Maybe immigrants and their traditional values will help reverse America’s high divorce rate … or maybe they’ll just become more like us

May 15, 2009

Till death, or living in America, do us part
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Thursday, July 27, 2006

Few marriages end in divorce in Mexico, but immigrants eventually succumb to America’s ‘contagious’ divorce rate.

America’s immigrants have more enduring marriages than U.S. citizens, but experts say they cannot be considered reinforcements in the battle to maintain the traditional family in this country.

Once here, immigrants get caught in America’s culture of divorce.

“As they are assimilated and they learn our ways, they learn our divorce rate,” said Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage Family and Couples Education in Washington, D.C. “They catch up with our divorce rate. It’s contagious.”

A greater percentage of immigrants who become citizens are married than are Americans of the same age group. Far more immigrants, legal and illegal, come from Mexico than any other country, and Mexico has a dramatically lower divorce rate than the United States. Less than 9 percent of marriages in Mexico end in divorce, according to the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.

This is in stark contrast to what happens in America, where nearly half of American marriages fail. The number of single Americans living alone is now higher than any other type of household, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Twenty-eight percent of American children are growing up in single-parent homes.

“The values that many of these people have emigrating from Mexico are stronger than our own,” said Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families in New York.

She said she’s stunned to see so many children with their fathers when she drives through poor Hispanic neighborhoods.

But many Mexican marriages don’t survive in the United States. About 12 percent of Mexican immigrant women’s marriages end in divorce in the first 10 years, and about 41 percent of married women of Mexican ancestry born in the United States get divorced within the same time period, according to the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Marquardt and other marriage experts said marriage is important to society because research shows that married people live longer, are more productive and report being happier. Studies show children benefit from parents who stay together even if the parents are unhappy.

Social conservatives often cite the same statistics when they promote marriage as a pillar of traditional values and society.

But in some conservative circles, marriage is highly valued while there’s less tolerance for immigration.

Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, said he has seen this in his study of marriage.

“Broadly speaking, the conservatives tend to be opposed to illegal immigration, and yet they’re looking for more marriage orientation,” he said. “I think there’s been some tension within the Family Research Council around this whole issue.”

Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council, said the Washington, D.C.-based group has not yet formed a policy on immigration, and he chose his words carefully when talking about the subject.

“We welcome immigrants from Mexico as long as it’s legal,” Sprigg said. “Our concern is with the disrespect for our laws and the lack of control of the borders.”

Carlos Espinoza said a priest he worked with in California believes God is sending Mexicans to the United States in large numbers to restore the family values America is losing.

Espinoza and his wife, Lupita, who are from Mexico, previously ran marriage-strengthening programs in California. They moved to Haltom City last year, and this weekend they will hold their first retreat for married couples in this area.

Ten other married couples helped them organize the three-day Spanish language retreat at St. George Catholic Church in Fort Worth. The free retreat will be tied to Catholic principles and will include role playing, group discussions and workshops.

The Espinozas, who married 13 years ago in Mexico, have three sons, ages 6, 9 and 12. Carlos Espinoza said the marriage saved him from alcoholism. Lupita Espinoza said they drew closer to God when their first child was born weak with kidney problems.

Their marriage grew stronger, but they worry that others’ marriages are unraveling.

“The culture that we are adapting to is changing us,” Carlos Espinoza said. “We should fight more to maintain the marriage, to maintain the family.”

The Espinozas clean houses and offices for a living — and said they are shocked how many of their clients are divorced.

They worry that while America proves to be the land of opportunity, there are also negative aspects of the culture chipping away at the family units that were strong in Latin America.

Wilcox said Mexican immigrants have the lowest divorce rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.

George Doub, partner and cofounder of Family Wellness Associates, a marriage-counseling company in Scotts Valley, Calif., said religion and traditional values maintain marriages in Mexico, but so does a cultural acceptance of mistresses. He said adultery is less tolerated in the United States, where women have more rights and cheating is more likely to end marriages.

Wilcox said many Mexican immigrants move into poor neighborhoods where the divorce rate is even higher than the national average, and they’re affected by that. By the second generation, the Mexican divorce rate has started to catch up to the American divorce rate.

“Unfortunately, second- and third-generation Latinos are often exposed to the worst in America — a crass popular culture, failing schools, neighborhoods with too many fatherless households and poor job prospects,” Wilcox said. “They’re experiencing what scholars call downward assimilation.”