Anchor Babies and the Challenge of Birthright Citizenship
Leo R. Chavez



Donald Trump launched his campaign to become the 45th president of the United States by disparaging Mexican immigrants: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”1

As shocking and incendiary as these characterizations of Mexican immigrants were, Trump’s less noticed comments about U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants also deserved notice. Mr. Trump called these children “anchor babies,” a term that had become part of public discourse only a decade earlier, to suggest these children were not “real” citizens because their parents were undocumented immigrants who bore these children in the United States in order to get citizenship for themselves. In other words, anchor babies are part of an alleged conspiracy to take advantage of the United States. Trump said anchor babies might not be citizens or have a legal right to live in the United States. “I’d much rather find out whether or not ‘anchor babies’ are citizens because a lot of people don’t think they are.”2

So-called anchor babies are born in the United States and thus acquire citizenship as a birthright. Birthright citizenship is one of the pillars of our nation’s laws and one of the key values that make America great. To be born in the United States makes one a citizen and symbolizes an inclusiveness often lacking in many countries of the world. Was Trump really questioning the citizenship of people born in the United States?

Birthright citizenship is based on the principle of jus soli, which means “right to soil.” Jus soli is the right to claim citizenship as a result of being born in the territory of a state. Although a key principle in American legal history, jus soli or birthright citizenship has not always been bestowed on all those born on American soil. Native Americans, African American slaves, and the children of nonwhite immigrants were left out for much of our history. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizenship to all babies born in the United States: “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.” Even after acquiring birthright citizenship, the children of immigrants and other stigmatized ethnic or racial groups often found their citizenship diminished by laws and social attitudes about their deservingness and belonging to the nation.

The children of immigrants have long held a tenuous position in American society.3 This deep and contentious history is sometimes hard to square in a country that prides itself on being “a nation of immigrants.” For over two hundred years Americans have argued over the place of the children of immigrants. At times, these debates have produced vitriolic political rhetoric and nativism, resulting in some racial groups being characterized as perpetual foreigners and “alien citizens.”4 Restrictive immigration policies and unconstitutional actions targeting citizen children of immigrants have led to the repatriation of Mexican Americans to Mexico during the Great Depression and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.5

“Anchor baby” is a decidedly more provocative and offensive term than “birthright citizenship.”6 Calling the children of undocumented parents anchor babies underscores that these people do not deserve to be citizens; they are “accidental citizens” and “citizens who do not belong.”7 It perpetuates the idea of a conspiracy by undocumented immigrants who choose to have a U.S.-citizen baby to be able to apply, someday, for his or her family’s legal residence.

The term “anchor baby” first appeared in the 1980s, although in an academic rather than a political context. A 1987 article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine profiled Kenji Ima and Jeanne Nidorf, two San Diego State University professors, and their research on troubled Southeast Asian teens. “They [Southeast Asian teens] are ‘anchor children,’ saddled with the extra burden of having to attain a financial foothold in America to sponsor family members who remain in Vietnam.”8

I also used the anchor metaphor in Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society.9 My book, based primarily on research I conducted in the 1980s and early 1990s, examined the many social and cultural linkages to U.S. society found among undocumented families and their children, which over time increased their desire to stay in the United States no matter their citizenship status. “Most of the parents I interviewed said their children did not want to return to Mexico or Central America. This perception of their children’s attitudes helps anchor parents in the United States.” This anchoring effect helped me understand why undocumented immigrants might stay longer in the United States than they had originally intended.10

But this effect had a completely different meaning from what ultimately emerged with the term “anchor baby” in the early 2000s. Take, for example, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin’s comments about anchor babies in her blog entry for June 13, 2004:

During my book tour across the country for Invasion, this issue [of anchor babies] came up time and again. In the Southwest, everyone has a story of heavily pregnant women crossing the Mexican border to deliver their “anchor babies.” At East Coast hospitals, tales of South Korean “obstetric tourists” abound. (An estimated 5,000 South Korean anchor babies are born in the US every year.) And, of course, there’s a terrorism angle.11

In 2005, Malkin again linked birthright citizenship to undocumented immigration and post–9/11 fears of terrorism: “Clearly, the custom of granting automatic citizenship at birth to children of tourists, and temporary workers . . . and to countless ‘anchor babies’ delivered by illegal aliens on American soil, undermines the integrity of citizenship—not to mention national security. . . . The citizenship clause has evolved into a magnet for alien law breakers and a shield for terrorist infiltrators and enemy combatants.”12 By linking U.S.-citizen babies to “illegal aliens,” Malkin attempts to undercut the legitimacy of those babies.13

As the rhetoric around anchor babies heated up, citizens suddenly found themselves targets of anti-immigrant discourse and even policies. In 2010, Florida’s higher education administrators began treating so-called anchor babies as nonresidents of the state if they could not prove their parents were legal immigrants.14 These citizens would have to pay the much more expensive nonresident college tuition ($27,936 a year at the time), compared to what other “resident citizens” ($5,700) paid, even if they had spent their entire lives in Florida and had gone to primary and secondary schools in the state. At the time, the anchor baby rhetoric was heating up and there was a bill in Congress to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment and birthright citizenship. However, rather than wait for congressional action, the Florida Board of Education used its own policy to effectively repeal the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. Critics filed a class action lawsuit claiming the policy violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. On August 31, 2012, U.S. district judge Michael Moore, finding the practice unconstitutional, ordered Florida public colleges to stop charging U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants out-of-state tuition.15 From nine to twelve thousand U.S.-citizen students were immediately affected by the ruling, and yet they had to endure what must have seemed a form of punishment for their parents’ decision to come to the United States.

Six years later, even candidates for president of the United States routinely referred to anchor babies in a pejorative sense. Donald Trump told his supporters that women were crossing the border to deliver their anchor babies and that Americans were “disgusted when a woman who’s nine months pregnant walks across the border, has a baby, and you have to take care of that baby for the next 85 years.”16

The relatively sudden appearance of the term “anchor baby” had dictionaries scrambling, and stumbling, to define it. In 2011, the American Heritage Dictionary defined “anchor baby” as “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.”17 However, the dictionary’s definition was criticized almost immediately for writing as if the anchor baby actually existed objectively and not as a pejorative, politically constructed concept. Responding to the criticism, the American Heritage Dictionary revised its definition on its website: “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.”18

In the heated political discourse over anchor babies, both these definitions could hold true depending on who was using the term. But even these two opposing definitions do not capture the negative stereotypes that would become associated with the anchor baby image: an undeserving citizen, a burden on medical care and social services, a racial threat through the “browning of America,” a harbinger of environmental disaster, and ultimately a foreigner.19 In other words, to those using the term as a political dog whistle, anchor babies symbolize a threat to the American way of life.

Three questions frame the three chapters of this book: First, how has the term “anchor baby” been put to use over time in public discourse and debates about birthright citizenship? As “anchor baby” appears with increasing frequency in the media, stories in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times can be used to highlight the contemporary politics over birthright citizenship. A key issue used to bolster the anchor baby characterization is that although the parents, and thus the babies, were in the United States, they were not “under the jurisdiction thereof,” as required by the Fourteenth Amendment, because of their undocumented status. The anchor baby rhetoric, with its negative characterizations of the children of undocumented immigrants, constructs both deserving citizens and undeserving citizens.

Second, how have changes in the legal definition of citizenship affected the children of immigrants? Contemporary public discourse over anchor babies must be put into historical perspective. From colonial days to the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, jus soli and what it means to be “under the jurisdiction” of the United States played key roles in determining citizenship. Even as birthright citizenship was seemingly settled by the Fourteenth Amendment and subsequent Supreme Court decisions, contestations over citizenship, especially pertaining to U.S. race relations and immigration, continued over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st century.

And third, in what ways do U.S.-born citizens still experience trauma in their everyday lives because they live in families with undocumented immigrants? Citizenship does not necessarily buffer these so-called anchor babies from forced family separation, economic hardships, unwanted exile, psychological depression, or a lack of academic achievement if a father, mother, or other family member is deported. U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants find their citizenship diminished as a result of the anchor baby rhetoric and the social stigma it generates, as well as the tragedy they experience when family members are deported, or the hardship of living with the constant fear of deportation.

Whether considered anchor babies or full-fledged members of the nation through birthright citizenship, the children of immigrants are central to any exploration of citizenship in the United States. Citizenship alone is not enough to integrate the children of immigrants into the nation. Citizenship must be accompanied by a recognition that these children belong and deserve to be treated like all other members of society. Public discourse that questions their citizenship, raises issues such as whether they were born under the jurisdiction of the laws of the United States given their parents’ immigration status, and threatens to eliminate their birthright citizenship undermines these children’s personal sense of belonging as well as how they are viewed by the larger society. It marks them as internal “Others” who are not to be trusted, because they are “illegitimate,” “suspect,” and undeserving citizens. Down that path we should not go. History and contemporary societies are replete with examples of how creating discontented and excluded internal Others undermines social cohesion and can lead to social and legal violence. Examining the emergence and use of the anchor baby rhetoric exposes its basic weaknesses and ultimately its decidedly un-American sentiment.


1. “Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,” Time, June 16, 2015,

2. Alan Rappeport, “Discussing Immigration, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush Use an Offensive Term,” New York Times, August 20, 2015.

3. Linda Bosniak, The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Patrick J. Charles, “Decoding the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause: Unlawful Immigrants, Allegiance, Personal Subjection, and the Law,” Washburn Law Journal 51 (2012): 211–60.

4. Mae M. Ngai, “Birthright Citizenship and the Alien Citizen,” Fordham Law Review 75, no. 1 (2007): 2521–30.

5. Ibid.

6. Leo R. Chavez, The Latino Threat: Constructing Citizens, Immigrants, and the Nation, 2nd ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013); Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo and Mary K. Bloodsworth-Lugo, “‘Anchor/Terror Babies’ and Latina Bodies: Immigration Rhetoric in the 21st Century and the Feminization of Terrorism,” Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought 8, no. 1 (2014): 1–18.

7. Stephen Castles and Alastair Davidson, Citizenship and Migration: Globalization and the Politics of Belonging (New York: Routledge, 2000); Ngai, “Birthright Citizenship and the Alien Citizen”; Rebecca Martinez, “Sexual Assault (Threat): Policing Brown Women’s Bodies on the Mexico-U.S. Border,” in Policing Black and Brown Bodies, ed. Sandra Weissinger and Dwayne Mack (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

8. “A Profile of a Lost Generation,” Los Angles Times Magazine, December 13, 1987. For a summary of the history of the term “anchor baby,” see

9. Leo R. Chavez, Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society, 3rd ed. (Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013).

10. Ibid., 197.

11. Michelle Malkin, “No More Drive-By Citizenship,” Michelle Malkin Blog, June 13, 2004,

12. “What Makes an American?,” Jewish World Review, July 4, 2003,

13. “Illegal alien” is the term preferred by those favoring immigration restrictions. Academics tend to use “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants” because they are more neutral than “illegal alien,” which casts a negative connotation.

14. Linda Greenhouse, “Sins of the Parents,” New York Times, November 30, 2011.

15. Michael Peltier, “U.S.-Born Kids of Illegal Immigrants Have Right to Florida Tuition: Judge,” Reuters, 2012,

16. Michael Finnegan and Kurtis Lee, “Trump, Taunted by Protesters, Delivers Barbs on Immigration in L.A. Harbor Speech,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2015.

17. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., s.v. “anchor baby.”


19. Nilda Flores-Gonzalez refers to U.S.-born Latinos as “citizens but not Americans.” See Nilda Flores-Gonzalez, Citizens but Not Americans: Race and Belonging among Latino Millennials (New York: New York University Press, 2018).