Among the many derogatory labels that have been deployed by anti-immigrant activists to shape the public debate over immigration, few are as ugly or as potent as the term "anchor baby." Used to describe a child of undocumented immigrants born in the United States and thus entitled to American citizenship, it's a nasty turn of phrase that simultaneously dehumanizes a child and impugns the integrity of the parents, who are presumed to have jumped the border just before birth so that they might benefit from their baby's U.S. citizenship. For demagogues, "anchor babies" are a very serious issue -- one California anti-immigration activist told the Los Angeles Times in 2009: "It's invasion by birth canal."
It's long been understood, however, that the "anchor baby" phenomenon was a myth. Indeed, a child born to non-citizen parents can not sponsor them for citizenship until he or she turns 21, and even then there are legal hurdles aplenty. But the term has persisted in the media as state legislatures and even some congressional Republicans have pushed "anchor baby" legislation aimed at denying citizenship to children of illegal immigrants, citing dubious legal interpretations of the 14th Amendment. Newly released data, however, confirms what we already suspected was the truth: "anchor babies" are a myth.
A Pew Hispanic Center report released yesterday found that of all the undocumented immigrants who became parents between March 2009 and March 2010, 91 percent arrived in the U.S. before 2007. Put simply, those immigrants came here for reasons other than quickie-citizenship for their offspring. As The American Prospect's Adam Serwer wrote: "The data suggests a really shocking conclusion: People come to the U.S. to get jobs, not to have babies."
That's not going to stop the activists who popularized the term from using it -- they have their agendas, after all -- and it's not likely to disappear from Fox News, where just last month Bill O'Reilly decried the "misuse" of the Constitution by "foreigners" who "sneak across our borders to give birth." [The O'Reilly Factor, 1/6/11] But the new data should impel the more responsible corners of the press to cease the blithe repetitions of the term and allowing demagogues to tip the rhetorical debate in their favor.