What's the Matter With Anchor Babies, Anyway?

What's the Matter With Anchor Babies, Anyway?

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Let the campaign against “anchor babies” begin! I, for one, want to embrace this latest disparaging term.

Next up from Arizona in the campaign to demonize undocumented immigrants: an effort to restrict “birthright citizenship.” Under U.S. constitutional law, children born here are citizens here, irrespective of their parents’ citizenship. Seeking to end this purported outrage, Arizona and other states have announced plans to challenge this right, hoping to eventually end up in a fight before the U.S. Supreme Court. The more immediate goal, however, seems to be to stir up controversy.

Key to whipping up populist fervor is the specter of the “anchor baby”: the child born here to noncitizen parents, ostensibly as part of a nefarious plot to establish roots in this country, thereby securing rights to live, work, and flourish in the United States for the child and eventually the whole family.

But wait: Why aren’t we encouraging anchor babies, rather than vilifying them? Don’t we want immigrants to commit to making the United States their home, a place of firm attachments that they help build through their labor and their values, their ambition and their energy?

Which brings us to the origins of birthright citizenship. The United States has always had two traditions regarding work and belonging. In the one we regularly celebrate, we welcome those with the gumption to start a new life, promising that in exchange for help building this country, we will embrace them, or at least their children, as full and respected members of our nation. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” we proudly proclaim, confident that in a society unbound by caste and class, everyone has the ability to contribute and merits repayment with the dignity of belonging.

But in another, ignoble tradition, we have often betrayed that promise; for despite our aspirations of equality, we, too, remained a society obsessed with caste—in our case, defined by race. Historically we said to our supposed inferiors, “Thanks for your land and your labor, but you do not belong; you cannot be one of us.”

In the years before the Civil War, the infamous Dred Scott decision sought to protect slavery by declaring that, free or not, African Americans could never be citizens. After the war, the country adopted the 14th Amendment to secure the rights of the newly emancipated. Its very first sentence ringingly declared: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Birthright citizenship entered the Constitution.

Yet caste continued. In 1884, the Supreme Court in Elk v. Wilkins denied birthright citizenship to Native Americans by manipulating the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Intended to refer to the children of diplomats, Elk used that technical language to ostracize what the dissent lamented remained “a despised and rejected class of persons.”

Fourteen years later, the Court reconsidered. In Wong Kim Ark, it granted automatic citizenship to children born to Chinese immigrants—persons at the time barred from entering the country and prohibited from gaining naturalized citizenship. Though they were socially reviled, the Court stopped the excommunication of their U.S.-born children.

Should birthright citizenship end up before the Supreme Court again, lawyers will reargue the reasoning of Dred Scott, Elk, and Wong Kim Ark. The narrow issue will focus on the meaning of the words “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” But the real issue will be whether to resurrect racial distinctions in who belongs.

Today’s hysteria about birthright citizenship and anchor babies is really about the recent wave of Hispanic and Asian immigration and their—our—future.

Not so, we’re told— this is only about people who enter the country illegally. Yet honesty requires us to recognize that today’s swirling frenzy about illegal "aliens" focuses on persons long seen as racially threatening. And it also requires us to admit that even as we encourage immigrants to come here to work, we craft laws that close routes to full membership. With the latest assault, Arizona now seeks to slam the door even on their children.

Whether “anchor baby” frightens you depends on which immigration tradition you believe in. If you’re convinced that some people are so far inferior that they can never be one of “us,” then of course the anchor baby is a terrifying spook—the same spook as the tar baby, the savage Indian, and the yellow hordes. Or, for that matter, the many European groups once barred by immigration laws as “beaten men from beaten races.”

But I aspire to the other vision, in which those who commit to make a life here through courage and hard work deserve our welcome and embrace. My mother was not a citizen when my brother and I were born here. No one in this nation of immigrants can say different, if we just look a few generations back. In our proudest tradition, we are all anchor babies.

Ian Haney-López is the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and the author of a book on race and citizenship,
White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race.