'Anchor Baby' Phrase Has Controversial History

Examining the nickname the media uses to describe a proposed law in Arizona.

July 3, 2010— -- It has been dubbed by the news media as the Arizona "anchor baby" bill, referring to U.S-born children of illegal immigrants used to 'anchor' the parents in the country.

State Sen. Russell Pearce and Rep. John Kavanagh, both Republicans, intend to formally introduce the bill when the state legislature reconvenes in January. If passed, the law would directly challenge the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause, reversing a standing interpretation that grants the citizenship to all people born on U.S. soil.

When the proposal hit the national stage, a stream of news coverage followed. And the term "anchor baby" appeared in stories by TIME, The Arizona Republic, on the major cable news networks, local television news networks and in a column in The Washington Post.

Some politicians, including former Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), have also used the term. During a September 2008 speech, he advocated fixing the "anchor baby situation."

Pearce, who sponsored Arizona's controversial immigration bill known as SB1070, told the Arizona Republic last month that, "the 'anchor baby' thing needs to be fixed ... Anchor babies are an unconstitutional declaration of citizenship to those born of non-Americans. It's wrong, and it's immoral."

As for Kavanagh, although he told ABCNews.com that 'anchor baby' is an accurate term, he also said that he himself doesn't use it.

But the phrase is angering some groups, including the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

"The coverage the press provides can help or it can hinder," the NAHJ said in a release earlier this week. "Using terms like 'illegal alien,' 'illegals' as a noun, and 'anchor babies' is dehumanizing and by their bias and loaded nature, eliminate any semblance of fairness when covering the [immigration] debate."

There has been a history of controversy over the term.

LaDawn Haglund, assistant professor of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University, speculated that "the term 'anchor baby' probably came from the term 'anchor children,' which was used in reference to children of Vietnamese [immigrants] after the Vietnam war."

In 2007, former San Diego, Calif. North County Times columnist Raoul Contreras criticized the paper's decision to use the term 'anchor babies:' "Today's North County Times readers can't find an article that uses the infamous N-word, the Q-word (queer) or words like 'homo' for homosexual," he wrote in his commentary. "What they find is the use of the words 'anchor babies' in letters or opinion pieces."

And in August of 2006, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn received two complaints from readers after he called for the arrest and deportation of a woman holding sanctuary in a Chicago church. Zorn referred to her child as an "anchor baby." Zorn argued that the term had appeared in newspaper stories since 1997 "usually softened by quotations as in my column." He said in a subsequent column that he regretted his use of the phrase and promised not to use it again.

'Anchor Babies' Label Draws Criticism

Jaime Figueroa's parents were illegal immigrants but he is a citizen because he was born in Phoenix, Ariz. Today Figueroa, 28, is working at a Discount Tire store and studying computer information systems at DeVry University, working to make a future for himself. He worries about the proposed 'anchor baby' law that would target children of illegal immigrants, and he's especially put off by the 'anchor baby' label.

Arjelia Gomez, chief operating officer for non-profit group Chicanos por la Causa, said, "the use of 'anchor babies' is derogatory and it lends itself to hate and racism."

But some who want to stop illegal immigration and lobby for more restrictive immigration policies disagree. Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform described the argument against using the term 'anchor babies' as "sort of like the issue of illegal aliens versus undocumented workers."

Mehlman said although he acknowledges some people take offense to the term, FAIR does not have a strong objection to it.

"Language does have meaning. The idea of anchor babies, at least for some people, is perfectly legitimate," Mehlman said. "They are making a special effort to come here to claim some kind of benefit."

Of course, using short phrases to invoke immediate public reaction is something politicians are known for. "It's very succinct. These are called labels of primary potency ... a term that goes straight to the gut," said Don Nilsen, a socio-linguist and professor at Arizona State University. "Conservatives are very, very good at using metaphors and defining people in their own terms, and they use it to their advantage."

Crafty Labels for Proposed Legislation

Democrats, such as Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, also use tactical language when proposing legislation. Holt's proposal, known as the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act of 2010 would boost the amount oil companies would be asked to pay for economic damages resulting from an oil spill from a $75 million cap to $10 billion. The bill's title aims to drum up public support by promising to prevent "big oil" from getting a "bailout" (words that currently have a negative connotation).

And on the subject of abortion, another hot button issue just like immigration, the liberal label 'pro-choice' stands in stark contrast with the conservative label 'pro-abortion.'

The 'anchor baby' proposal comes at a time when immigration issues have thrust Arizona onto the national stage, with its controversial and tough immigration law set to go into effect July 29.

For Jaime Figueroa, a new bill targeting children of illegal immigration strikes a personal note.

"It's sad and it's angering," Figueroa said. "It's like stabbing me in the heart when I see things like this. All we can do is just pray. Just pray for what's going on."

The "anchor baby" law's co-sponsor, Rep. John Kavanagh said eliminating automatic citizenship to children of illegal immigrants will help combat the "illegal immigration problem."

"We have not finalized the bill yet and we are not settled upon the tactic we will use to trigger a federal lawsuit that will hopefully go to the U.S. Supreme Court," Kavanagh said. "But it will probably center on the way we issue birth certificates."

ABCNews.com contributor Nathan O'Neal is a member of the Arizona State University ABC News on Campus bureau.

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