assimilate and in the process both lose the cultural values that prevented crime among their parents and gain values that predispose members of the new culture to crime. The specific values would depend on the group of origin and the country of destination, and thus could explain the different findings for various groups in different countries. At the micro level, social learning theorists would argue that children learn deviance from deviant peers who model and reinforce deviant behavior. Strain and anomie theorists would predict that members of the second generation caught between different value systems may experience conflicting values. They may feel alienated from their parents whom they view as backward and ignorant, yet they may not yet be fully accepted by peers in the new country. Hence, unlike their parents who feel comfortably tied to the ethnic community, they may experience a general state of anomie leading to higher crime rates. In a similar vein, social control theorists would argue that children of immigrants may be breaking away from their co-ethnic groups and thus becoming unattached, while at the same time experiencing the discrimination that makes it difficult to integrate into the larger culture. Unable to become invested in conventional activities they lose control and turn to crime.
On the structural side, social disorganization theorists would argue that while their parents grew up under different circumstances, many children of immigrants are growing up in socially disorganized neighborhoods where economic deprivation, heterogeneity of the population, continual resident turnover, and size and density of the community are all problems. These factors make supervision of youth, surveillance of activities and property, and neighborhood organization and involvement difficult. While the parents may wish to move to a better neighborhood as soon as is economically feasible, the poorly monitored children maybe establishing ties to peer groups that are unsupervised and possibly delinquent.
Although there are many reasons to believe that immigrants should be strained, there are also reasons to believe that their children should be as strained in certain areas and more so in others. The second generation, at least while growing up, will suffer from the same economic situation as their parents. However, their parents may compare their present situation to that in the country of origin and thus feel better off, while the children will compare to peers in the new country instead. Children of non-white immigrants will experience the same discrimination as their parents, perhaps more so as they move beyond the ethnic enclaves that might help insulate their parents. Finally, while the immigrants are adjusting to life in the new country, their children are trying to forge an identity and reconcile ancestral traditions with new values. All of these examples highlight the strain that might overburden members of the second generation who then release their frustration through crime.
Finally, theorists from diverse perspectives argue that both cultural and the structural dynamics of the United States make it an especially violent society (Hill et al., 1994; Messner and Rosenfeld 1994). Since most immigrants move to countries where they both hope to do better economically and encounter cultural conflicts, it is no wonder that as immigrant children assimilate into mainstream culture in most popular countries for immigration they become increasingly crime-prone.
Ties to ethnic communities
Given this, how can we prevent crime in the second generation? The answer I propose combines elements of social control and cultural theories with findings in other domains of research on the children of immigrants. As early as the I 960s, researchers found that the delinquency of children of immigrants is much lower in communities where there is a good deal of inner cohesion, strong primary-group control of members, and strong home control over youth (reported in Shoham 1962). Fujimoto (1975) explains the lack of crime among second generation Japanese immigrants by arguing that children are expected to work for the family, and the family’s dependency on them not only limits the time they have for delinquent acts, but more generally causes them to mature quickly and be responsible. A recent set of studies of Vietnamese youth in Louisiana (Bankston and Caldas 1996; Zhou and Bankston 1994) reveals that those adolescents who have weak social control and replace adult Vietnamese social networks with peer culture are more likely to drop out of school and to get in trouble with the law. They become attached to a minority fringe rather than the immigrant community as a whole, and thus have trouble connecting to the larger society. These youth are labeled as outsiders in their own communities and their subsequent social learning comes from delinquent peers instead of families and community leaders. All of these studies deal with social control, yet since they involve immigrants, social control also implies attachment to ethnic values.
Strong ties to the ethnic community may also help children succeed despite disadvantaged backgrounds (Harrison et al., 1990; Zhou and Bankston 1994). Participation in strong ethnic communities may indeed foster traditional ethnic values and behaviors, and these networks of relations with similar others are a valuable social capital asset. In Zhou and Bankston’s (1994) study they focus specifically on ties to the community as social capital. They found that those Vietnamese children in an immigrant community who have a strong commitment to traditional Vietnamese values and are highly involved in the ethnic community do better in school and have higher academic goals than peers without these characteristics. Because these children are living in an economically depressed area, and their success in school may translate into higher human capital, this study points to the ability of high social capital to overcome the effects of a poor family background (Zhou and Bankston 1994). The study by Bankston and Caldas reported above showed that the converse is also true: unintegrated Vietnamese youth are at risk for delinquency and crime. The findings from both these studies support Harrison et al’s (1990) assertion that traditional ethnic world views and biculturalism may be a beneficial adaptive strategy for minority youth.
Proactive socialization and bicultural competence
Recent research is beginning to show the benefits of bicultural competence. Studies since the l960s have consistently shown that bilingual children score higher on a variety of intelligence tests (see Portes and Schauffler 1994). In addition, while it was once believed that immigrant and minority children, due to acculturative strain and discrimination, experienced childhood and adolescence uniformly negatively recent works have argued that there is a positive side as well. Harrison et al (1990) argue that when minority families practice adaptive strategies, such as teaching their children world views that foster communal attachment and interdependence rather than an individualist perspective, fostering ethnic pride, and exposing them to extended family systems, children benefit from biculturalism through enhanced cognitive flexibility and general coping mechanisms. The term proactive socialization (Boykin and Ellison reported in Hill et al. 1994) refers to the conscious socialization of minority youth to understand the varied expectations of the multiple cultural systems in which they live. Like Harrison et al., Hill et al. argue that cultural values can strengthen children and help protect them from racism. It can also help them bond with appropriate role models within their communities (Hill et a!. 1994). Bowman and Howard (1985, reported in Hill et al. 1994) found that pro-actively socialized black children were more motivated and achievement-oriented than their peers. Hill et al. (1994) also state that bicultural competence should improve not only cognitive functioning, but also general mental health.
Applied in the context of crime theories, these behaviors should help mitigate second generational deviance. When ancestral norms discourage deviance and crime, ethnic socialization should help children avoid illegal behavior. The strain that comes from being a minority member in a majority culture is also reduced when children feel proud of their ethnicity and are competent in both cultures so that they can move back and forth with less stress. They may be able to brush off ethnic or racial slurs, instead of taking them personally and feeling the need for retribution (Hill et al. 1994). The reliance on extended family can ensure social control even when parents are at work, or close family members have remained in the home country. Hill et al. (1994) specifically state that the absence of proactive socialization may put minority children at an increased risk of violence. Thus, because of increased flexibility, reduced strain, heightened social control, and better achievement in school, children of immigrants who are actively ethnically socialized, yet biculturally competent should be less likely to commit crime than those who are disengaged from their ethnic communities or conversely so isolated within them that they are unable to function in the wider social context. The key is to find a balance between cultures and not to assimilate completely.
A quote from the United States in the l950s concerning the first generation is revealing and can be applied to the second generation as well:
‘Some immigrants...have established fairly effective institutions and primary relations. ..Immigrants who only gradually give over their old world patterns of behavior are in general seldom seen in our criminal courts. [The immigrant thus it becomes assimilated more slowly possibly, but much more effectively. Not nonassimilation but overrapid Americanization spells crime’ (Taft 1956 cited by Shoham 1962).
Yet, a half century ago the goal was still straight-line assimilation where immigrants and especially their children quickly lost the language, cultural traditions, values, and even identification with the country they left. Today this model is being challenged by researchers, particularly in the case of racial minorities who are unable to assimilate through identification because of discrimination in the host society. The recommendation for all immigrants should no longer be assimilation, but rather biculturalism, where children are well versed in the cultural values of their parents yet perfectly capable of coping in the new society in which they live.
The role of others
How can non-ethnic community members help the children of immigrants stay attached to their families and ethnic groups? First, it is important to promote an atmosphere that is accepting of diverse cultures. The mental health of immigrants in general tends to be belier in multicultural societies (Murphy 1973). Second, those who are frequently in contact with immigrant youth can work to avoid making matters worse between immigrants and their children. Hopkins et al. (1994) highlight two reasons that contribute to Southeast Asian refugee youth becoming delinquents: acculturation problems and role-reversal with parents. When parents have poor language skills (Hopkins et al., 1994) or parents are missing (Bankston and Caldas 1996), immigrant youth are often forced to take on responsibilities beyond their years. This not only increases strain, but also cuts children off from their parents or relatives even further. Hopkins et al. recommend that professional translators be used in interactions between officials (courts, schools, etc.) instead of allowing children to translate for their parents, thus upsetting the balance of authority in the parent-child relationship. Additionally, they recommend that those involved with immigrant youth should not openly agree with their assertions that their parents are backward, do not understand life in the United States, cannot relate to their lives, etc. Interestingly, in 1962 Shoham noted some of the same problems with North African Jews in Israel ‘The process of integration may also injure and sometimes shatter the social and economic status of the head of the family. This. ..may weaken the cohesion of the family unit and thus hamper the family control over the young ... . All these factors presumably increase the susceptibility of the children of immigrant parents to absorb the so-called “street-culture” and to become juvenile delinquents’.
Critiques of the cultural socialization approach
Arguably, there are some weaknesses with the cultural socialization approach to curbing the second generation’s crime rate. First of all, elements of the parents’ culture may be maladaptive. Sexism, physical punishment, lack of children’s rights, and the like, may all make it hard for children of certain immigrant groups to find a middle ground between their parents’ culture and that of the host country. However, the findings on cognitive flexibility point to bicultural children’s increased ability to migrate back and forth and pick and choose between cultural value systems. Having more options in and of itself should help children find ways to cope with strain in difficult situations. It would also be difficult to argue that any society is truly pro-crime, and thus even if particular cultures encourage certain forms of deviant behavior, strong ties to parents and community members should still prevent most crime. It is important to remember that competing values exist within cultures, and researchers sometimes disagree about whether a particular cultural value should lead to or hinder crime. Sanchez Jankowski (1995) notes the example of respect in Hispanic cultures. Can it simultaneously lead to violence because of the need to maintain respect and, on the other hand, counter crime because of respect for authority?
The other problem is that bicultural competence may have less effect than hypothesized, and prevention of crime may be more influenced by purely structural factors. Martens (1997) suggests that the children of immigrants in Sweden commit less crime than their parents because of the successful social welfare policy. However, immigrants in Sweden commit more crime than the native population, and it may be that Sweden is a particularly law-abiding society. Martens acknowledges that groups with a high brime rate in the first generation have a high rate in the second generation and vice versa, which points to cultural factors. Thus more research needs to be done to understand the relative importance of each of these factors.
Conclusion: suggestions for further research
The few current studies on immigration and crime are a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, much work continues to rely heavily on crime statistics ranging from the turn of the century to the 1970s. Current research needs to focus on crimes committed by immigrants in the 1990s. New studies should systematically examine different immigrant groups in order to understand their differential rates of crime commission and any connection to ethnic socialization.
Most importantly, future research should incorporate the theoretical work on proactive cultural socialization and bicultural competence to see if these factors do indeed hinder crime. Studies need to explore structural factors to determine whether they work in conjunction with cultural factors, or in fact outweigh them in preventing crime. While the pressure of becoming bicultural may indeed produce strain, all immigrant children are facing strain in their options for adapting, and biculturalism may be the healthiest option, healthier than assimilation. Biculturalism is reported to improve academic achievement and to help discourage the negative effects on self-esteem caused by discrimination. If successful biculturalism can also impede deviant and criminal behavior, as we have reason to suspect, it would further lend credence to the argument that the benefits of biculturalism outweigh its stresses.
References (partial listing)
Agnew, Robert. (1992). ‘Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency’. Criminology 30:47-88.
Bankston, Carl L. III and Stephen J. Caldas. (1996). ‘Adolescents and deviance in a Vietnamese American community: A theoretical synthesis’. Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Journal 17:159-181.