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Jeb Bush, “anchor babies,” and America’s deep legacy of anti–Asian American racism

When Jeb Bush tried to justify his use of the term "anchor baby" by saying it referred to "Asians," it got him heavily mocked. The mockery was only partly justified. Some people mocked Bush because they didn't understand what he was actually saying — that the "real" anchor babies are children born in the US as part of the "birth tourism" industry, which mostly caters to China. Others mocked him because he wasn't doing himself any favors by taking a term many people consider offensive on its own and applying it to a second group of people.

"Anchor baby" doesn't actually have the same connotations when it's transferred from Latinos to Asians, because the underlying stereotypes about each group are different. Unfortunately for Bush, however, talking about birth tourism and "anchor babies" plays into some long-established and very painful stereotypes about the inherent foreignness of Asian Americans.

The United States has often excluded Asians

When Donald Trump and others talk about "anchor babies," they're talking about Latinos — tying into a cluster of stereotypes that conflate Latinos, Mexicans, immigrants, and unauthorized immigrants, and that convince many of the anxious white Americans who make up Trump's base that their culture is under threat from "illegals." Bush claims he's trying to back away from that argument, while still using a term that invokes it.

That cluster of stereotypes isn't a problem for Asians and Asian Americans in the same way it is for Latinos. But by arguing that "anchor baby" ought to refer to Asians, Bush ended up backing into a different cluster of stereotypes: that Asian Americans are "foreign" and more closely tied to their "home countries" than they are to the United States.

One of the odd legacies of American immigration history is that while nativist fears have centered on immigrants from all sorts of regions — Ireland, Eastern Europe, the Middle East — Asian immigrants are the only ones the United States has ever told they can never become Americans. The first immigration restrictions in US history were the Asian Exclusion Acts of the late 1800s (inspired, in part, by a wave of racial violence against Asian immigrants), which prohibited all immigration from China — the only region from which immigration has been explicitly banned, rather than just limited.

The reason we have birthright citizenship for everyone born on US soil to begin with is because of the Supreme Court case United States v. Wong Kim Ark, in which an American-born son of Chinese immigrants tried to return to the US after a trip and was told he'd never been an American citizen after all. Wong won his case, which would have greatly upset members of Congress who argued against birthright citizenship back when the 14th Amendment was being debated in 1866 — exactly because (in the words of Sen. Edgar Cowen) California would be "overrun by a flood of immigration of the Mongol race."

And, of course, in the 1940s, fear of an Asian-American "fifth column" in World War II was so acute that thousands of Japanese Americans, many of whom had been born in the US and had never seen Japan, were placed in internment camps.

Asian Americans still experience "identity denial" on a daily basis

It's no longer United States policy that Asian Americans can never be truly American. But it's certainly still common in American culture. A 2005 study from a pair of Stanford professors found that Asian Americans are seen as less American than their peers, and "experience 'identity denial'" — challenges of their identity such as being asked, "No, where are you really from?" — routinely in their daily lives. When NPR's Michele Norris started the Race Card Project, a website for readers to submit their experiences with race, she said at the Aspen Ideas Festival that "some formulation of, 'Where are you really from?'" was one of the most common submissions. That's not to mention more overt racism toward Asian countries, characterizing them as greedy and dishonest — the sort of thing one hears from, say, Donald Trump.

And that's not to say that immigration policy isn't still a problem for would-be Asian immigrants. Chinese, Indian, and Filipino nationals waiting for their US-citizen relatives to sponsor them for green cards have to wait years or decades. Well-educated Asian immigrants can come to the US on temporary visas for "high-skilled" workers — but then have to leave after a few years if their employers don't want to sponsor them for green cards. The same is true of Asian students on student visas. Politicians who support reforming the legal immigration system often blame the US for expensively educating foreign students and then forcing them to leave — but that line can also imply that the students are taking advantage of the US education system to enrich themselves and their home countries.

In this context, it's really tricky to talk about birth tourism. It is definitely a real phenomenon, and it's not unfair to feel that it's an abuse of American law. But it also plays into the stereotype that Asian Americans, even those born in the US, aren't "real" Americans, and that Asians are just trying to take advantage of American generosity.

Is racism pushing Asian Americans toward the Democratic Party?

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, which makes them an increasingly appealing voter bloc for both parties. But while Asian Americans aren't as solid a Democratic bloc as African Americans (or, to a lesser extent, Latinos), they're voting more heavily Democratic over time:

Brookings Institution chart showing partisan vote share for Asian Americans, Latinos, black and white Americans over time.

Brookings Institution

The 2014 exit polls appeared to show a reversion, with an evenly split Asian-American vote, but it's as likely as not that the exit polls just didn't do a good job at polling Asian-American voters.

There isn't as much information about the trends in the Asian-American vote as there is for, say, the recent shift in the Latino vote. Some of it is probably demographic: Immigrant groups who've come more recently, including most South and Southeast Asian nationalities, voted more heavily Democratic in 2012 than better-established East Asian groups.

But at least one prominent Republican has been very concerned about the loss of Asian American voters: Jeb Bush. In 2013, he called Asian Americans "the canary in the coal mine": "If we have lost connectivity to emerging voters — not because of our policies so much, but because we are failing to engage on issues of importance to them, then I think we pay a price." That quote doesn't say a whole lot, but it does fall in line with concerns Bush and others have raised about the GOP's need to gain back some ground among Latinos.

In both cases, Bush and Republicans feel there's a natural fit between the Republican Party and the group's values — as Bush said of Asian Americans, "Here is a group that has higher intact families, more entrepreneurial, higher than average incomes, higher college graduation rates" — but that the party's tone could be a turn-off to them.

Bush's fear of turning off Latinos was exactly what motivated him to go out of his way to pin "anchor babies" on Asians. But by doing that, he fell into implying that US-born Asian children weren't really American, either, and that their parents were trying to take advantage of the United States. Those are exactly the sort of old, tired stereotypes he knows well enough to avoid with Latinos. But in trying to fix the Republican Party's relationship with one group, he may have demonstrated to the other why they've grown disenchanted.

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