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What Immigrants Can Teach the Rest of America about Health, Happiness and Hope

January 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
When Claudia Kolker began reporting about recent immigrants to the U.S., she found a wealth of wisdom to be shared with all Americans. Kolker talks to Ray Suarez about her new book, "The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness and Hope."

JEFFREY BROWN: Now: a fresh look at the immigrant experience and some surprising research on their health and ways of life in America.

Ray Suarez has our book conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a phenomenon that stumped social scientists for years. Hispanics in the U.S. are worse off than their white neighbors by almost every economic measures, higher poverty rates, higher dropout rates, less access to health care.

Yet, they live longer, two years more than non-Hispanic whites, nearly seven years more than African-Americans. Other immigrant groups also seem to have better physical and mental health, especially in the first generation after moving here.

In a new book, journalist Claudia Kolker looks at how some of the customs imported by America’s newcomers benefit those groups and could benefit others. It’s called “The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America About Health, Happiness and Hope.”

Claudia Kolker, welcome.

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CLAUDIA KOLKER, “The Immigrant Advantage”: Thank you so much.

RAY SUAREZ: As we embark or seem to be embarking on another debate about immigration, what it’s for, how much, how little, the rules that we’re going to live by, Americans often ask, why do we want these people here? And will they become American?

And you do an audacious thing right off the top, which is challenge the reader to think about what we can learn from immigrants. Tell us more about that.

CLAUDIA KOLKER: Well, one of the big ideas in this book is that we already have many, many immigrants here.

And while it is essential to understand and have — and have a really sound policy for newcomers and for newcomers to come legally, the great majority of foreign-born people here are here legally. They are here.

They have some extraordinary skills and practices and outcomes that I wanted, not only as a journalist to find out about, but I as a parent and as a citizen.

I wanted some of those things. And so that was the starting point for this book, is some of these successes that some of the least-advantaged people in our culture right now have.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of these ways of life have to do with the very practical day-to-day skills of living, childbirth, dating, courting, pooling money, instead of going to banks, intergenerational living arrangements. Some of it is stuff that Americans used to do.


And that is — that is really one of the keys. Very little in here is exotic. These are some of the practices that made the United States what it is and that we have forgotten, and really forgotten fairly recently, too. We haven’t — we have thought that we haven’t had need for them.

RAY SUAREZ: Give me some examples of what you saw, because you came into people’s lives and watched their daily lives and tried to explain how this thing they do works.

CLAUDIA KOLKER: OK. And I will tell you — I also want to tell you a little bit about how I came to ask this question, which is as a reporter.

First, I reported on the immigrants in my adopted hometown of Houston. But then, because I know so many immigrants, I began to ask foreign-born people what I called the question:

What’s the smartest thing that people did in your home country that you want to hang on to while you’re here and the rest of us ought to copy?

And everybody had an answer. And one of the most striking ones, one of the ones that really resonated to professional American women that I knew and many, many readers was a postpartum practice that, in some form, is really done in almost all of the world, but is taken extremely seriously in very poor rural Mexico.

It’s called the cuarentena. And it sounds like 40 and quarantine also. And that’s because, for 40 days after a baby is born, the resources, the tenderness, the care, the special foods, the rest all go to the new mother. The baby is taken care of and cuddled and cleaned, but it is the mother’s health that is essential to take care of.

And these are women who are very hardworking and don’t get pampered at other times in their lives. But the entire family and community know that the health, the emotional, but really the physical health of the mother is essential to keep the rest of that family alive. And the extremes they go to are striking.

In rural Mexico, in Chiapas, I — I interviewed people who came from Chiapas to Akron, Ohio. They were working in factories, in agriculture. In the first 40 days after a baby is born, a woman may not touch a broom or a dish cloth. And if she does, if she touches it, she is an irresponsible mother, because…

RAY SUAREZ: But do you get measurably better results from the children when — when…

CLAUDIA KOLKER: From the children?

RAY SUAREZ: Right. When you have a baby, and you are giving this time, this pampering, this attention, are you more likely to have a kid that’s going to be healthier? Are you yourself going to be healthier?


Well, to start off, it’s a lot — this is anecdotal. These are folk traditions, OK, and they have not been much studied. But it is true that in the research that has been done — which is limited — it does seem that in many traditional communities, especially in Latin America, where they have many, many problems and much tragedy, but postpartum depression is not one of the things they are familiar with.

And I have heard this over and over. And I need to stress it’s anecdotal, but the research that’s there does suggest this. And the United States, we have up to 15 percent or even 20 percent of postpartum depression in this country.

RAY SUAREZ: You take a look at school excellence and Asian immigrants, and it seems to turn out — surprise, surprise — they just work harder than a lot of American kids and work differently.


CLAUDIA KOLKER: Work differently and work smartly.

And here, again, one of the other ideas that I really gleaned from this, these are practices that have been treasured for millennia in their home countries. Actually, they work a lot of times better here in the United States. The stakes are not so high.

So, in a country like South Korea, the stakes are so high. There are only — there’s a limited number of colleges to get into that will allow you to move up socially and economically. But we have a lot of very, very good colleges in the United States. But we want to get the best out of our public schools.

And you work harder, but, also, Asians come here — many Asians come here with a toolbox of how to survive in their own school systems. And it turns out to be very applicable to our school system. So, that’s the key to all the practices in here they had to translate beautifully to our system.

And the thing that I copied was preemptive tutoring, in other words, tutoring not when junior or missy is already having trouble in math. It’s to get ahead, to always be a step ahead, and with a trusted adult who has less pressure because this person is tutoring — there’s one or, ideally, two or three.

A small group is probably even better than one-on-one, because the peer pressure, the positive peer pressure, is great, and also the confidence of going in and see and seeing that material for a second time.

And so it’s working harder, not as hard as they do in South Korea, which makes people absolutely miserable and is not something we want to copy.

RAY SUAREZ: “The Immigrant Advantage.” Claudia Kolker, I want to continue our conversation online, but thanks for being with us.


JEFFREY BROWN: That extended interview with Claudia Kolker is posted online. And you can also read the seven lessons she says we can learn from immigrants.