The term “anchor baby” has dominated political conversation this summer, as 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls directly call for an end to birthright citizenship. The phrase has been used to refer to child born to non-citizen parents who are subjective to birthright citizenship by virtue of being born within the U.S. due to the citizenship clause under the 14th Amendment. Two candidates in particular are at the forefront of the controversy, of course: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and reality TV star/mogul Donald Trump.
Earlier last week, Bush clarified his comments by suggesting that his use of the term was targeted not at Latinos, but Asians specifically citing “birth tourism,” in which Chinese women who pay agencies to transport them to the US and return home with a child bearing US citizenship. “What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed, where there’s organized efforts, and frankly, it’s more related to Asian people coming into our country, having children in that organized efforts, taking advantage of a noble concept with birthright citizenship,” Bush has told reporters during campaign stop in McAllen, Texas.
Meanwhile Trump alleges that his concern is that the government will shoulder the rearing of undocumented immigrants’ children. When talking to reporters in Derry, New Hampshire, Trump said, “Here’s what’s happening. A woman is going to have a baby. They wait on the border. Just before the baby, they come over to the border, they have the baby in the United States. We now take care of that baby, Social Security, Medicare, education.”
Both candidates have used the term to suggest this represents a widespread problem in the United States. Yet in 2010, only 9 percent of children were born to 1 or 2 parents who are undocumented residents of the country. The term “anchor baby” has roots dating back three decades. Time reports that the phrase can be traced back to 1980s in which it was derive from “anchor child” of Vietnamese children whose families sent them abroad to the U.S., with the hope that they could secure enough money and then sponsor relatives from their home country for citizenship. In the mid-2000s, “anchor baby” took on a new meaning, with proponents of strict immigration laws used the phrase to strength their arguments. Conservative outlets amplified the term and gave it mainstream usage.
Meanwhile, Bush and Trump have defended their use of anchor baby, citing the public and media is engaged in “political correctness.”
This cultural moment is reminiscent one that gave birth to another offensive, fear driven term: “Crack baby,” which gained prominence during the 1980s and 1990s that described children who were exposed to prenatal cocaine use, a trend that coincided with the infamous and ineffective “War on Drugs.” Limited scientific studies in the 1980s led to predictions that a generation will live a crippling life, and that “crack babies” would deplete society’s social resources. The news media covered stories about newborns who allegedly suffered severe and permanent health damage ranging from premature birth weight to infant death syndrome because their mothers ingested cocaine during pregnancy and 375,000 “crack babies” were said to be born yearly in the US beginning in the late 1980s.
Yet, researchers discovered that the “crack baby” extrapolations were exacerbated by the news media. At the turn of the 21st century, found that since the mid-1980s, up to 1 million children born in the United States are estimated to have cocaine-using mothers. After nearly 25 years of research, researchers found that while cocaine use may impact pregnancy, that there were no significant indicators that determined long-term behavioral, developmental and intellectual health between full-term babies exposed to cocaine and those who were not.
Racist and offensive rhetoric like “anchor baby” and “crack baby” are used to instill social fear, fear that society would have to become responsible for children birthed from unauthorized immigrants and cocaine-using mothers. It’s an attempt to villainized people of color, particular the mothers of this marginalized communities, as mischievous, undeserving, manipulating the system and exhausting the government’s resources. Furthermore, it’s insulting for children of the African Diaspora to be intentionally removed from the conversation of birthright citizenship or more broadly the immigration topic, when the impetus of citizenship resulted from freed Black slaves, Black servicemen in the Union Army and Navy, and court cases like Dred Scott v. Sandford contesting the expansion of American citizenship.
Bush and Trump’s unflinching refusal to apologize for this racist-baiting is reprehensible. Placing vulnerable children at the center of political debate and focusing on babies as emblematic of repugnant groups and troubling communities is dangerous, particularly when we live in a country where we recognize children as society’s future.
N’Kosi Oates is a graduate student at Yale University.