Jeb Bush was trying to dig himself out from a pile of criticism for using the term “anchor babies.” But his comments at a press conference Monday only brought heaps of new outrage.
Defending himself from charges that he had used a derogatory term stereotyping Hispanics, he told the cameras that “anchor babies” were “frankly more related to Asian people.”
The comment sparked outrage from Asian-American politicians, interest groups and Twitter users.
Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner who himself has landed in controversy for inflammatory remarks about Latinos, wrote on Twitter: “Asians are very offended that JEB said that anchor babies applies to them as a way to be more politically correct to hispanics. A mess!”
But there is a real if little-documented practice of so-called birth tourism from Asia, where foreign nationals come to the United States for the purpose of ensuring their children become American citizens. The phrase “anchor babies” implies that the parents of these children are also hoping to obtain legal status through them.
Here are five questions explaining this controversy.
1. Is Bush right about Asian “anchor babies”?
Bush’s comments – as controversial as they were – are partially based on truth.
There is a very real phenomenon of parents from Asian countries coming to the United States while they are expecting a baby with the intent of securing American citizenship for their offspring.
But there are no reliable statistics on how widespread the “maternity tourism” trend is and which foreign nationals participate most in the phenomenon in the United States.
In countries like China, companies and agents arrange for parents to travel to the U.S. and act as liaisons with so-called “birth houses” here. At these facilities, the Asian parents are given various means of support around the birth of their child, including hospital visits and shopping.
Gary Chodorow, an immigration lawyer based in China, said he has seen a “very obvious” boom in recent years of Chinese parents seeking to give birth in the U.S. Many of his clients look for his guidance on navigating U.S. immigration laws.
“In China, this is a big business,” Chodorow said. “Oftentimes, people who have participated in this and had a child in the U.S. will have serious immigration problems.”
2. Why do Asian mothers want to give birth in the U.S.?
In China, it’s one way to get around the “one-child policy,” a family-planning rule that bans parents from having more than one child. And as China’s economy has taken off, parents with growing disposable income increasingly have the means to try to provide their children with better education and work opportunities.
In countries like China and Korea – known for education systems that prioritize rote learning over creativity and for grueling college entrance exams – parents are clamoring to enroll their children in the American school system.
Lisa Sun-Hee Park, a University of Santa Barbara Asian-American Studies professor, didn’t think the phenomenon was widespread enough to be a trend, but said the motivation for some parents may be similar to “parachute parents.” These parents send their kids overseas so they can have access to a superior education and job market – and to have better opportunities if they come back to their home country.
“Those kinds of credentials,” Park Said, are also “seen as an elevation of status.”
3. So why are people offended?
“The racial implications of who is coming into the United States and having ‘anchor babies’ is offensive,” said Madeline Hsu, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on Asian-American history.
And Rep. Judy Chu of California, who chairs of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Rep. Grace Meng of New York, said Tuesday in a call with reporters that Bush’s remarks were “derogatory and offensive.”
The congresswomen took particular issue with what they said was Bush pitting “one group against the other.”
There are also broader political implications for Asian-Americans as they watch the Republican Party debate the divisive issue of immigration.
“There seems to be very little effort to mobilize the Asian-American vote,” said Erika Lee, the director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. “So to have Asian-Americans enter into this debate as potential ‘anchor babies’ is – people feel like it represents the disregard that politicians have for Asian-Americans.”
4. Will there be lasting political damage?
The Republican Party has been focused on broadening its appeal to the Hispanic community in recent years, but there hasn’t been the same concerted effort to make inroads with Asian-American voters.
While they are a rapidly growing segment of the population, Asian-Americans make up only about 3% of the total U.S. vote compared to about 10% for Latinos, according to pollsters.
Asian-Americans have leaned Democratic in the last two presidential elections: In 2008, Obama won 62% of Asians, then 73% four years later.
Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster at the Garin Hart Yang Research Group, said Bush’s comments about Asian “anchor babies” will do little to boost the GOP’s image among Asian-Americans.
“Of course it is offensive that he would use this to impugn Asian-Americans,” Yang said. “But I also think he’s in as much trouble for his original comments about Latinos, then trying to explain it away by criticizing Asians.”
Jason Chung, the director of Asian Pacific Americans Engagement for the Republican National Committee, which does not endorse a candidate in the GOP presidential primary, said in an email that the party is “committed to engaging all voters in all communities across the country,” and that competing for the Asian-American vote is a “top priority.”
5. Is there any effort to stop “maternity tourism”?
There has been a recent spate of crackdowns on the “maternity tourism” industry in the United States, particularly in California, believed to be a popular destination for foreign nationals coming to the U.S. to give birth.
In March, federal agents raided dozens of “maternity hotels” in Southern California believed to have housed mostly women from China.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said women paid tens of thousands of dollars for lodging at these maternity homes. The ongoing challenge for authorities and experts who study immigration is the lack of data on just how widespread the trend is – and where in the country this practice may be taking hold.
“It’s unclear how large a trend this is, how common it is and whether the federal government crackdown on it has fully addressed this situation,” said Lee.