My Anchor Babies

Gustavo Moreno* works for a bulge bracket investment firm in New York, and he wrote me this evening. With his permission, I’m sharing his comments.

I’m writing you about what happened to my family and me yesterday in New York City, given that you can relate to my experience of living in a foreign country are much more familiar with Mexicans and the Mexican culture than most Americans are.

My wife and I are Mexican citizens and from Morelia. We came to the New York metro region under a work visa, we’ve lived here for ten years, and we are now U.S. permanent residents. I work in investment banking for a bulge bracket U.S. firm. Needless to say, and yet, here I am feeling compelled to state, we are law-abiding citizens who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes in the past ten years.

Yesterday my wife and I decided to go into Manhattan from our home the New Jersey suburbs. Joining us were our two daughters, our au pair (who is also from Mexico) and my brother. We were joyfully strolling down Broadway talking among ourselves in Spanish, of course, which I’m sure you’ll understand is perfectly normal behavior for native Spanish speakers and minding our own business. Out of the blue, a woman approached us and sarcastically referred to my daughters as “anchor babies.”

I am normally pretty hard-skinned, but I have to confess that this made me quite angry. I blurted out a profanity (which, of course, got me in trouble with my wife for using such language in front of the kids) and alerted everyone in my party what the woman had just said. Apparently, I was the only one who had actually heard her. My family was much cooler about the remark than I was. My 25-year old brother laughed it off, saying “Does she realize where she is?” (In New York City 40% of the population is foreign born.) He added “I guess she must go around saying this to every other person she meets on the street. I know she’d have to call this to the kids of most of my colleagues on the trading floor.”

Am I being overly sensitive about this? I don’t think so. Anchor baby is obviously a loaded term. In my culture, it’s considered impolite to even refer to someone as “he” or “she” instead of by his or her name if that person is present, and mothers will correct this misstep with a stern: “El o ella tiene su nombre” (“he or she has a name”). So, I find it beyond rude to refer to a stranger’s kid by a label, even if it were a less emotionally loaded one. Think about it: how would you feel if a stranger referred to your kids as “child tax credit babies” or something like that? Calling someone’s kids “anchor babies” seems almost unfathomable. Think of the inherent chauvinism and xenophobia in assuming that because we are speaking a foreign language and look non-American we: a) are here illegally, b) had our babies in the U.S. in order to one day get American citizenship ourselves and live off the generosity of American taxpayers.

I’m not even dealing with politics here, but with mere politeness. What drives an apparently otherwise normal person to harass a person she doesn’t know like this? I wish I could report that our harasser was an obviously fringe character or displayed obvious signs of ignorance and lack of sophistication; in fact, she seemed like an average New Yorker. I agree that American-style political correctness can at times be almost grotesquely funny, but I much prefer it to insensitive name calling and labeling. Labeling is often the first step in dehumanizing the “other,” which is a dangerous slippery slope. Psychologist Stanley Milgram, in a lesser known variation of his famous (or infamous) experiment, showed that people were much more likely to voluntarily harm a stranger who had done no harm to them if they “accidentally” overheard the researcher using a derisive label in referring to the stranger. I obviously don’t want to take this argument too far. I think I am already assigning far too much importance to the hateful words of a random stranger. However, I do think both sides of the immigration debate need to tone down the rhetoric. There are clearly valid arguments on both sides, but labeling and name-calling are utterly unhelpful, leading only to further polarization.

As an aside, I think the concept of anchor babies is largely a myth. First of all, having an American baby will not necessarily save an illegal alien from deportation; that has been clearly established by well-publicized cases. Second, an anchor baby cannot really apply for a green card for his or her parents until after he or she is eighteen. After that, there’s usually a long wait of several years before parents can get permanent residence. Finally, having an “anchor baby” does not give the parent rights to receive Social Security payments and other government benefits. I really don’t think that the illegal aliens who are having babies in the U.S. are doing so in order to get a green card thirty years down the road. There are other myths that are used by both sides in this debate. Another one that comes to mind is that illegal immigrants are draining Social Security funds, when in fact, it’s been well-documented that the Social Security Administration records a significant amount of Social Security contributions made under a false Social Security number, and thereby cannot be claimed by the people who made those contributions, so illegal immigrants are in fact subsidizing Social Security. I did not want to get into politics. It’s unfair because I’m only giving one side of the argument here. As I’ve said, there are valid arguments to both sides. I’m all for fair and objective debate of these arguments, but ad hominem attacks and labeling are clearly not constructive.

*The name has been changed, but everything else is absolutely true.

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