In Immigration Debate, Time to 'Drop and Leave' Loaded Language

From ‘illegals’ to ‘anchor babies,’ media warp immigration debate

On the first day of the new Congress, Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa) introduced legislation to end the 14th Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship--or, as he termed it, "closing the 'anchor baby' loophole." King claimed on CNN (1/7/11) that "as many as a million" of these "anchor babies" would flood the country in 2011. At the same time, five states are pursuing their own legislation to deny birth certificates to children born to unauthorized immigrants.

A few months earlier (7/28/10), Sen. Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.) announced on Fox News his intention to sponsor similar legislation in the Senate. "People come here to have babies," he declared. "They come here to drop a child, it's called 'drop and leave.'"

These and similar right-wing anti-immigration campaigns have been advanced by organizations with racist ties like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (Center for New Community) for more than 15 years to little effect. Today, however, they've found a powerful echo chamber in corporate media.

The right-wing media machine has served as the greatest megaphone for these claims. Take Fox's Bill O'Reilly (1/6/11):

Then there are the anchor babies born to illegal aliens on American soil.... Think about it. Do you think the country wanted that when it ratified the 14th Amendment in 1868? Of course not. That amendment was designed to make sure that free slaves got citizenship. Now it's used to encourage foreigners to sneak across our borders to give birth. Thus the Constitution is being misused.

A few months earlier (8/18/10), O'Reilly agreed with his guest Ann Coulter that "we need a ticker for how much 'anchor babies' are costing American taxpayers." Fox and Friends' Steve Doocy (8/4/10) suggested: "Remember [the 14th Amendment] wasn't added until, uh, let's see...1868 to the U.S. Constitution--maybe it's time to go ahead and re-examine it."

Smaller, local papers have also gotten in on the act. The Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligencer Journal/New Era (1/10/11) editorialized in support of the push for legislation to end birthright citizenship:

"Anchor babies" make it possible for illegal aliens to remain in the United States. In other cases, soon-to-be mothers cross the border with the intention of giving birth in America. Once the child is born and issued an American birth certificate, mother and child return to the parent's home country. Called "drop and leave," this strategy ensures that the child, once grown, can come to the U.S. for an education--and he can bring the rest of his family.

Debunking such claims isn't difficult. Noting that "when we contacted Graham's staff, they could not provide any specific data on mothers who 'drop and leave,'" Politifact (8/6/10) determined that immigration research and surveys simply don't support the notion, which they called "inflammatory" and "misleading." Politifact cited, among others, University of Southern California professor Roberto Suro, who says, "All the data suggests that people come here to work," adding: "If having a baby was a significant driving factor in illegal immigration, you would expect to see a higher percentage of women of child-bearing age in the U.S. illegally compared to men of the same age. In fact, just the opposite is the case."

Robin Templeton in the Nation (7/29/10) detailed the many obstacles families would face in trying to gain citizenship--after waiting 21 years for their child to come of age--and pointed out that tens of thousands of children with U.S. citizenship have seen their parents deported, forcing them to grow up either without their families or in exile in a country they've never known.

The Nation and other outlets have called for an end to the use of the language, as mean-spirited as it is baseless. A strongly worded Colorado Springs Gazette editorial (1/8/11) denounced the phrase:

If a friend, neighbor or colleague utters the term "anchor baby," consider a polite confrontation in defense of baby citizens. Tell the person it is a cruel and judgemental label, assuming the worst of men and women who migrate to this country and make the sacrifice of producing a child. Explain that it's an attack on the Constitution.... Just don't act like it's OK to hear or say something so mean as "anchor baby."

Some rejected the term years ago. The Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn, in a particularly refreshing column (8/20/06), agreed with an immigrant rights activist that his previous use of the term "anchor baby" makes such children "sound non-human" and is used by immigration foes "to spark resentment against immigrants."

"To me, that's good enough reason to regret having used it and to decide not to use it in the future," wrote Zorn.

But most simply skirt the issue, noting but not condemning the language--as when CNN's Kiran Chetry and Time editor-at-large Belinda Luscombe mused inanely about the "top 10 buzzwords of 2010" (American Morning, 12/28/10):

Luscombe: "Anchor babies," also another one. A baby is a fragile thing, an anchor is a robust, heavy thing. You put those together and you have a whole new concept.
Chetry: That's right.

Of course, "anchor baby" isn't the only problem. When you're reporting on the issue with a headline like "Pa. Republican Would Deny Citizenship to Illegals' Kids" (Philadelphia Daily News, 1/6/11), the damage has been done.

ColorLines points out that use of the word "illegals" increased four-fold from 2009 to 2010. The digital news site and its publisher, the Applied Research Center, have launched a campaign calling on media organizations to "Drop the I-Word." They make the same case that the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has been trying to get across to journalists for years--that "people are not illegal," and that such terminology is dehumanizing and racially charged.

Better coverage requires more than avoiding particular words. At the New York Times, where "anchor baby" is never used without scare quotes, reporter Marc Lacey opened a front-page article with an evocative scene (1/5/11):

Of the 50 or so women bused to this border town on a recent morning to be deported back to Mexico, Inez Vasquez stood out. Eight months pregnant, she had tried to trudge north in her fragile state, even carrying scissors with her in case she gave birth in the desert and had to cut the umbilical cord.
Lacey explained a few paragraphs later that "immigration hardliners describe a wave of migrants like Ms. Vasquez stepping across the border in the advanced stages of pregnancy to have what are dismissively called 'anchor babies.'" He then acknowledged that "the reality at this stretch of the border is more complex.... Women like Ms. Vasquez, who was preparing for a desert delivery, are rare." Why, then, did she lead off the article?
The penultimate paragraph revealed the key information: "Scholars who have studied migration say it is the desire for better-paying jobs, not a passport for their children, that is the main motivator for people to leave their homes for the United States."
And yet Lacey and his editors at the Times saw fit to frame their article with the rare anecdote that immigration hardliners wish us all to believe is the norm. Those hardliners know that their fight to revoke birthright citizenship has little chance of success, given the difficulty of overturning Constitutional amendments, but the push gives their restrictionist agenda a higher profile, thanks to a willing media.

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