Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Controversial 'anchor baby' dictionary entry redefined as 'disparaging'

Photo by jollyville/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The term "anchor baby," used by some in reference to children of undocumented immigrants, is almost exclusively used in a negative light. Media pundits often use it when discussing or making their case against U.S. birthright citizenship, as in this exchange between Fox's Megyn Kelly ("...and I'm not talking about my son Yates") and Lou Dobbs, or this monologue by Glenn Beck.

But the American Heritage Dictionary recently added "anchor baby" as an entry that read as a neutral term, provoking enough criticism that the publishers agreed to modify it, with the change made online yesterday. Here's the original entry as posted on the Immigration Impact site, a project of the American Immigration Council:

anchor baby n. A child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially such a child born to parents seeking to secure eventual citizenship for themselves and often other members of their family.

And here's new revised version:
anchor baby n. Offensive Used as a disparaging term for a child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially when the child’s birthplace is thought to have been chosen in order to improve the mother’s or other relatives’ chances of securing eventual citizenship.

The controversy erupted last week, with the council's Immigration Policy Center director Mary Giovagnoli criticizing the neutral entry in a post on Immigration Impact. She wrote:
The New American Heritage Dictionary acknowledges the derogatory nature of hundreds of terms. By failing to do so with the term “anchor baby,” however, the dictionary implies that the term is acceptable in common usage and misleads the public by insinuating that giving birth to a child in the United States necessarily carries with it the intention of using that child for immigration status.

In an era where politicians and pundits have no qualms about being imprecise, dictionary editors need to be—even if that means calling a term “highly charged,” “political,” or down right nasty. While dictionaries may be neutral, language isn’t. “Anchor baby” is a term that epitomizes the way words reflect and reframe a debate.


Her post last Friday drew numerous comments on the site, including from Steven Kleinedler, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, who expressed that "a revision to this definition is in order." In a post today, Giovagnoli writes:
This is the kind of controversy that doesn’t fade away quickly, and many argue that the term is so offensive that it shouldn’t appear in the dictionary at all. I understand but disagree with that position, largely because the term, however offensive, exists as a political and practical reality. I think the new definition validates what many outraged voices in blogs, on Twitter, and in the press have been saying all along: “anchor baby” is a term that shouldn’t exist but does because immigration restrictionists are really good at creating words that generate fear.

While the origins are not reflected in the definition, characterizing the term as both “offensive” and “disparaging” says volumes about how it is used in real life. I would much rather have a curious student or citizen have the ability to look up the term in the dictionary and find this definition than to find no guidance and accept the meaning and agenda of restrictionists who used it.


Aside from the negative connotations of "anchor baby," one point long raised by those who deal in U.S. immigration law is that the end result the term implies ("...to secure eventual citizenship for themselves and often other members of their family," as worded in the original entry) is technically inaccurate, as there's no direct "anchor" provided by having a U.S. citizen child.

According to law, a U.S. citizen child of undocumented parents can't petition the parents until turning 21. Even then, it's complicated: The child can't petition parents who entered illegally unless the parents leave the country. Because people who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than a year are barred from returning for 10 years, it's unlikely the parents would be able to return legally with a green card - if approved - until their child is in his or her thirties.

Parents who illegally overstayed visas don't need to leave the country, but the child must still be 21 to petition them, and they are subject to the same readmission bar if they do leave.*

Having U.S. citizen children also offers no protection against deportation.

In a recent Q&A on this site, a legal expert discussed the myths and difficulties surrounding obtaining legal status through marriage and family. Although people who have left the country may apply for a difficult-to-obtain hardship waiver to the readmission bar, the extreme hardship that must be proven is to a U.S. citizen or legal resident spouse, not to one's children.

The controversy over the "anchor baby" entry has continued making headlines. Yesterday USA Today launched its own mini-poll, asking readers for their opinion and prompting an heated exchange in the comments section, as might be expected.

*Added for clarification.

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