So why wasn't this a problem with immigrant groups fifty or one hundred years ago?
Gang membership happens for a variety of reasons, experts say. The factors include poverty, the need for belonging, protection, excitement and drugs.
One New York City researcher believes immigration itself also is a reason.
In 2002, Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, a research fellow at a criminal justice think tank called the Vera Institute of Justice, wrote that immigration is an additional risk factor for gang membership.
"This is because the children of immigrants are more likely to solely rely on their peers to deal with the stresses of violence and to determine best practices in navigating the city streets," Mateu-Gelabert wrote. "Their parents may not recognize signs of early trouble in their children or be able to draw on past experiences to understand the problems their children are facing."
At Catholic Charities Northern, an agency that helps immigrant families acclimate to life in America, this theory rings true, said Penny Gonzales-Soto, director of Amigas a la Comunidad Immigrant Resource Center.
"We all know you have to get to the parents so they can teach their children," Gonzales-Soto said. She added that parents often don't have the time or resources to really help their kids because they are so busy working to make ends meet.
"So kids are lacking the attention and the structure that they need, that all children need," Gonzales-Soto said. "And who gives them that attention? The gangs."
Mateu-Gelabert followed the social development of 25 first- and second-generation immigrant children from the time they were in seventh grade into their late teenage years. The children were of Dominican descent living in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in New York City.
Mateu-Gelabert said immigration should be understood as a socialization process spanning three generations.
First comes the immigrant parents, who have not been socialized into the new country; then, the second-generation children, who are socialized into the new country through peers, schools and the media; and finally, the third-generation children, who are socialized by their families in a traditional fashion.
The migratory process thus creates a disconnect between the immigrant parents and their children -- parents did not grow up here, so they can't understand what their kids are experiencing. The children lack a support system -- which in their home country might have included an extended family -- and so they turn to gangs.
The Rev. Daniel Principe, a priest at Our Lady of Peace Church in Greeley who recently emigrated from Peru, put it this way:
"El busca otra familia y el busca en la calle."
"He looks for another family, and he looks to the street."
Gonzales-Soto also subscribes to this theory. She and Principe explained that many Latino families who immigrate to Greeley leave behind large extended families who have been their support systems. Suddenly your best friend is thousands of miles away, and people have nowhere to turn. Gangs start to sound like an alternative.
Gangs "feel like family members, and they will do anything for each other -- that's what pulls people in because that's what you expect from a family," Gonzales-Soto said.
She said families should make sure children understand their parents are there for them, no matter what.
"It's the quality of time spent that will help our children understand, 'I can give you what that gang gives you. You don't need to look elsewhere for it, you can have it here in the home.'"
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