American Heritage Dictionary Adds "Anchor Baby" to Latest Edition, Fails to Mention That It's, Um, Highly Offensive

The wordsmiths over at New American Heritage Dictionary usually point out when a word or phrase is offensive or disparaging, particularly when it comes to terms loaded with racist sentiments.

You know them: the n-word, "spic," "white trash."

When you look up those words you get a little extra -- and useful -- information. It makes it clear that the word is unfriendly, to say the least. For instance:

spic [spik]
noun Slang: Disparaging and Offensive
a Spanish-American person.

white trash
noun Slang: Disparaging and Offensive
1. a member of the class of poor whites, especially in the southern U.S.

But the almighty definers at American Heritage don't seem to grasp the volatile nature of the term "anchor baby," a disparaging remark that aims to dehumanize the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.

Instead of the treatment they give to the previously mentioned slurs, they define the phrase just as the nativists would have them define it:

anchor baby n. A child born to a noncitizen 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.

During an NPR interview in November, Steve Kleinedler, the dictionary's executive editor, said of their definition: "The trick is to define them objectively without taking sides and just presenting what it is. And, in some cases up, you know, anchor baby is definitely a very charged, politically charged word."

Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, aptly writes:

The trouble with this philosophy is that "anchor baby" is not a neutral term, nor from what we have been able to find, has it ever been. First, it appears to be a wholly American term, one mired in the politics of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Those who use it are not in the business of clinically describing some sort of sociological phenomena. They are instead intent on suggesting that people come to the country illegally and deliberately have babies in order to use their children's citizenship to acquire legal status of their own.

Second, the New American Heritage Dictionary's definition ignores the very specific intent of the term and, in fact, gives it more credibility by treating it as some sort of universal description of children who acquire citizenship at birth. This masks the poisonous and derogatory nature of the term, a term which demeans both parent and child and in the process suggests that it is acceptable to call a child born in the U.S--i.e. an American citizen--an "anchor baby."

 And, besides being offensive, the term is just wrong -- implying that a child will "anchor" its undocumented mother or father to the United States. 

According to a 2009 article in the New York Times:

Of nearly 2.2 million immigrants deported in the decade ended 2007, more than 100,000 were the parents of children who, having been born in the United States, were American citizens, according to a report issued Friday by the Department of Homeland Security.

But the department lacks data that might have addressed questions left unanswered by the report, like the number of American children who were left behind in the United States or, alternatively, exited the country with their deported parents. Nor could the report say in how many instances both parents of such children were deported.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo