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What everyone gets wrong about "anchor babies"

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There has been a lot of furor this week over the term "anchor babies," which GOP candidates have used to describe the phenomenon of unauthorized immigrants or short-term visitors having US citizen children. But by focusing on whether the term is offensive (which, just to be clear, it is), that debate has missed a much more important truth: that no matter what you call them, these cute, squirmy little Americans are great for the US.

The whole premise of the term "anchor babies" — that these children are somehow bad for the US — couldn't be more wrong. We act as if these babies detract from the US to the benefit of their parents, when in fact they do the opposite: benefit the US at real cost to their parents. The biggest problem here is that the US isn't doing enough to encourage foreign women to come here to have their babies.

You say "birth tourism," I say "free tax revenue for America"

Cute baby in a fox costume

What? I have to pay US taxes forever just because I was born here? (Shutterstock)

Take, for instance, the phenomenon of Chinese women coming to the US on tourist visas while pregnant and then staying just long enough to give birth here — thus ensuring those babies get US citizenship and a US passport. This is often referred to as "birth tourism," but this week Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush appeared to include them within the "anchor babies" category.

This practice is reportedly growing increasingly common, and US immigration authorities are trying to crack down on it. At first blush, sure, there's something about the practice of coming to this country on a temporary visa with the goal of producing a permanent citizen that just feels off, like a hack of the US visa process — even though it's not actually illegal.

But those objections to birth tourism fall apart when you look at them more closely. In fact, this is an exchange in which the mother and her baby are giving the United States a lot, especially compared with what they're getting in return.

Simply by virtue of being born here, these new US citizens will be required to pay US taxes for their entire income-earning lives. That's true even if they leave immediately after birth and never come back. The United States has an exceptionally aggressive policy on taxing its citizens: If you're an American, you have to pay US taxes, even if you live and work outside the United States.

To be sure, there are some exemptions and carve-outs, but the basic rule is that a US passport comes with federal income tax obligations. The only legal way to get out of paying is to renounce citizenship.

And, indeed, being a taxpayer is the only relationship that many of these babies will likely have with the United States. Their mothers typically aren't planning to stay in the US after giving birth (a process which in and of itself brings a lot of hard currency into the US economy). They just want their kids to have the option of studying or living in the US when they're older. And that might never actually happen — it's entirely possible that these tiny citizens will leave as babies and then never come back.

We can't know how much these babies will earn in the future, but we do know that their families tend to be pretty well-off. After all, their mothers have the cash to travel to a foreign country, hang out for a few months, and then pay the costs of having a baby in a US hospital. And we also know that their parents are willing to go to great lengths to secure their future success and happiness.

There's every reason, in other words, to expect these babies to be productive and successful in the future. If they decide to come back to America to be productive and successful here, that's great! If they stay in China, or wherever, and just give the US occasional tax revenue for which they receive very little in return, that's basically free money for America. We win either way.

So-called "birth tourism" is such a great deal for us, in fact, that the US government shouldn't be cracking down on birth tourism — it should be searching for ways to actively encourage more women to do this.

If these kids encourage their immigrant parents to stay here, that's great too

two cute babies

These babies are very excited about immigration's benefits to the US economy.

The more common meaning of the term "anchor baby," of course, refers to the US-born children of unauthorized immigrants. Those kids are US citizens by virtue of the 14th Amendment, and the term implies that their immigrant parents will use their children as "anchors" to stay in the US and take advantage of the country's services and resources. It implies that having a US citizen child is somehow a means by which immigrant parents can obtain legal status in the US, which is a very offensive way to characterize a family, and so immigrant rights activists are rightly up in arms about politicians' use of the term.

But in fact, that is not how birthright citizenship and immigration work at all: The government can and does deport immigrants whose kids are US citizens. And having a US citizen child isn't a particularly efficient route to legal status, either: US citizens can't sponsor their parents' green card applications until they turn 21, which means that after factoring in the immigration system's molasses-slow processing time, you’re looking at a conservative estimate of 22 years before your child can help you get legal permanent resident status, and maybe longer. As in, more than two decades. As in, a really, really long time. And even then, not all parents are eligible for green cards.

So it's not clear how much birthright citizenship actually encourages immigrants to come to this country to have children. But the bigger point here is that we should want it to. Even when immigrant parents do stay in the US illegally, or come back decades later once their kids are old enough to sponsor them, that's actually a very, very good thing for the US economy.

Immigration is overwhelmingly beneficial to the United States economy (as well as to immigrants themselves). It increases GDP, raises property values, and even appears to boost high school graduation rates. Indeed, while some research finds that unskilled immigration has a small negative effect on the wages of unskilled native workers or unskilled immigrants who are already here, those effects are relatively small compared with the benefits that immigrants bring to the economy overall.

In other words, if more parents come and have babies here, that is a boost to the US economy, not a drag on it. If having a little bundle of US-passport-eligible joy makes immigrant parents more likely to stick around in this country, then that's great for the rest of us. Once again, this is something the US should be encouraging, not trying to figure out how to stop.

"Anchor babies" are not actually very good anchors, but the US should change that

Family with children having a picnic

We should be encouraging immigrant families to stay in the US. (Shutterstock)

Right now, as noted above, US law expects unauthorized immigrant parents who have children here to leave until their kids turn 21 and can sponsor them for green cards. But that's ridiculous: Those are often the most productive years of people's lives. The US should be encouraging them to stay, not pressuring them to go.

This policy of discouraging immigrant parents from coming or from staying is silly: We are punishing ourselves for no good reason, denying our own country the economic benefits that these immigrants would like to bring to us. And when that means separating families, it's also morally wrong.

If these parents decide to stay illegally, they live under the constant threat that their families could be forced apart by immigration courts. Having a US citizen child doesn't protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Indeed, as a 2011 investigation documented, thousands of US citizen children have been forced into foster care or even adoption because their parents were placed in removal proceedings. Our immigration system often considers it more important to deport unauthorized immigrants than to protect the interests of their US citizen children. That's a terrible policy: It tears families apart, and separates US citizens from the parents who love and care for them.

It would be much, much better to make it possible for parents of US citizens to stay in this country legally. This would provide an essentially free boost to the US economy, which would get the benefit of the immigrant parents' productivity. It would be better for the immigrant parents, who would be able to enjoy the fruits of living and working in the US without having to worry that they could be deported at any moment. And it would be better for their kids, who, keep in mind, are US citizens, and who would no longer need to fear losing their parents or their homes to the caprice of immigration enforcement.

In short: The children GOP candidates like to deride as "anchor babies" are really little cooing bundles of future tax-and-productivity joy. What's not to love?