"Touching or kissing a kid may be something natural in Latin America. Here in the States, it can be seen as sexual abuse," said Alison Renteln, author of The Cultural Defence.

Her book recounts hundred of stories of immigrants who violated US laws by practicing their own customs.

"For many immigrants, living in America is a cultural balancing act," the associate professor of political science at the University of Southern California told AFP.

"Touching or kissing a kid may be something natural in Latin America. Here in the States it can be seen as sexual abuse"

Alison Renteln,
author 

"They struggle to preserve their native customs while conforming to laws of this country."

"The owner of the Chinese live-animal food shop doesn't get it. Why was she cited for selling live chickens when the Italian restaurant across the street boils dozens of live lobsters every day?"

Growing diversity

The Cultural Defence says Asians get into trouble most frequently, followed by Latinos. It just happens that Latinos and Asians are expected to triple their numbers here by 2050, while the numbers of Americans of European descent could be halved, according to the most recent US census.

In Yemen, qat is legal; in the US,
it is a controlled substance

That is, Latinos are expected to increase from 35 million to 103 million. The 11 million Asians in the United States today will grow to 33 million.

Yet in a country that prides itself on the richness and diversity of its immigration, there is no legal framework for addressing the problem, Renteln said. She gives hundreds of examples in her book of the unexpected rigidity of US laws, especially when it comes to drugs.

"A man from Yemen is equally mystified. He was arrested for chewing qat leaves, which yield an effect comparable to drinking three espressos," Renteln said. "Qat leaves, which are chewed like tobacco, are considered a controlled substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration."

She said a number of immigrants have been arrested for using the same leaves, which back home are culturally required for social gatherings and celebrations.

"In many instances, defendants coming from Kenya, Somalia and Yemen are astonished to find that the leaves are regarded as illegal drugs."

Basic rights

Then, there is cockfighting, a pastime for many Latinos, but illegal in most US states, a felony in many.

Cockfighting is illegal in most US
states and a felony in many

"The right to your culture is a basic human right," she said. "Courts should be open to hear these kind of arguments.

"People may act in ways that seem totally out of line but make sense when you understand their customs and background.

"Although there is no official 'cultural defence' in any legal system, courts often are left to decide whether a person's culture can offer an explanation of behavior," said Renteln.

"Yet it is rare that a judge takes one's customs and beliefs into account in criminal cases."