CHICAGO — Here's a perfect example of why do-gooders who crusade for the personal dignity of illegal immigrants have all but lost the war of rhetoric.In November, the American Heritage Dictionary added the term "anchor baby" to its new fifth edition. The entry read: "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."
An immigrant advocacy organization complained that the definition masked the "poisonous and derogatory nature of the term," and last week the editors of the dictionary changed it.
The revised version handles the term as it does other slurs, flagging it as "offensive." It now reads: "Used as a disparaging term for a child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially when the child's birthplace is thought to have been chosen in order to improve the mother's or other relatives' chances of securing eventual citizenship."
Note that in the new version the parents no longer have a citizenship-gaining strategy. The definition instead rests on the underlying assumptions and insulting intent of those who use the words "anchor baby" because they are passionately against illegal immigration.
It's fine to flag the term as derogatory, but this is an ineffectual defense against hysterical nativists who love this put-down and will continue to use it regardless of whether a reference book considers it inappropriate or not.
This redefining response smacks of a schoolyard tiff where a bully zings a peer and instead of reacting with a searing comeback, the victim runs to an adult in the hopes that the ensuing comeuppance will make the jerk stop.
Words have power. Their use, and misuse, is important. But the effort expended to change how this rude term is defined shows a lack of imagination -- it should have been spent on highlighting the inaccuracy of the term.
Why not ask the dictionary to add a few words -- "legally incorrect" springs to mind -- to the definition clarifying that anchor baby is a misnomer? For the record: a newborn U.S. citizen can't help parents who are residing in the country illegally gain legal residency. Not, at least, until that baby has reached adulthood and only after the parents have gone home for three or 10 years before they can even begin the process for legal entry and eventual citizenship.
"The funny thing about it is that people believe that undocumented immigrants use this method to become legal but the immigration law is already structured to prevent the phenomenon of the 'anchor baby,'" said Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney in New York. "The parents are barred from adjusting to permanent residence if they've come to the U.S. illegally, or even if they are here legally on a tourist visa."
Another way to attack a slur is to flip it around: Why not inject the terms "anchor parent," "anchor spouse," "anchor sibling," and "anchor employer" into the lexicon? Millions of U.S.-born and naturalized citizens have scaled mountains of immigration-law red tape in order to get their loved ones -- or uniquely talented employees -- into the country legally and permanently.
Immigrant advocates should be out plastering the Internet with smiling pictures of U.S. servicemen and women who fell in love and married while overseas, successful business owners who went through the expensive and protracted process of securing permanent employment-based visas, and on and on.
"The whole history of the United States is about people emigrating here with the whole family following along -- almost everyone emigrated here at one point and a lot of times their status was based on their parents," Johnson told me. "My business partner got her status as a derivative of her parents' asylum so her parents were her anchor. I'm only here because my grandparents came to this country so they were my anchor, for that matter."
Not all rhetoric wars call for fighting fire with fire -- though the escalating attacks on all immigrants, even the legal ones, and their families is increasingly making it feel necessary. In this case, though, dousing the flames of ignorance with a cold, clear dose of reality would have been the better way.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.