The term “anchor baby” pops up every so often in the immigration reform debate but has failed so far to gain traction beyond the fringe on the right. That may change if President Obama goes ahead with an executive order that is expected to grant legal status and work permits to some 5 million undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for an extended period of time and who have a close relative, namely a child, who is an American citizen.
“This is about keeping parents with their U.S. citizen children,” says Frank Sharry, founder of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice. “And yes, that would open the door to Republicans saying it’s executive amnesty for anchor babies.”
This week Diane Guerrero, who plays a tough Latina on the hit Netflix show Orange Is the New Black, revealed in a Los Angles Times op-ed her story of growing up the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented immigrants. “She’s an anchor baby,” Sharry says, embracing Guerrero as the true face of what until now has been a derogatory term.
Guerrero’s parents came to the United States illegally from Colombia with her older brother, then had her. At age 14, she came home and found the lights off. “Her parents had been detained and would be deported, and she was left alone at age 14,” says Sharry. “That is what the administration is trying to address. It’s not about people coming here to drop babies so they can collect welfare benefits.”
Roy Beck, founder of the anti-amnesty group NumbersUSA, says: “Defenders of illegal immigration say the term is derogatory, but the fact is almost the entire argument for executive amnesty (another buzzword) is that millions of illegal immigrants have U.S. citizen children. So these children who are born here and given U.S. citizenship are the anchor holding their illegal immigrant parents here—and soon to be allowing them to stay.”
“Dreamers” brought to the United States as young children are “compelling cases,” Beck says, “but it’s not a compelling case to say, ‘My ties with my children are so weak, I’m going to abandon them if you won’t let me stay.’ That’s blackmail and extortion.” He says children should go with their parents, and he cites a happiness index that says people in Mexico are happier overall than people in the United States.
Among the statistics Beck cites to bolster his argument is the 45 million foreign visitors who come to the United States every year. Some overstay their visas and some, he says, possibly arrive pregnant. Obama just liberalized visa rules with China, increasing the likelihood that more people will come to the United States, and perhaps have children, who would receive birthright citizenship simply because they are born on U.S. soil. “Birth tourism,” principally on the West Coast from China, is an ongoing practice among wealthier Chinese, who come to the United States to give birth as a long-term investment for a child’s schooling or a future way of life.
Birthright citizenship really rankles Beck, who calls it “something that came out of the Middle Ages, it’s arcane.” When he’s reminded that it’s in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, he says it was placed there to confer citizenship on the children of slaves and that it wasn’t meant for all comers. He would like Congress to vote it down and the ACLU or some other liberal organization to take it to the Supreme Court and let the court provide its interpretation. Canada and the United States are the only industrialized countries that retain birthright citizenship.
Though rarely talked about openly, it’s at the crux of the debate, says Beck, because in another 10 or 15 years, there will be “another big movement for an amnesty for all the people who came to the country illegally and had babies.” Whether he’s correct or not, the picture he paints of generation after generation piggybacking on their children stokes the fires of nativism that are already burning brightly in the country.
“Under our Constitution, children born in the United States are U.S. citizens. No exceptions,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement to the Daily Beast. “To call children who are our fellow citizens ‘anchor babies’ is despicable and mendacious…Immigrants are not livestock that procreate on a calendar; they are people who come for the chance to work or to live their lives free of persecution. Administrative action that would bring immigrants into our society is supported by the faith, business, and civil rights community; a few extremists won’t derail that coalition of conscience.”
Beck’s idea to avoid a constitutional confrontation and find a compromise would be for Obama simply to announce he won’t deport anybody unless they commit a felony, and that’s it, nothing further, no work permits. “Work permits would encourage them to rush the border,” he says. Even if another amnesty would take 20 to 30 years? “It’s not a perfect life,” he concedes. “But they’re rational human beings. If it weren’t worth it, they wouldn’t come. You’ve got to make the cost of breaking the law high enough so they don’t come.”
The White House is aware of the danger of inviting a baby boom if executive action isn’t framed carefully. Every immigration proposal, including the Senate bill passed last year with Republican support, has cutoff dates, so nobody can enter tomorrow and benefit. People with U.S. citizen kids who were born before the date of the announcement will qualify, and they will make up the bulk of the some 5 million likely to be affected by Obama’s executive order.
The president is trying to deal with the unintended consequences of years of benign neglect, and in so doing he may well plant the seeds for another reform for a future president to tackle. But for now it seems any policy fallout is secondary to the politics and what executive action might mean for a Democratic president and the coalition his party must hold.
This is a fight that immigration reform advocates believe is a loser for the GOP. “When immigrants hear ‘anchor babies,’ they hear ‘they hate us,’” says Sharry. “It doesn’t have the same charge as the N-word, but you would never say it in polite company. And if Republicans want to mainstream an offensive term for people who fall in love and have children here, they will permanently brand themselves.”