When President Donald Trump announced his plans to end automatic birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented migrants on October 30, social media lit up with arguments over presidential power, the history of the 14th Amendment, and the pros and cons of birthright citizenship in pluralistic societies. Journalists characterized Trump’s announcement as a last-minute ploy to fan the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment right before the midterm elections.
Within this mass of discourses, a phrase resurfaced with a long and complex history: “the anchor baby problem.” Referring to the narrative that migrant women purposefully give birth within American borders to vicariously reap the benefits of the US tradition of birthright citizenship, pundits claimed that the executive order was not only necessary, but constitutionally correct. The persuasiveness of their messaging relies on the cultural cache of the “anchor baby” narrative, which portrays migrant motherhood as a crime, casting the children of migrants as what legal historian Mae Ngai calls “alien citizens.” The rhetoric of “alien citizens” has had dire consequences, leading to the denial of birth certificates to migrant women, the revoking of passports, and the deportation of US citizens. Given the material consequences of this language, it is imperative that we combat the “anchor baby” narrative.
A number of researchers and lawyers have combatted the narrative by refuting the factual existence of the “anchor baby” problem and defending the constitutional soundness of birthright citizenship. As a researcher who studies citizenship rhetoric in the United States, however, I have seen these refutations do little to counteract the spread of the term — or its policy implications — in mainstream culture. The idea of the “anchor baby” persists because of a powerful narrative that is deeply-rooted in history. To challenge this myth, we have to understand how it developed as part of anti-welfare activism and the assumptions about citizenship that it represents. Only then can we can work towards developing new narratives about migration and reconsider the importance of “citizenship” to defining who belongs in the United States.
The Evolution of the ‘Anchor Baby’
The use of citizenship reform to police migrant women’s reproductive bodies predates our current wave of anti-immigration sentiment. In 1866, long before the term “anchor baby” gained currency, the authors of the 14thAmendment’s citizenship clause fretted about migrant women from China having citizen children. To that end, members of Congress advocated for adding additional language to make the amendment more restrictive. This fear continued into the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which specifically targeted Chinese women. The Acts restricted marriage between Chinese immigrants and banned many Chinese women from migrating to the US in order to keep them from having children on US soil. In this way, citizenship and immigration laws geared towards restricting migrant women’s family-making form a large part of the history of racist eugenics in the United States. Even after the Supreme Court upheld the principle of birthright citizenship in the 1898 case US v. Wong Kim Ark, fears about migrant children persisted in anti-immigrant discourse.
It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that journalists first used the term “anchor baby” and “anchor child” to describe child refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. As I have traced elsewhere, the term developed its current meaning when John Tanton, the founder of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), began employing the term in his quarterly journal The Social Contract to describe the US-born children of undocumented migrants. In 1996, pundit Peter Brimelow helped popularize this connotation of the phrase in his bestselling anti-immigrant treatise, AlienNation. Reinforcing this trend, authors affiliated with Tanton used the term in an anthology to describe the “problem” of undocumented migration. In addition to its circulation in conservative punditry, mainstream books like Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We helped contribute to the wider use of the phrase. Likewise, Peter Schuck and Rogers Smith’s Citizenship Without Consent helped add academic legitimacy to arguments against birthright citizenship by advocating a restrictive reading of the 14th Amendment.
The term’s mainstream use grew alongside a resurgence of anti-immigration activism that focused on migrant Latina women’s reproduction. During the mid-1990s, the anti-immigrant rhetoric supporting California’s “Save Our State” referendum and the national Welfare Reform Act of 1996 mobilized the figure of the “anchor baby,” claiming that Latina migrants were having children in the United States in order to receive welfare benefits. Indeed, supporters of both of these legal measures constructed Latina migrants and their children as overly reliant on public resources. Depicting Latina migrants’ reproduction as harmful to the nation extended the racist “welfare queen” narrative, leading to increased popular support for welfare reform programs throughout the 1990s. The overt focus on migrant mothers and their citizen children led to a series of legal proposals in other states that attempted to deny prenatal care to migrant women and bar their children from state benefits.
Meanwhile, the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause itself has been reinterpreted as a vehicle for welfare fraud. As Peter Brimelow put it in Alien Nation, “unquestionably, the largest loophole in welfare-eligibility provisions… is the birthright-citizenship provision of the Fourteenth Amendment.” More recently, Pat Buchanan referred to the prevailing interpretation of birthright citizenship as the “anchor baby racket,” while the hosts of Fox News morning show Fox & Friends outright called the 14th Amendment “the ‘anchor baby’ Amendment.” In these contexts, birthright citizenship is recast from a practice rooted in US and British history to a welfare scheme in need of a solution. In this way, both the “welfare queen” and the “anchor baby” narratives work in tandem to advance racist policies targeting women of color’s use of resources without actually talking about race.
Changing Public Narratives about Race and Citizenship
What began as a part of white supremacist media culture has, over three decades, become part of mainstream presidential rhetoric. The persistence of the “anchor baby” narrative poses a significant problem for the future of citizenship in the United States. Using similar rhetoric, anti-immigration advocates in both Ireland and the Dominican Republic have already passed laws banning the children of undocumented migrants from obtaining birthright citizenship. If we keep seeing the campaign to limit birthright citizenship as a fringe rightwing issue, then we will end up with similar legislation.
It might seem like the best way to turn the “anchor baby” narrative on its head would be to argue for firm distinctions between parent and child. After all, birthright citizenship entails that lineage has nothing to do with whether someone is or is not a citizen. According to US law, if you are born within US jurisdiction, you are a US citizen. However, many lawyers and politicians have already made this argument, to no avail. As someone who studies rhetoric, I want to encourage us to think beyond refuting the facts and towards changing public narratives about reproduction and citizenship.
First, because there is such a long history of policing migrant women’s reproductive bodies in this country, migrant rights activists should consider connecting their goals to the broader project of reproductive justice. Sister Song co-founder Loretta Ross sees reproductive justice as a holistic movement for access to the resources that people need to feel empowered over their reproductive health. This includes the ability to seek refuge in order to parent in a safe environment or to migrate in search of better employment. The “anchor baby problem” is intrinsically connected in anti-immigrant discourse, and activists need to work to ensure that this does not continue to encroach upon migrant women’s access to asylum status or to healthcare.
In addition to joining reproductive justice to migrant rights activism, the “anchor baby” narrative can be contested by interrogating the construct of citizenship itself. Birthright citizenship provides firm protection against having a permanent racialized class of people who are not quite citizens and not quite foreigners. However, some compelling critiques of birthright citizenship argue that it can be just as unfair as citizenship based on lineage. For instance, I grew up with two brothers who were only separated by two years. One was a citizen and one was undocumented. The citizen could take International Baccalaureate classes, could pay in-state tuition for college, and could generally move around freely without the fear of deportation. The other brother was deported back to Guanajuato, Mexico after driving without a tail light in 2007. What makes these two men different? Nothing. They went to the same schools, worked at the same pizza restaurant, and largely felt the same way about the future.
Advocates should consider alternate narratives of citizenship that explain a person’s rootedness in a place without a sole focus on their actual birthplace. For example, Ayelet Shachar advocates for jus nexi citizenship instead of basing citizenship on standards of jus soli (birth on soil) or jus sanguinis (blood lineage). Jus nexi defines citizenship through one’s social connection to the surrounding community so that membership is defined through lived experience instead of through blood or birthplace. Such a narrative of citizenship could help keep the two brothers I grew up with from living such vastly different lives while inhabiting the same community.
Yet, even the jus nexi narrative still privileges particular forms of belonging, which could potentially still exclude people from the securities associated with citizenship. To that end, we should ask whether it is necessary to tie concepts of belonging, personhood, and even political action to the category of citizenship. After all, none of those concepts bears a necessary relationship to one’s citizenship status. As communication scholar Karma Chávez demonstrates in her work on coalitional belonging, “citizenship” is rarely people’s primary means of identifying with a political collective, nor is one’s citizenship necessarily tied to one’s political agency.
Despite rhetoric across the political spectrum about the importance of citizenship, it is actually not all that important even within the US Constitution. Even after the 14th Amendment formally defined citizenship, the drafters were careful to not make too significant of a distinction between “person” and “citizen.” Alexander Bickel argued in the 1970s that it was actually good that citizenship had been relatively unimportant in the Constitution, because it does not necessarily require us to privilege one form of membership over another. Perhaps the concept of “citizenship” has itself become a barrier to focusing on deeper issues of justice for all.