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):
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:
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:
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):
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):