"Anchor babies" are a myth. Let's just get that right off. The image of a pregnant South American woman -- in some tales, she is eight-months along -- literally being dropped over the Southwestern border fence, which is what this offensive term can conjure, is the figment of an anti-immigrant imagination bent on overturning decades of settled law, if not the Constitution itself. What's more, the term is a racial slur. It's an ugly, derogatory, mean-spirited, racist jab directed at children for the imagined "crime" of being born in America to non-citizen parents. Some have said the slur is comparable to the N-word.
But in an article reporting that Chinese women are coming to the United States to give birth so their children will be U.S. citizens, NBC News used the term no less than nine times. The piece by Beijing-based journalist Ed Flanagan, headlined: "The trials and tribulations of China's 'anchor babies,' " began:
The question of children born of illegal immigrants -- so-called "anchor babies" -- was re-injected back into America's national discourse late last year when a U.S. study found that an estimated 340,000 of 4.3 million babies born in the United States in 2008 -- or every 1 in 15 -- had an illegal-immigrant parent.
While much of the debate -- and a healthy dose of vitriol -- was focused on immigrants of Hispanic background, stories of upper-class Chinese women flying to the United States in style and staying at private clinics to have their babies to take advantage of citizenship laws soon began to appear in the news cycle.
With them, a new breed of anchor baby was born, and their very existence changed the dynamics of the controversy completely.
While Hispanic anchor babies might be stereotypically viewed as coming from poverty and consequently destined to be heavily reliant on government social services, the parents of Chinese anchor babies were wealthy Chinese who legally paid their own way to the United States, freely spent money at American stores, and generally intended to return back to China soon after giving birth.
The article went on to report that the "motivations of these families are far-ranging: from a desire to provide better educational and travel opportunities to their children in an increasingly competitive and international job market, to a clever way to skirt China's one-child policy, to a desire to one day enjoy the American lifestyle and all the benefits -- both social and economic -- that entails." It further explained that while an American passport would someday provide the child with certain benefits once in the United States, it was far from being an asset in mainland China.
But what could have been an interesting and objective look at what Chinese families go through when they decide to come to America was marred by the numerous times "anchor baby" was thrown around.
Moreover, despite its repeated use of the slur, the article stressed that the women "generally intend to return back to China soon after giving birth," and that sponsoring their parents once they turn 21 will be "a difficult case to make":
Chinese babies born in America will eventually find themselves subjected to the same civic responsibilities that other citizens must face: taxes. After they turn 15 years old, Chinese anchor babies will be expected to pay state and federal taxes. While the consequences of not paying taxes vary from state to state, it is clear that the benefits that they would be entitled to had they paid would not be fully afforded to them.
Also of particular interest to Chinese families of anchor babies is that while their children will one day be able to sponsor their the parents American citizenship when the children turn 21, it will be a difficult case to make to immigration officers about their suitability if their offspring have not paid any taxes into the system.
Time recently published a story on "why Chinese moms want to give birth on U.S. soil." The New York Times also wrote about Chinese moms in a March article on "maternity tourism." NPR did the same in November 2010, reporting on the "increasing number of mainland Chinese women who are taking advantage of a loophole in American law to travel to the United States to give birth." That same year, The Washington Post reported on the phenomenon, saying that "for many Chinese, a U.S. passport nevertheless remains a powerful lure." Not one of these articles debased their subjects or skewed their arguments with derisive reference to "anchor babies." (The Times, however, later used "anchor babies" in a June article.)
In a column calling upon "all fair-minded people to stand against this and all forms of hate speech," media consultant James E. Garcia warned that "[i]nherently repugnant terms have a way of entering common parlance if left unchallenged." He wrote:
I know there are some who let anchor baby roll off of their tongues without a single bigoted impulse. Inherently repugnant terms have a way of entering common parlance if left unchallenged. The phrase "trailer trash," a slur against White, uneducated poor people, comes to mind.
If you're one of those people who haven't given much thought to how someone labeled an anchor baby might react to it, I forgive you. Now, please stop saying it.
"Sound arguments don't need loaded language," wrote Eric Zorn in 2006, in an apology for using the term. Indeed, illegal immigration is a political issue already fraught with enough vitriol that media outlets shouldn't present it in such a biased manner. Using the term in a debate about immigration or birthright citizenship serves no other purpose but "play to coarse racial and gender stereotypes," as Sherrilyn Ifill argued.
She continued: "It both demonizes Mexican mothers, who allegedly use their newborns as tickets to welfare and other citizenship benefits, and dehumanizes their children as just so much immigration baggage." The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has said: "The coverage the press provides can help or it can hinder. ... Using terms like 'illegal alien,' 'illegals' as a noun, and 'anchor babies' is dehumanizing and by their bias and loaded nature, eliminate any semblance of fairness when covering the [immigration] debate."
The term, which, according to Arizona State University professor LaDawn Haglund, originated from "anchor children" -- "used in reference to children of Vietnamese [immigrants] after the Vietnam war" -- is known to be offensive. It's pejorative. It's vulgar, unfair, and defamatory. But media outlets, including Fox News, persist in using it. Why?