For many generations, immigrants from all over the world have come to the United States hoping for greater opportunities and better living conditions compared to their home countries. Through hard work and frugal spending, they aim for "the American dream" of prosperity and happiness, if not for themselves, then for their children and grandchildren. Many succeed. But for many more, it turns out to be an elusive mirage.
Tales of rags to riches, or at least of humble beginnings to comfortable living, are a solid part of our national narrative and are told in countless versions, often laden with romanticizing overtones. But historically speaking, this has always been the exception rather than the rule.
With growing income inequality over the past few decades, the notion of the American dream for all has lost ever more of its luster. Becoming an American nowadays may not only disappoint you in terms of your socio-economic prospects, it may even be bad for your health, according to several recent studies on the subject.
"A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes," a report on the health toll of immigration in the New York Times concludes.
In terms of diet and lifestyle, assimilation among newcomers does not happen too slowly; it happens too fast, some experts say. The standard American diet (SAD), which is not particularly conducive to anyone's health, seems to affect immigrants at disproportionally higher rates. Eating processed foods that have little nutritional value and are high in fat, sugar, and salt content is common, especially among poor immigrants because of low cost and convenience.
"In Mexico, we ate healthily and didn't even know it," one immigrant who had become diabetic since her move to the U.S. told the New York Times. "Here, we know the food we eat is bad for us. We feel guilty. But we eat it anyway."
Even more disturbing is that the second generation - the children of immigrants born and raised in the U.S. - seems to fareworse. Although American-born children of immigrants are on average better off financially, they often have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. The reasons for this are not altogether clear, but experts believe that poor diet and lifestyle choices, as well as a widespread lack of education in health matters, may play a role.
To shed some light on these health disparities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report in 2011 that investigated economic, racial/ethnic, and other social factors such as healthcare, exposure to occupational and environmental hazards, and behavioral risks, among others.
The CDC researchers found that health education together with access to healthcare and preventive health services would have the greatest impact on reducing health disparities between immigrants and the rest of the population. For school children, it found that enrollment in breakfast and lunch programs may also be effective.
The U.S. is by no means the only country that struggles with addressing the health problems of immigrants. A report published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, the official publication of the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), found that even newcomers to Canada who were well educated in their mother tongue still faced substantial barriers because of lacking language skills and troubles understanding of cultural differences, affecting them on multiple levels, including their health. A panel of experts at the CPHA recommended a health literacy strategy for immigrants with English or French as a second language, as well as training programs for healthcare providers to increase awareness of their diverse clientele's needs.