The pregnant Latina women who come for checkups and guidance at Mary’s Center in Northwest Washington say that they understand that their babies will become anchors in their lives — but not the kind of anchors that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump disparages on the campaign trail.
The newborns — who will be U.S. citizens even if their parents are in this country illegally — are a mixed blessing for their mothers: another mouth to feed, another obstacle to finding or keeping a precious low-wage job, another complication in an already complex life that, in many cases, includes providing for older children left behind in Central America.
“I didn’t come here to have a baby. I came to have a better future and help my daughter back in my country,” said Nellis Najera, 27, a kitchen worker who was attending a breast-feeding class. “Babies come because it is part of life. But it makes your life harder, because you have to choose between the baby and work.”
The number of children born to immigrants who are in this country illegally has declined steadily in recent years, according to data from the Pew Research Center, as the undocumented population here has leveled off. After peaking at 360,000 in 2007, such births fell to 295,000 in 2013, the center said.
At the same time, an Obama administration proposal to allow the parents of U.S.-born children to avoid deportation has provided new ammunition for critics like Trump, who say babies born to people here illegally should be denied citizenship and, along with their parents, forced to leave this country.
The issue has inflamed the 2016 presidential primary contest, with Trump’s provocative rhetoric pushing him to the top of GOP polls even as his rivals try to sidestep the topic for fear of alienating Hispanic voters.
“A woman gets pregnant. She’s nine months, she walks across the border, she has the baby in the United States, and we take care of the baby for 85 years,” Trump said at the GOP candidates’ debate Wednesday, shaking his head in apparent disgust. “I don’t think so.”
Last week, he told a cheering Dallas crowd that the United States has become a “dumping ground” for violent gang members and “anchor babies.”
Although U.S. hospitals near the Mexican border have reported that they regularly deliver babies whose mothers live in Mexico, experts at several research organizations in the district said that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants who have babies here have lived in the United States for at least several years. They also said most of the women came here to work and escape lives of poverty and violence, not to raise a family.
The true “anchor baby” problem, these experts said, is not that undocumented immigrants are giving birth in the United States in order to increase their chances of staying and accessing social programs. It is that starting a family here inevitably changes the parents’ long-term goals.
Over time, the arrival of children weakens family ties to the homeland and cements the parents’ bonds with the United States. And once their children have learned English and become used to life here, many immigrant parents said that they could not imagine bringing them back to the dirt-poor, gang-plagued countries that the parents fled.
“This is not birth tourism,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in the District. “It’s not so much about inducement or enticement, but about people coming here to work, meeting someone, then the birds and the bees happen, and they have kids.”
“And once you have kids,” he said, “it becomes less likely that you will leave on your own or get deported.”
In the Mary Center’s waiting room one day last week, Maria Canas, 35, struggled to quiet her shrieking 2-year-old son and corral her feisty 5-year-old daughter.
Canas came to the United States from El Salvador in her 20s, illegal and illiterate, leaving behind a young daughter. She cleaned hotel rooms and offices, cooked burgers and fries, and sent as much money home as she could.
Meanwhile, she met and married a Salvadoran construction worker. They had two children, who, as U.S. citizens, qualified for an array of public benefits and services. But juggling work shifts and child care has sapped Canas’s strength and strained the family’s budget.
“If they say we come here to have children and take people’s jobs, it’s not true,” said Canas, who never attended school. “Nobody gives me anything. I have done any work I could find. I want my children to have what I couldn’t. What’s wrong with that?”
Trump and other immigration hard-liners argue that children born to undocumented immigrants should not be rewarded with access to public schools and other
taxpayer-funded benefits, including Medicaid and social service programs for those whose incomes are low enough to qualify.
“It’s like saying a complete stranger walks into your living room, gives birth in your house, then suddenly the child is a member of your family, and you are obligated to provide all sorts of things for that child,” said Ira Mehlman, head of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Trump has proposed deporting all 11 million people who are in this country illegally — an idea most of his rivals dismiss as impossible and inappropriate. He questions whether the 14th Amendment guarantees U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants and says that such “birthright citizenship” should be prohibited by law.
Those who advocate for immigrants and their children counter that the right to citizenship is enshrined in the Constitution and is a core American value. They also argue that illegal immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy and social safety net more than many Americans realize. Undocumented workers sustain numerous industries, such as meatpacking and farming, often doing dirty and dangerous jobs that American-born workers shun, advocates and researchers say. They pay sales taxes, many pay income taxes and a significant number pay into Social Security — even though they, unlike their U.S.-born children, stand little chance of receiving retirement payments.
National surveys of undocumented Hispanic immigrants echo the stories told by the Latina mothers at Mary’s Center, almost all of whom are from Central America. Most do not become pregnant until they have been here for several years and have formed new romantic or marital relationships — often without anticipating the burdens that a new child will bring.
A majority of the women interviewed at the center, both legal and undocumented, were receiving services through the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Their older children were attending public schools. But the women said that having a U.S.-born child had not entitled them to any individual benefits — and that they had not expected that it would.
“Even if our children are born here, we still have no documents,” said Laura Flamenco, a 33-year-old Salvadoran woman who got married after four years in the United States and was about to have her first baby. “I came here to support my parents back home, but I had to stop work because of the baby. Now I have less to send them, even though they still need it,” Flamenco said. “The people who judge us have no human feeling. We do all the hard and heavy work. We need them, and they need us.”
Birth tourism does exist, in small numbers, at both ends of the economic scale, immigration experts say. There is a thriving cottage industry that helps affluent, pregnant foreigners fly to the United States on visitors’ visas, stay at hotels until they deliver, and return home with a newborn U.S. citizen. And among the thousands of people who come to the United States on multi-year work or student visas, some become parents during their stays.
In communities north of the Mexican border and cities, such as Los Angeles, with large Latino populations, hospitals often deliver babies for Mexican mothers, although some of those mothers are commuters who work on the American side of the border or have roots in both countries.
But all those births make up a fraction of the babies born to illegal immigrants in the United States each year. And experts say there is little evidence that significant numbers of Latinas are deliberately crossing the border to give birth.
According to Mark Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at Pew, the typical immigrant living illegally in the United States today has lived here for at least 10 years. For those with U.S.-born children, it is at least 15 years. Some U.S. citizens born to undocumented Hispanic mothers since the 1980s are now having children of their own.
One was Jessica Melendez, a D.C. resident whose parents fled El Salvador years ago. Born in Texas, Melendez met her husband, an undocumented Salvadoran, in 2004; three years later, their daughter Viviana was born. But things went wrong during the delivery. The baby’s oxygen supply was cut off, and she suffered severe brain damage and physical disabilities. She has received extraordinary medical care ever since, including a nurse who accompanies her to school, much of it paid through the federal Supplemental Social Security program.
“If she had been born in El Salvador, she would be dead,” said Melvin Melendez, 33, who works as a restaurant cook and now has temporary legal amnesty.
Regardless of the family’s legal status, Melendez said, the couple has earned the benefits that help keep their daughter alive.
“For nine years, my wife took the bus every morning at 4 to work at McDonald’s, and as soon as she came home at night, I went to work. We lived in shifts and never took a vacation,” Melendez said. “We didn’t plan for this to happen to our daughter. But thank God it happened here.”