The GOP presidential campaign kicked off with real estate mogul Donald Trump’s incendiary remarks about Mexican immigrants being rapists and drug dealers, and quickly evolved to endorsements of changing the Constitution to strip millions of immigrants of their citizenship. Now, presidential candidates have a new angle on the immigration debate: Targeting the children of foreign-born parents as so-called “anchor babies.”
The term “anchor babies” has long been relegated to the realm of ultra-conservative arguments against allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country. But recently, the phrase has been widely used by Republican lawmakers as part of a clarion call to repeal the 14th Amendment, which grants automatic citizenship to every child born on U.S. soil, regardless of the immigration status of their parents.
Here’s what you need to know about this emerging debate:
Where Did This Term Come From?
Today, “anchor baby” conjures up the image of a pregnant Latino woman who (with superhuman strength) hops over a 20-feet tall border wall while deep in labor pains, and gives birth right at America’s border edge, victorious over her family’s claim to U.S. citizenship.
But as the book Race and Racism in the United States: An Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic pointed out, the term was first used to describe children of Vietnamese immigrants who were escaping conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. The idea at the time was that children would be dropped, “like an anchor” in the United States so that it would be unlikely for the child’s family to leave. The metaphor would also allow anchor babies to form a chain migration to allow children to sponsor other immediate family members.
Since the early 2000s, the term was “used almost exclusively on extreme right-wing and anti-immigrant sites such as vdare.com,” primarily to oppose undocumented immigrants, a 2011 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication study found. By 2006, Republican lawmakers used the term while trying to pass two anti-immigration bills through the House and Senate.
Why Advocates Find It Offensive
Much like the “i-word” — otherwise known as any variation of the term “illegal immigrant” — the use of the term “anchor babies” is widely considered to be racist and dehumanizing. It implies that undocumented immigrants are intentionally having children in the United States so that they can also one day gain citizenship.
Advocates believe that the term “demeans both parent and child.” Mary Giovagnoli, the Director of the Immigration Policy Center, once wrote in 2011 that it should never be acceptable to use “anchor baby” to describe a U.S. citizen.
“The sting of this term is real,” Raul Reyes, a USA Today contributor and attorney, wrote in CNN. “Calling someone an ‘anchor baby’ strips away their humanity and judges them based on a perception of their parents’ immigration status.”
In 2011, the American Heritage Dictionary revised its definition of “anchor baby” to note its offensive nature. A 2013 memo from the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative organization, suggested that lawmakers should avoid using the phrase “anchor baby,” along with “illegals” or “aliens,” when addressing immigrants.
The Current Political Controversy
Nonetheless, multiple Republican presidential candidates have recently used the term “anchor baby” to criticize children born in the United States to undocumented parents, who may one day have a better chance at deriving citizenship benefits to become American citizens themselves.
After reporters pressed Trump and Bush on their decision to use the term this week, asking whether they are aware that the term is offensive, both candidates pushed back. Trump responded, “You mean it’s not politically correct, and yet everybody uses it? …I’ll use the word anchor baby.” The former Florida governor said, “Do you have a better term? You give me a better term and I’ll use it.”
In response, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted, “They’re called babies.”
Now, other GOP candidates are being pressed about where they stand. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told Fox News on Thursday that he’s “happy to use” the term to describe U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has taken a softer stance. When asked about the term “anchor babies” on Thursday, he replied, “Those are human beings. And ultimately, they are people. They are not just statistics. They are human beings with stories.”
‘Anchor Babies’ Are Mostly A Myth Anyway
The idea that women come to the country so that they can “drop and leave” American citizens is hardly based in reality. A 2011 Pew study found that 350,000 children were born to at least one unauthorized-immigrant parent in 2009, but that 61 percent of those parents arrived in the U.S. before 2004, 30 percent arrived from 2004 and 2007, and only 9 percent arrived from 2008 and 2010.
What’s more, it would be a “long con” type of situation since citizen children can’t sponsor parents until they turn 21. A 2010 Politifact article pointed out that parents must return home for ten years before applying to come in if they were ever undocumented, so “having a baby to secure citizenship for its parents is an extremely long-term, and uncertain, process.”
Having a U.S. citizen children isn’t a guarantee that families won’t be visited by immigration officials. Both a legal immigrant grandmother and a 11-year-old told ThinkProgress earlier this year that immigration authorities made unannounced home visits because they were looking for undocumented criminals in their building.
And U.S. citizen children aren’t a guaranteed talisman to protect undocumented parents from deportation. Between 2010 and 2012, nearly 23 percent of all deportations, or more than 200,000, were issued for parents with citizen children. As a case in point, ThinkProgress spoke with Andres, a U.S. citizen 10-year-old whose undocumented father was deported four years ago. “He used to help me with my homework and to understand the lesson and my homework,” Andres said last year. “Right now I don’t have his help so my grades are going down. I want my father back.”