GOP hopefuls decry 'anchor baby' influx. Phantom menace?

'Anchor babies' have been a big GOP talking point this week. But does the rhetoric reflect reality?

Charlie Riedel/File/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to the crowd at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Mr. Trump wants to deny citizenship to the babies of immigrants living in the US illegally as part of an immigration plan that emphasizes border security and deportation for millions.

Are “anchor babies” a real problem in American society?

That question comes up because “anchor babies” have become a big talking point in the Republican presidential campaign. Some GOP hopefuls invoke the phrase to explain their opposition to birthright citizenship, under which children born on US soil are automatically American citizens.

Donald Trump got this contretemps rolling earlier this week by complaining that pregnant Mexican women “move over here for a couple of days” to the US to give birth. Maybe these “anchor babies” shouldn’t be counted as citizens, said Mr. Trump, “because a lot of people don’t think they are.”

Trump’s immigration plan vowed an end to birthright citizenship. Many of his Republican rivals, including Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker (maybe) support such a position. Jeb Bush does not, but he expressed exasperation with those who consider the phrase “anchor baby” to be pejorative.

“No, it isn’t,” said Mr. Bush in New Hampshire this week.

However, many immigration experts consider “anchor babies” a bit of a phantom menace. It’s true there is some degree of birth tourism in the US, in which relatively wealthy foreigners travel legally to the US to give birth and ensure their kids a US passport. The lure of citizenship for their future children may play an unquantifiable role in the decision of some immigrants to enter the US illegally.

But under current law, parents aren’t “anchored” in America if they have citizen children. They’re just as likely to be deported as any other undocumented worker. And evidence points to economic prospects as the overwhelming factor driving immigration decisions.

Failing to put the term “anchor babies” in this larger context “exaggerates the alleged problem and uses inflammatory rhetoric to obscure legitimate policy questions,” concluded PolitiFact.com when it studies this question in depth in 2010.

First, some numbers. It is true that unauthorized immigrants give birth to a large number of children within US borders. According to a Pew Research study released in 2010, about 340,000 of the 4.3 million babies born in the US in 2008 were the offspring of undocumented parents.

But how many of these parents moved to the US “for a couple of days” for the purpose of giving birth, as Donald Trump contends?

Not many. The study’s authors estimate that well over 80 percent of the births in question were the children of parents who had been in the United States for more than a year.

There are parents who travel to the US expressly to deliver their children in US hospitals. There are clinics and hotels that openly solicit this business. But as PolitFact noted, this generally involves wealthy individuals who travel legally. Some are Hispanic, but many, if not most, are Asian. That’s a different and more limited policy problem than the one implied by the current use of the “anchor baby” phrase.

Nor do these children actually provide any legal “anchor.” Under existing law, the birth of a child in the US does not give parents the right to stay in the country until that child reaches the age of majority. That’s 21.

Even then, the process isn’t easy. A child who reaches 21 can then apply for a visa or green card for their parent to reside in America. That will be approved only if the parents can prove they’ve been living legally outside the US. If they’ve been in the shadows for decade, raising their kids, they’re required to wait longer. If the parent has lived illegally in the US for a year or greater, they can’t reenter the US for a decade. So the total wait time to a green card for the undocumented parent of a child born in the US can stretch up to 31 years.

“It’s not a practical immigration strategy,” writes Janell Ross in The Fix blog at The Washington Post, paraphrasing an immigration expert.

Some groups that support tighter immigration restrictions maintain that judges and other US officials may be less likely to hold and deport the undocumented parents of citizen kids. That’s certainly possible.

There’s evidence that plenty of these parents are indeed being deported, however. In the first half of 2011, US officials removed more than 46,000 parents of US-born children from the country, according to federal data compiled by the pro-immigrant group Race Forward, formerly the Applied Research Center.

What happens to the kids? For that 2011 time frame, at least 5,100 children whose parents had been deported were living in foster care, according to this data.

Finally, however, there is the matter of a possible lure that is perhaps not reflective of reality. Groups that support tighter immigration restrictions say that Mexican adults may believe that having US citizen children will anchor them in US society, whether that is actually the case or not.

“This is the perception in the minds of the illegal alien parents, usually mothers, that somehow the presence of a US-born baby will be helpful to parents in immigration proceedings,” says a 2011 report from the Center for Immigration Studies.

As the CIS report notes, it’s impossible to count the number of such parents. It’s certainly possible some exist.

But the biggest draw for illegal immigration is probably jobs, not birthright citizenship. The flow of unauthorized immigrants generally swells and shrinks in concert with economic conditions in the US, according to Pew Research data.

For instance, the number of such immigrants in America rose sharply during the relatively prosperous years of the 1990s and early 2000s. It then dropped sharply during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, mainly due to a drop in immigrants from Mexico.

In recent years, the undocumented immigration population has leveled off, according to Pew. That would indicate that the net influx of the unauthorized is zero.

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