For Saturday: A Very Long and Possibly Tiresome Conversation About Whether "Anchor Baby" Is a Slur

Yesterday morning, I asked exactly why the term "anchor baby" is considered by many to be offensive. As penance, last night I waded through lots of comments to that post—a few of which were actually on topic!—as well as some email and Twitter and other articles on the subject. So here's the follow-up.

At the end of this post I'll offer a tentative conclusion, but first I have a few comments. Before even that, though, here's a nickel paraphrase of the various answers I came across:

  1. The term was invented by anti-immigration activists, who meant it as a slur. So it's a slur.
  2. Latinos consider it a slur, so it's a slur.
  3. It implies that babies of immigrants have a kind of second-class citizenship. You and I are "real" US citizens while others are mere grown-up anchor babies.
  4. It dehumanizes both mother and baby by turning them into a label for political purposes.
  5. It implies that Mexican mothers are coldly calculating parasites. Like the Reagan-era "welfare queen" slur, it suggests they see the child merely as a legal boon, not someone to love and cherish, as the rest of us do.
  6. In reality, this hardly ever happens. It's basically a lie intended to whip up anti-immigrant fervor, and this makes it offensive.

A couple of comments before I wade into each of these. First, I'm obviously diving into an ongoing conversation that I haven't followed in any depth. I don't pretend to any expertise on this topic. Second, we're talking here only about Mexican/Latino immigrants, not the well-documented "birth tourism" of (mostly) well-to-do Asian families. That said, here are my comments on each of the six items above.

  1. I don't think I buy this. The etymology of the term probably goes back to the "anchor children" of the post-Vietnam era, and at the time it seems to have been primarily descriptive, not meant as a slur.
  2. This is the kind of explanation that conservatives like to sneer at, but it's perfectly sensible as long as it's not abused. Who's better placed to know if something is hurtful than the person it's aimed at? That said, there still needs to be some reason they consider it hurtful. It can't just be a case of hypersensitivity. We'll get to that in a minute.
  3. I saw this one a lot, but I have to say it always had the ring of something cut-and-pasted from somewhere else to help fill up a column. It was never really explained, just asserted, and always using suspiciously similar language.
  4. I don't buy this at all. We use labels all the time. It's human nature. I'm a "baby boomer," for example. Is this offensive? Does it imply that my parents were mere automatons who pumped out babies just because all their friends were pumping out babies? There are thousands of labels we use for other people, and they aren't automatically offensive or demeaning. It depends on the label.
  5. Now we're getting somewhere. I find this, by far, the most persuasive argument. However, it depends a lot on whether there's any truth to this charge. Keep reading.
  6. This one is....tricky. It also turns out to be heart of the argument, I think.

So: do anchor babies actually exist? Or is this merely a myth? This one gets a bunch of bullet points all its own:

  • The notion that having a baby in the US helps the parents gain citizenship is legally specious. The child can't sponsor them for citizenship until age 21, and even then it normally takes another decade before they qualify. It's unlikely that Mexican immigrants are having babies just on the chance that they'll gain US citizenship three decades later.
  • However, in practice it might help parents stay in the US. Judges are probably less likely to deport parents who have a baby that can't be legally deported along with them.
  • On a related note, parents might do this not to anchor themselves to the US, but to anchor the child. In other words, they want a better life for their child, and the best way to guarantee that is to give birth on US soil.
  • All that said, we're still left with an unanswered question: how common is it for parents to illegally cross the border solely (or primarily) for the purpose of ensuring that their child will be a US citizen? As near as I can tell, there's basically no research on this point at all—and even if there were, it would probably be inconclusive. Parents who immigrate illegally almost certainly have a whole host of reasons for doing so: a better life for themselves, a better life for their children, money to send home to family, etc. How can you possibly tease out just how important US citizenship is in this jumble of motives?
  • And now we get to the end. If anchor babies are basically a myth, then the term is obviously a slur. There's no reason to make up this name for something that never (or very rarely) happens except as a way of demeaning a class of people and appealing to crude xenophobia. But if it does happen, then it makes sense to have a term for it. Otherwise you can't even talk about the subject sensibly. And if that's the case, there's nothing inherently insulting about "anchor baby" as a descriptive term.

I don't have a firm conclusion here. Sorry. At this point, I guess I'd say that it's up to the anti-immigration folks to demonstrate that anchor babies actually exist in any meaningful numbers. They've had plenty of time, but so far don't seem to have come up with anything. So put up or shut up, folks. Unless you've got some evidence that this is a real (and common) phenomenon, it's a slur.

Finally, I get why some lefties find this whole conversation amusing. Privileged middle-class white guy just doesn't get it, and has to write a thousand words of argle-bargle to understand something that's obvious to anyone with a clue. Sure. But look: you have to interrogate this stuff or you just end up as a tribal hack. And since this is a blog, and I'm an analytical kind of person, what you get is a brain dump translated into English and organized to try to make sense. It can seem naive to see it put down in words like this, but the truth is that we all think this way to some degree or another.

POSTSCRIPT: On Twitter, Frank Koughan good-naturedly suggests that it should be a rule of blogging that if you ask readers a question, you post an update so that everyone doesn't have to wade through 300 comments. Fair enough. But this post is an example of why I don't always do this: it can turn into a lot of work! Sometimes there's a simple answer in comments, but that's rare. Usually about 95 percent of the comments are off topic and the other 5 percent all disagree with each other. So it's not as easy as it sounds.