‘Anchor Babies’ and the Law: An Explainer From a Former Consular Officer

Posted: 1:55 am EDT
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NPR News writes that both Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have defended birthright citizenship, but they have said more needs to be done about women who might come into the U.S. expressly to have children. “If there’s abuse, if people are bringing, pregnant women are coming in to have babies simply because they can do it, then there ought to be greater enforcement,” Bush told conservative radio host Bill Bennett this week, as reported by Politico. Like how, or greater enforcement of what?

Birthright citizenship and “anchor baby”  are in the front burner of political campaigns these days.  The Congressional Research Service (CRS) issued this report on Birthright Citizenship Under the 14th Amendment of Persons Born in the United States to Alien Parents (via Secrecy News) back in 2012.  The report is dated January 10, 2012 but is an interesting read on the various legislative proposals and its history. There is a useful discussion of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 included in the report. In related news, denial of birth certificates to U.S. born children of undocumented immigrants in Texas is now a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Austin, TX.

Peter Van Buren, a consular officer by trade until his retirement from the Foreign Service has written a straight-forward explainer on this subject. Excerpted below:

Explainer: ‘Anchor Babies’ and the Law
by Peter Van Buren (We Meant Well Blog)

Thanks to brave presidential candidates Trump and Bush, et al, the term “anchor baby” is now the subject of interest and ignorance by a media preoccupied with whatever shiny object is held in front of it.

Trump wants to tear up part of the Constitution he unilaterally proclaims is unconstitutional; no one is sure what the other Republicans plan to “do” about this issue, but they sure don’t support it somehow.

Anchor Babies

So what are “anchor babies” and which parts of American law affect them?

An “anchor baby” (many find the term offensive, referring as it does to a child as an object) is a child born in the United States to a foreign citizen, legally or illegally present in the U.S., who, by virtue of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, automatically and forever acquires American citizenship. The child need only prove s/he was born in the U.S.

The term anchor comes into play because at the age of 21 the child can begin filing green card paperwork for his/her extended family. The single American citizen in a family becomes the “anchor” through which all can eventually become legal permanent residents of the U.S. and soon after, citizens.

Many conservatives feel conveying citizenship so freely cheapens the meaning of being an “American,” and especially object to the idea that a mother illegally in the United States can birth an American citizen. Others are troubled by a growing industry that sends foreign mothers to the U.S. specifically so that they can create such citizens, so-called “birth tourism.”

The Law

The concept that anyone born in the U.S. (one exception: those born not subject to U.S. law, which has been held to apply primarily to Native Americans and to children of certain accredited foreign diplomats exempt [immune] from U.S. laws, though there are loopholes even there) is automatically an American citizen is part of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the so-called Citizenship Clause.

The 14th was adopted in 1868, in the aftermath of the Civil War as part of reconciling the status of millions of slaves forcibly brought to the United States. The Citizenship Clause specifically overruled the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford), which had held that Americans descended from African slaves could not be citizens of the United States. The Amendment cleared up any ambiguities, stating “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

The most significant test of the 14th Amendment came in 1898, via United States v. Wong Kim Ark. The Supreme Court upheld that a child born in the United States automatically became a U.S. citizen. At issue were laws passed after the Wong child’s birth that excluded Chinese citizens from entering the U.S. The decision in Wong has been understood to mean that the legal status of the mother, as well as any secondary immigration laws below the Constitution, have no bearing on the granting of citizenship.

It can get complicated, and there have been unsuccessful efforts to overturn or reinterpret Wong in light of contemporary concerns over immigration.

For those who like their law in Latin, the idea that anyone born in a certain country automatically acquires citizenship there is called jus soli (right of soil.) The opposite, that citizenship is derived only via one’s parents, is called jus sanguinis (right of blood.) No European nation offers unrestricted jus soli, and very few other countries outside the Western Hemisphere do either.

Foreigners, Visas and Babies

While some foreigners who give birth in the U.S. enter illegally by walking across a land border, a significant number of moms enter the U.S. on visas or the rough equivalent, the visa waiver program, which provides less fettered access to citizens from certain countries, mostly Europeans. Some give birth in the U.S.; is this legal?

It is. There is no law whatsoever that prohibits someone from coming to the United States specifically to give birth here and create an “anchor baby.”

Many uninformed commentators point to two visa laws that they feel may prohibit such an act, the “public charge” provision and the fraud provision.
[…]
Birth Tourism

The current issue of Rolling Stone contains a long article on “birth tourism.” Such “tourism” is a huge business in Asia, particularly in China where rising incomes coincide with existing interest in emigration. Companies arrange for everything; a mom need only provide money. The companies legally assist the mother in obtaining a visa, arrange for her to stay in the U.S. in an apartment complex (dubbed “maternity hotels”), usually in California for convenience for flights from Asia, full of other Chinese moms, and then give birth in a local hospital staffed with Chinese-speaking doctors.
[…]
There is absolutely nothing illegal about birth tourism under U.S. law.

Read in full Explainer: ‘Anchor Babies and the Law at the We Meant Well blog.

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2 responses

  1. My experience in three different countries with significant birth tourism rate is that the vast majority of these anchor babies live in their parents’ home countries for most of their lives and do not assimilate or become “Americanized”.

    The idea that this would be necessary is codified in law- namely, the laws that govern the acquisition of citizenship for a child born overseas to a USC parent- in many cases that parent has to have spent at least 5 years in the US to transmit their citizenship to the child. The idea here is that if the parent is at least somewhat Americanized, they will pass that on to their offspring.

    It seems a bit crass to demand that of a USC parent, while an alien parent can simply give birth to a USC in the US, no assimilation necessary.

    It nay be worth a look to determine if the intent to give birth in the US can be a grounds for refusal of a tourist visa, but we’ll have to decide where the spirit of the current laws reside- whether becoming “American” is more desirable to us than simply giving out blue passports.

  2. A good friend, also a former consular officer, has commented that there seems to be an attitude that giving citizenship so easily somehow diminishes it for the rest of us; as if it’s a finite asset. It’s not. It’s sort of like marriage. More people wanting to do it doesn’t cheapen it, but makes it even more valuable.