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Experiences of Victimization Among Latinos: Studies Confirm Significant Victim Mental Health Impact and Mistrust of Authorities

Experiences of Victimization Among Latinos: Studies Confirm Significant Victim Mental Health Impact and Mistrust of Authorities
Date Published
September 15, 2022

Research on bias-based and other victimization within certain Latino populations in the United States is helping justice and victim support agencies better understand the nature, patterns, and impact of victimization. Two studies supported by the National Institute of Justice concluded that impacts of bias victimization, including hate crimes, harassment, threats, and other types of victimization, are wide-ranging across Latino populations. The research pointed to a greater impact of bias victimization than other types of victimization on victims’ mental health.

The researchers’ data suggest that anti-immigrant sentiment is a substantial driver of Latino victimization and has increased in recent years. According to the research team, a key policy implication of their findings is the importance of finding new ways to decrease those negative sentiments within the general population. The research findings also challenge a common perception of a monolithic Latino presence in the United States, in that the studies documented considerable variation in bias victimization across Latino populations based on immigration status and English language proficiency.

The research teams on the two studies included investigators from Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts, The University of Texas Medical Branch, and the University of Delaware.

The research examined Latinos’ experience as targets of various types of hate crime, as well as non-criminal forms of bias victimization.[1] The investigators used a community sampling approach, connecting with difficult-to-reach Latino populations who are often under-represented in national victimization studies. By interacting with subjects one-on-one at the community level, the studies yielded a more complete and nuanced picture of the current state of victimization experiences among Latinos than findings employing traditional survey methods.

A significant feature of the research was its longitudinal perspective, that is, its measurement of change in people’s victimization experiences over the course a year.

Among key research findings were:

  • Non-immigrant Latinos are more likely than immigrant Latinos to report their bias-motivated victimizations.
  • Latino victims of bias-motived incidents are more likely to seek help and support from friends and family than from formal sources of support; only 8% reported their victimization to police.
  • Bias-motivated victimization among Latinos has a larger association with negative mental health outcomes than other forms of victimization.

Both studies underscored the significant negative mental health consequences of experiencing bias-motivated incidents based on ethnicity or national origin. These findings also support prior observations that the impact of bias victimization on mental health varies across Latino populations, particularly in degree and type of mental health symptoms.

Findings Suggest Need for Community-Based Agencies to Address Victimization Rates

The second study, noting the prior absence of longitudinal data, was a first effort to chart the impact of victimization on Latinos over time. Investigators measured various victimization experiences, including bias victimization, across two waves of data collection. For those study participants captured in both waves, investigators found that the percentage of participants who had experienced past-year victimization increased across a one-year time span from 30.8% to 51.4%.

It should be noted, however, that it is not clear from the results whether the increase was due to biases related to sample attrition or an actual increase in victimization, or some combination of the two. It is clear, however, that people with previous victimization experiences were more likely to participate in the second wave of data collection than those with no prior victimizations.

The research findings indicated that a surge in bias-based victimization primarily drove the apparent increase in victimization generally. Among factors that could explain the increase in victimization rates, the researchers noted, were the circumstances surrounding the research period. A portion of the data collection occurred after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19’s impact on the risk for victimization among Latinos is unknown, however.

A key policy implication is a need to grow community-based agencies serving Latino populations to help Latinos connect with and provide victim-centered services to Latinos, the researchers concluded. That recommendation is consistent with findings indicating Latino victims seek aid from sources they trust, such as family and friends, rather than institutions. The study suggests that members of the Latino community may fear engaging with police and other formal institutions due to personal or vicarious experience with bias victimization, including discrimination, by those institutions. The resultant lack of trust in institutions and marginalization can be detrimental for the Latino community, leading to worsened health and quality of life, the researchers noted.

A Large and Varied Latino Community

As of early 2021, the Latino population exceeded 60.6 million U.S. residents, making up 18% of the nation’s population.[2] Previous large-scale studies have shown interpersonal victimization rates (not specifically bias victimization) of Latino community members ranging from 30% to 60%, depending partly on whether a given study focused on partner violence or did not consider the relationship of the person committing the crime to the victim. An earlier study found that Latina women experience a lifetime prevalence victimization rate of 53.6%.[3] Although those rates are not significantly higher than those reported among other racial or ethnic groups, previous scholarship has indicated that Latinos experience a wide range of victimization types.

The investigators reported that previous large-scale studies have tended to regard Latino communities as monolithic. But Latino populations are quite diverse in terms of several variables, including:

  • Immigrant status (about 33% foreign-born)
  • Language use (30% not English proficient)
  • Nation of origin (62% of Mexican origin)
  • Acculturation (meaning how individuals change as a result of contact with other cultures)
  • Enculturation level (meaning retention of one’s culture of origin)

The researchers stated that all of those cultural factors influence victimization experiences, but previous victimization research has largely overlooked them.

Study Design and Methods

The first study (survey wave 1) consisted of 910 Latino adults recruited from Boston, Massachusetts; San Diego, California; and Galveston and Houston, Texas. Participants completed a survey asking about their victimization experiences, mental health, and demographic information. In the second, longitudinal study, measuring change over time, 323 participants from the first wave survey took part in a second wave survey. On average, the second study (survey wave 2) was completed 18 months after the first wave. Of the second-study survey participants, 53 were also interviewed.

A key limitation of the second study was the low retention rate of participants from the first study.

Bias Victimization Experiences Among Latinos

The first study assessed bias-motivated victimization experiences among the Latino population using the initial sample of 910 Latino individuals. The study was conducted in 2019 and focused on:

  • Identifying bias-based victimization experiences that capture a range of bias events, including those that would not be classified as hate crimes (for example, harassment, microaggressions).
  • Developing a broader understanding of the nature and pattern of factors that increase the risk of bias victimization and its impact.

Key findings of the first study included:

  • Bias-based victimization was widespread in the Latino communities surveyed. Over half of participants (52.9%) reported experiencing bias-motivated incidents in their lifetime, and 28% experienced hate crimes in their lifetime.
  • 58.2% of non-immigrant Latinos reported experiencing bias-based victimization in their lifetime, compared with 48.8% of immigrant Latinos.
  • In contrast to lifetime victimization measures, the overall past-year bias victimization rate was 25.6%, with no significant differences across gender, immigrant status, or documented status.
  • Males reported more hate-crime victimization than females both over their lifetimes (32.8% to 24.4%) and in the past year (11.4% to 8%).

The survey data on their face appear to support a conclusion that Latinos with higher socioeconomic status and English language proficiency are at greater risk for bias-based victimization. Notably, however, those findings should be interpreted cautiously because groups with more social resources may be more likely to recognize and report bias-motivated events, according to the study report.

Overall, findings from the first study established a significant association between bias-based victimization and all types of adverse mental health outcomes (that is, anxiety, depression, anger, dissociation). The second study echoed those findings, with the researchers noting that the addition of longitudinal data was critical to discerning the relationship between victimization and psychological distress.

The first study also found that, despite the potentially severe impact of bias-based victimization on mental health, only 18.2% of Latinos who experienced bias-motivated crimes sought help from formal services such as medical providers, victim services providers, law enforcement, or attorneys. Seeking help from or reporting the crime to law enforcement was particularly low (only 8%). In contrast, 68% of Latino victims of bias-motivated victimization sought help from family or friends.

The policy implications of these findings, according to the researchers, include the need to improve identification and promote reporting of bias victimization and improve the formal system response by:

  • Promoting interventions through trusted community-based organizations to facilitate disclosure and reporting of bias victimization to formal authorities.
  • Increasing education and awareness about bias victimization and the rights of individuals within the legal and criminal justice system.

Although the study sample size from the three cities was robust, it was not nationally representative of Latino populations.

Interplay Between Cultural Factors and Various Forms of Victimization

The second study, conducted in 2020, sought a better understanding of the interplay between cultural factors and victimization as they influence Latino victims’ mental health and help-seeking behaviors. Beyond the longitudinal survey component, the investigators conducted interviews to better understand the context of victimization among Latino individuals who had experienced bias victimization.

Key findings from the survey included the following:

Revictimization Patterns Across the Two Study Waves (From Year 1 to Year2)

The overall victimization rate, including bias-based and other types of victimization, in wave 2 was 51.4%, a notable increase from wave 1 (30.8%). The researchers noted, however, that the general increase was primarily driven by bias victimization, which rose from 25.6% to 43.0%. Additionally, 26.8% of those who reported victimization experiences at wave 2 were new victims — that is, they reported no victimization in the one-year preceding wave 1.

The Role of Cultural Factors and other Characteristics in Year-2 Victimization

Among cultural factors, people self-reporting as immigrants had a lower likelihood of reporting any victimization. A self-perceived accent was associated with a higher probability of experiencing any victimization.

The study also found that reporting victimization at wave 1 was associated with a substantial increase in the odds of reporting any victimization at wave 2. On the other hand, reported being a male was associated with decreased odds of victimization at wave 2.

Role of Victimization in Mental Health Outcomes in Year 2

Victimization and acculturation were associated with increased levels of depression and anger at wave 2, while acculturative stress was associated with an increased level of all negative mental health outcomes. Acculturative stress has been defined as the strains associated with adapting to life in the United States, such as financial strain, loss of social networks, and discrimination.[4] Overall, the results suggested that acculturation and acculturative stress are prominent in contributing to negative mental health symptoms.

The Predominance of Informal Help-Seeking Channels

Participants who reported victimization experiences overwhelmingly sought out help from friends and family (96.2%) instead of accessing institutional resources (15.7%).

Insights Into Victimization Experiences

The interviews yielded valuable insights into how participants’ identity impacts their victimization experience and responses to such incidents. The investigators identified major themes describing participants’ Latino identity, help-seeking behaviors, and discrimination experiences.

Identity Alignment - The researchers observed that some Latino participants might have experienced conflicts because they felt removed from their Latino identity or felt as if they had to choose between a Latino identity and an American (that is, U.S.) identity. The identity conflict seemed to create a notion of not belonging -- being “othered” -- among some participants, with implications for their decision whether to seek help, and for their mental health.

Standing Out or Being Identified as Latino - Some participants felt targeted because of their Latino or immigrant identity. Others shared negative encounters because they spoke Spanish or had limited English language proficiency.

Lack of Trust in Authorities – Many participants shared that personal or vicarious discrimination impacted their willingness to engage with authorities and trust those outside of their community, in a variety of contexts. Experiencing discrimination made some participants reluctant to seek help from institutions after victimization or unwilling to engage in everyday activities such as driving. For some, that reluctance can reflect fear of encountering immigration enforcement.

About this Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ awards 2016-V3-GX-0001 and 2017-VF-GX-0005, awarded to Northeastern University. This article is based on the grantee reports “Understanding and Measuring Bias Victimization Against Latinos” (October 2019) by C. Cuevas, A. Farrell, J. McDevitt, S. Zhang, J. Temple, J. Robles, and S. Lockwood, and “Longitudinal Examination of Victimization Experiences of Latinos (LEVEL): Extending the Bias Victimization Study” (March 2021), by the authors identified above and C. Sabina.

Date Published: September 15, 2022