Violence a lure for foreign teenagers

Immigrants likely to adopt US peers’ ways, study says

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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Families move to America for lots of reasons — to be closer to relatives, to find work, to live in a democracy.

But a new study suggests a disturbing side effect for many: The longer teenagers live in the United States, the more likely they are to become violent.

The study, by Northeastern University researchers who surveyed hundreds of Boston teenagers, found that local high school students who arrived recently from foreign countries are significantly less violent than their American-born counterparts. However, the researchers found that as the immigrant teens spend more time in the United States, their behavior deteriorates.

Many studies have shown that newly arrived immigrants are incarcerated at a much lower rate than US-born residents. But rates of incarceration spike for second-generation Americans.

What surprised researchers at Northeastern was how quickly youths who came to the United States began adopting bullying and violent behavior.

“Within a matter of four years of being in this country, the youths’ rates of violence were converging with those of us born here,’’ said Joanna Almeida, associate research scientist at Northeastern’s Institute of Urban Health Research. “It’s not even that it takes a generation. It’s happening within a handful of years.’’

The study was based on an anonymous survey of more than 1,300 students who were asked if they had punched, beaten, or harassed a fellow student in the last 30 days. Students were also asked if they had lied or spread rumors about a peer, or pressured him or her to do something they did not want to.

Only 19 percent of the 115 students born outside the United States who had been in the country fewer than four years reported perpetrating physical violence, compared with 42 percent of the 271 students who had been in the country four years or more.

Foreign-born students who had been in the country for four or more years still reported a lower incidence of violence than those born here, but the rapid change among immigrants is startling, Almeida said.

“They increase so dramatically, so quickly that if you just ignore the recently arrived immigrants, you’re going to have a huge problem on your hands,’’ she said.

Community leaders who work with young immigrants said the study confirmed what they already knew.

Valerie Batts, executive director of Visions Inc., a Roxbury-based group that promotes diversity, said young men born outside the country who have participated in the group’s programs have said they felt they needed to bully others, and even carry a gun, to avoid becoming victims.

“They say, ‘When I first came, I figured out this was the only way I could survive was if I acted that way’,’’ Batts said. “They acknowledge that they come to see the world that way. It’s not how they started.’’

The results appear to say more about violence in US cities than the behavior of immigrants, said Victor Jose Santana, project coordinator at Roca, a Chelsea-based nonprofit organization that works with young people, including immigrants.

“It makes me think that we’re living in a really violent culture,’’ Santana said. “If the longer they’re here, the more likely they are to be participating or being violent, assimilation is about being like the others that you’re around, so that says a lot to me.’’

The study, published in December in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, was based on a survey conducted in 2008 by the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center. The youths surveyed included second- and third-generation students, as well as newcomers from the Dominican Republic, China, Cape Verde, Jamaica, and Haiti.

Researchers said they now plan to study why the teens’ behavior changes so quickly. But public health officials and those who work with teenagers and young immigrants said they already have some theories.

During the school day, young people are away from their families and in the presence of their peers, who influence them. Immigrants may also feel isolated, advocates said, and might be mocked, not just in school hallways but through media like Facebook, which can quickly spread hateful messages and spark anger and resentment.

“We’re all surrounded by violent images on TV and the movies and advertising,’’ said Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “It’s not hard for me to understand that there would be a rapid change in terms of behaviors.’’

Jessica Vaughan, senior policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors restrictions on immigration, said the results are troubling.

“We can’t just assume that immigrant families are going to be able to swim instead of sink on their own,’’ said Vaughan, who works out of Franklin. “As long as we continue to have an immigration policy that brings in individuals who are going to be faced with these challenges, it makes sense for us as a society to find some policies that will help ease that integration so that there is not a negative spiral.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at