Until this week, that is, when three 2016 GOP presidential frontrunners used it:
Jeb Bush: "[We need] [b]etter enforcement so that you don’t have these, you know, ‘anchor babies,’ as they’re described, coming into the country," the former Florida governor said
on the conservative radio show "Morning in America" on Wednesday. On Thursday, he backed up his comments, telling reporters in New Hampshire he doesn't believe the term is offensive. "Do you have a better term? You give me a better term and I'll use it?" he said, according to The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe
Donald Trump: “I’d much rather find out whether or not anchor babies are citizens because a lot of people don’t think they are," the real estate magnate told
Fox News' Bill O'Reilly on Tuesday. Trump then used the term repeatedly at a press conference in New Hampshire on Wednesday.
And on Thursday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the son of Indian-American immigrants, said on Fox News
that he has "no problem" saying the term.
"Anchor baby" has always been a loaded term, not least because it implies something the U.S. law does not do: Offer residency citizenship to parents of children born in the U.S.
Per the 14th Amendment that Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker want to repeal, a child born on U.S. soil has U.S. citizenship. But U.S. law requires those children to wait until they're 21 to petition for their parents' to be in the country legally, with very few exceptions.
But how did we get to this point? Here's a look back at how "anchor baby" has evolved over the years.
Some of the earlier uses of the idea came along in the 1980s. They were used to refer to Southeast Asian immigrant teens who came to the U.S. to help support their family members back home, according to a 2011 analysis of the term by Stanford sociology professor Gabe Ignatow and independent researcher Alexander Williams.
They 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. Crime is seen as a shortcut to success.
It came to prominence in 2006
In 2006, the term as we know it today surfaced as immigration debates raged in Congress and across the nation. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill in late 2005 requiring a 700-mile fence on the border and raising penalties for illegal immigration. A few months later, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill giving some illegal immigrants a path to legal status. Neither became law.
In response to both of these, immigration-rights supporters held massive protests throughout 2006. During the heated debate, the term "anchor baby" became a common refrain, especially among proponents of harsher immigration laws.
Writing in The New York Times, lexicographer Grant Barrett listed “anchor baby” one of its buzzwords of that year. He gave it this definition:
anchor baby: a derogatory term for a child born in the United States to an immigrant. Since these children automatically qualify as American citizens, they can later act as a sponsor for other family members.
The term's place in media was debated across the country. In 2007, a former columnist for the North County Times outside San Diego said the term was hate speech and shouldn’t be allowed in print, comparing it to the n-word. A year earlier, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn defended his use of the term ("It was in quote marks!" he said) in a column.
Finally, a dictionary-official definition
But it wasn't until 2011 that Americans seemed to come to a consensus, guided by a viral fight over its definition in U.S. dictionaries.
According to The New York Times, the American Heritage Dictionary's editor was reading the dictionary’s definition of anchor baby on a radio show: “A child born to a non-citizen 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.”
In response, the director of the pro-immigration Immigration Policy Center wrote an angry blog post that went viral. Mary Giovagnoli argued the dictionary's definition “masks the poisonous and derogatory nature of the term, a term which demeans both parent and child.”
Within a few days, the dictionary had changed the definition. Most significantly, it added the word “offensive” next to its name and described it as "disparaging:"
But not everyone liked it
Now, it was the right’s turn to be upset.
Advocates of stricter immigration laws such as Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, argued the new, "offensive" definition pandered to the politically correct “open-border lobby.”
But today, the use of "anchor baby" in politics and media can turn into a mini-controversy: CNN’s Chris Cuomo had to apologize when he said it in 2014, as did then-Texas state Sen. and now-Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R)
Overall, the folks who have argued that "anchor baby" is a slur seem to have won.
But the uses of the term by Trump and Bush -- and especially the pro-immigration-reform and often-measured Bush -- seem likely to reignite this longstanding debate.