In this Republican presidential cycle, Donald Trump is supposed to be immigrants' archenemy and Jeb Bush their archangel. Trump wants to deport U.S. citizens; Bush co-wrote a book three years ago extolling the virtues of immigration reform.
But both men have been peddling popular myths about "anchor babies," the pejorative term given to children born in the United States to undocumented parents. Trump does this because he is digging deep into the nativist fever swamps, Bush because he apparently doesn't fully understand the subject of his own book.
After the 2012 election, when Trump was chastising Mitt Romney for his "crazy" and "mean-spirited" plans to encourage illegal immigrants to "self-deport," Bush and the Goldwater Institute's Clint Bolick co-wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal raising the alarm over "chain migration," which makes use of "family reunification" visas. "This chain migration," they wrote, is not only the "driver of immigration policy," but it "does not promote the nation's economic interests."
Bush's comments were no doubt meant to earn him street cred among conservatives otherwise cool to his ideas for increasing economic immigration. But the fact is that he was regurgitating a myth cooked up by ultra-restrictionist organizations such as Numbers USA. That group defines "chain migration" as an "endless and often-snowballing" process in which "chains of foreign nationals…immigrate because the law allows citizens and lawful permanent residents to bring in their extended, non-nuclear family members." These family members bring in still more people until-voila!-entire villages are emptied into the United States, as through a chain reaction.
That is not how America's immigration system actually works.
For starters, there is no provision in U.S. immigration law for either permanent residents (green-card holders) or American citizens to sponsor non-nuclear relatives such as aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, grandparents, or cousins to come to the United States. Other than spouses, parents, and minor children, the only relatives who can be sponsored are adult children and siblings. And depending upon the green card backlogs for their country, this process could take them anywhere from 15 to 25 years.
This means that if a typical 26-year-old foreign woman were to get married to an American citizen, and then sponsor her 25-year-old sister to get a green card, that sister would be 40 years old before she could obtain permanent residency. If she's a Filipina, her sister would be closer to 50 years old. If the sister then sponsored some other immediate relative, that person would have to go through a 15- to 25-year process as well. Over a half a century, then, most families could at best traverse two links in the alleged "chain," hardly the kind of thing that would result in mass migration. Most people have built lives for themselves in their home countries by that age and, when their turn comes, they opt out.
It is true, as Bush claims, that family-based immigration accounts for about 65 percent of foreigners admitted to the U.S. More than half of them, however, are the spouses and children of American citizens. Curbing family-based immigration would require breaking apart families, a curious position for a pro-family party and candidate.
If chain migration is a phantom concern, the scourge of "anchor babies" isn't much more plausible. Here's how Trump described the supposed practice at the second GOP debate in September: "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? I don't think so."
The "anchor" in anchor babies refers to the birthright citizenship of the child, who then can supposedly turn around and sponsor his or her mom and dad. But children can't sponsor their parents before the age of 21. And undocumented parents are supposed to wait 10 years outside America before qualifying, putting the total lag time between birth and a parental green card at more than three decades. Moving to the U.S. illegally while pregnant isn't much of an infiltration strategy.
Nor does having a U.S.-citizen child offer foolproof protection against deportation. In 2013 alone, the Obama administration evicted 73,000 illegally present parents of American children—about 11,000 of whom had no criminal conviction. More to the point, prior to August 2014, only 4,000 unauthorized immigrants could qualify for relief from deportation every year, and then only if they had lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years. That month, President Obama issued an order to defer deportation and issue temporary work permits to up to 5 million of the 11 million undocumented aliens in the country, provided they have no criminal record. But even though the order does not offer permanent legalization or green cards, it is still on hold pending a constitutional challenge filed in court by the predominantly conservative attorneys general of 26 states, who see it as amnesty.
Depending on whose calculation one uses, there are somewhere from 250,000 to 300,000 American-born children of undocumented parents each year. The Pew Research Center found that as of 2013, the median duration of residence for illegal immigrants living in the U.S. was 13 years; a full 88 percent had been living in the country for five years or more. This suggests that undocumented aliens have babies because they have already built lives—albeit in the shadows—in America, not in order to gain a toehold or legal anchor.
What's more, immigration levels consistently rise and fall with the availability of jobs, making all other factors subordinate. And the gender composition of parent-age (20- to 40-year-old) illegal immigrants tilts overwhelmingly male, not female, according to Pew.
It's not just Trump's vision of pregnant Mexicans waddling across the border that has haunted the GOP debate this year. Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, and others have been sounding the alarm against well-heeled Asian "birth tourists," who are said to fly into the country legally to deliver newly minted American citizens.
"If…pregnant women are coming in to have babies simply because they can do it, then there ought to be greater enforcement," Bush said in a radio interview in August. A few days later, he clarified his remarks: "What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed, where there's organized efforts—and frankly, it's more related to Asian people coming into our country having children in that organized effort—taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship."
Not only is Bush wrong about the supposed "fraud" (after all, everyone involved is following the law, has a valid visa, and, if asked, will even tell immigration officials that she is pregnant), but he's wrong that this is even a problem. Asian birth tourism is actually a blessing for America. Why?
These are usually relatively well-off couples, the vast majority from China, who come to America legally on tourist visas and shell out some $50,000 for their medical bills. Only 35,000 or so can afford to do this every year. They come partly to score U.S. citizenship for their children, partly to enjoy better medical facilities, and partly to escape China's one-child quota—Beijing's autocrats don't count kids born with other nationalities against a couple's strict allowance.
And then they go home. That's the key difference between Asian "birth tourists" and their Latino counterparts: The typical Asian baby spends the most expensive phase of his life in China, returning to America (if he returns) only after age 18, when he is entering the most productive phase. In effect, birth tourism allows America to outsource some of its childrearing, resulting in enormous savings. (It costs a whopping $300,000 to raise a middle-income child today.)
Accusations that Latino "anchor baby" parents mooch off American taxpayers are also greatly exaggerated if not false. George Washington University's Leighton Ku and Brian Bruen found that low-income immigrants have lower average utilization of welfare programs and receive smaller average benefits than comparable native-born adults and children. Even low-income immigrants are far less prone to welfare dependency. In any event, every adult immigrant, whatever her income level, constitutes a windfall for the United States, since we reap the dividends of another society's investment.
To bring about any improvements to our messed-up immigration system, politicians have to get their facts straight first. It's not surprising that a rabble-rouser like Trump isn't interested in doing so; that the sanest Republican candidate on immigration is also spreading myths is depressing indeed.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Anchor Babies Aweigh".