clock menu more-arrow no yes

Jeb Bush: Don’t worry, I wasn’t calling Latinos “anchor babies” — I meant Asians

Jeb Bush has gotten in hot water lately for using the term "anchor babies" to refer to children born in the US to immigrant parents. After all, the term plays to the anti-immigrant wing of the party Donald Trump has mobilized — not the welcoming, pro-Latino wing that Bush is desperately hoping wins out by the end of the primary. (Heck, in 2012 a Hispanic Republican group Bush co-chaired issued a memo urging Republicans not to use the term.)

Now Bush is trying to backtrack: When he talked about "anchor babies," he says, he wasn't referring to Latinos — he was referring to Asians.

Wait, what?!

Bush is probably referring to "birth tourism"

The clarification might sound totally nonsensical: "Oh, I meant to offend these people!" But the term "anchor baby" itself aside, there is an actual policy reality here.

There are pregnant women who come to the US for the purpose of giving birth to their children on US soil. It's called "birth tourism." And it's most popular, as far as we can tell, among parents-to-be from China.

Birth tourism isn't new, but it appears to be growing. According to one industry estimate, in 2014, 60,000 children were born in the US to Chinese "birth tourist" parents.

It isn't illegal to give birth on a tourist visa, but it's illegal to lie to an official about why you want the visa — and the US is now questioning at least some Chinese women who might be pregnant at embassies and at customs, in an attempt to either suss out the truth or force them to lie. The government is also cracking down stateside on "maternity hotels."

But "birth tourism" is a totally different problem from unauthorized immigration

From a policy perspective, what Bush appears to be referring to when he talks about "anchor babies" is totally different from what Donald Trump or another immigration-hawk candidate might say. The problem with birth tourism is abuse of legal visas, not people without legal status.

And the birth tourists themselves don't intend to stay in the US after their children are born — they just want their US-born, China-raised children to have the option of going to college in the United States without needing to get a student visa, or of moving to the States if that becomes more appealing than staying in China.

When most people talk about the problems with "anchor babies," on the other hand, they're talking about unauthorized immigrant parents using their children as "anchors" to stay in the US, because the children will be eligible for (some) welfare benefits and can eventually (after they turn 21, and if their parents can get some bans waived) sponsor their parents for green cards. It's not at all clear how much having a US-born child induces an unauthorized immigrant to stay in the US — most unauthorized immigrants are pretty settled at that point, after all — though it definitely makes it a little harder to get deported (especially under the Obama administration). But there is no evidence that unauthorized immigrants come to the US with the goal of bearing a US-citizen child, let alone that pregnant immigrants are crossing the border illegally in order to give birth.

So Bush is trying to have it both ways here. He's trying to use the phrase "anchor babies" to reassure the base that Donald Trump isn't the only one who knows the downsides of birthright citizenship. But he's trying to tie it to a policy issue that actually does exist, rather than one that (to all appearances) does not.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.