“Anchor Baby” Added to New American Heritage Dictionary

The degree to which the immigration debate has coarsened over the last few years is no more evident than in the pages of the recently released fifth edition of the New American Heritage Dictionary. Among the new entries is the term “anchor baby.” You might think that the definition would read something like: slang, a pejorative description of a child born in the United States to parents without legal status, implying that the parents intend to leverage the child’s citizenship to “anchor” their own presence in the U.S.”  You would be wrong.

Instead, the definition reads:

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.

According to the dictionary’s executive editor, the trick to defining new words is to “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.”

Although the politically charged nature of the word made defining it difficult, the editors ultimately felt it was best to put the word in with no commentary, claiming “it falls into a gray area where we felt it was better just to state what it was, and then people can filter their own life experiences through the word and judgments on it as they see fit.”

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.”

What is particularly disturbing about this new definition is that it confuses popularity of a term with neutrality. While the term anchor baby has skyrocketed in usage in the last decade, that usage appears to be spurred by the general explosion of anti-immigrant rhetoric, blogs, and other media outlets. Objective reporters tend to put the phrase in quotations, to indicate that the term is a loaded one.

In fact, back in 2006, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn received complaints about his reference to the child of an illegal immigrant seeking sanctuary in a Chicago church as an “anchor baby.” Zorn found that the term isn’t a neutral descriptor, but instead, according to one of his sources, it’s a way to dehumanize the children of undocumented immigrants. Upon reflection, Zorn said that the complaints he received were a “good enough reason to regret having used it and to decide not to use it in the future. Sound arguments don’t need loaded language.”

And loaded language needs to be identified as such in the dictionary. The New American Heritage Dictionary acknowledges the derogatory nature of hundreds of terms. By failing to do so with the term “anchor baby,” however, the dictionary implies that the term is acceptable in common usage and misleads the public by insinuating that giving birth to a child in the United States necessarily carries with it the intention of using that child for immigration status.

In an era where politicians and pundits have no qualms about being imprecise, dictionary editors need to be—even if that means calling a term “highly charged,” “political,” or down right nasty. While dictionaries may be neutral, language isn’t. “Anchor baby” is a term that epitomizes the way words reflect and reframe a debate.

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UPDATE: Since publication of this blog post, the executive editor of the New American Heritage Dictionary has agreed to revise the definition of to reflect the derogatory nature of the term. Read more…

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  1. The reality is there are no “anchor babies” in the sense of this definition. As anyone who understands immigration law plainly knows, an undocumented parent of a U.S. citizen will wait, at a minimum, 38 years (21 for the child to reach the age of sponsorship, 10 year mandatory wait outside of the country for the parent, plus a processing wait time of another 8 years or more) to be granted citizenship. Assuming the parent is 20 when the child is born, they will be 58 years old before their time –may– come. It’s 53 years for siblings.

    No one has a 38 or 53-year plan.

  2. Amy McMullen says:

    This is a disgusting attack on the English language and an obvious pandering to the forces of nativism and xenophobia on the part of the NAHD. Boycott them now and tell others to never buy this piece of garbage posing as a dictionary.

  3. Saul Goode says:

    “Anchor baby” is a term, not a word.

    I always thought that it was the dictionary’s job to define words, not weigh in on political debates with their “objective” definitions.

    While one group of people may call U.S. born children anchor babies, others may call them true Americans.

    I’m glad I never bought a New American Heritage Dictionary, because it sounds like they truly do define the true American linguistic heritage of morons.

  4. Steve Kleinedler says:

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. The editorial staff and I will be discussing these very valid points next week. A revision to this definition is in order.

    Mary Giovagnoli, if there is some way to contact you, please let me know.

    Thank you.

    Steve Kleinedler
    Executive Editor
    American Heritage Dictionary

    • More importantly, the term is an urban myth. The conotation is that an immigrant comes to this country, has a child (who is by law a US citizen) and then is able to stay thanks to the child.
      The truth is that a child may not sponsor a parent until they reach the age of 21.
      Once a child sponsors a parent, IF the parent entered the country With Inspection (what people incorrectly call Legally), then the parent can adjust to the status of lawful permanent resident so long as the child or someother US citizen signs an affidavit wherein they agree to support the immigrant at 125% of the poverty level so that the immigrant will never become a public charge.
      IF however, the parent entered the US Without Inspection (what people incorrectly call illegally) then the parent must return to their home country for an interview. Upon leaving the US, the parent will become subject to a ‘Bar to Reentry” of 3 (if they were in the US longer than 6 months but less than 1 year) or 10 years (if they were in the US 1 year or longer).
      The child, DOES NOT qualify as a relative, under immigration law, to obtain a “Wavier” (pardon) to this bar to reentry.
      Therefore, there is NO real benefit to having a child in the US, much less, one that would rise to the level of Anchor.
      It should also be pointed out, that a parent is one of the easiest petitions to make. The other family members alluded to by the term are even less likely, as a sibling takes over 10 years to simply get an interview, wherein they too will be subject to the above referenced bars to reentry and again, the US citizen sibling cannot obtain a waiver.

  5. Thomas says:

    Do they include all offensive ethnic, religious, and racial epithets in this dictionary? Is this the official dictionary of the klan?

  6. Amor Sabor says:

    I find it highly offensive to see a publisher of a dictionary include the word “Anchor baby” as if it were a word rather than a phrase utilized by racists since the problem of immigration reform surfaced simultaneous with a downturn of the economy. I certainly hope the editors of the dictionary realize this is a mistake that cannot be perpetuated and that they remain neutral in the definition of words and not giving creedence to a controversial, inaccurate and highly charged term.

  7. Including this derogatory term in a dictionary is simply outrageous.

  8. Victor Mateo says:

    “Anchor baby” is a pejorative term more appropriate for the Urban Dictionary Online than The American Heritage Dictionary. This term must be removed from your Dictionary and an apology given to the millions of U.S. Citizens who have grown under the stigma represented by this clearly racist term. Besides that, the definition is incorrect as it refers to children “born to a noncitizen mother” when there are millions of Legal Permanent Residents in this country, who are not U.S. citizens, and their children have not been referred to as “anchor babies” since their parents enjoy legal status in the U.S. already. Of course this may change now thanks to your decision to allow this term to be included in your new edition and the incorrect definition associating it to millions of U.S. citizen children born to Legal Permanent Residents. I would be outrage as well if I the dictionary decided to include one of the many hateful and discriminatory terms used against homosexuals in this country, without an explanation of the term being derrogatory. An apology and the elimination of this term is expected by many.

  9. Joe Ray says:

    So much for neutrality. And released just in time for nicely wrapped Holiday giving.

    Yes, it’s a term and a very intentionally derogative term at that. Labels such as this have always cut deep for me. I was born in Mexico to 1 US born parent, had legal status since being in the US at the age of 3 but “officially” received US Citizenship after turning 18.

    However, I grew up on an Indian Reservation in AZ, which in the past couple of years has given a different outlook to the term Anchor Babies; those of European descent. Icons of Anchor Babies are represented as Pilgrims and those arriving on Ellis Island.

    There’s a different twist for the term.

  10. Thank you for posting, and thanks to all the readers for such detailed follow-up comments. If the dictionary actually reconsiders and revises the definition, it will be a great victory.

  11. Kestrel says:

    Unfortunately, “anchor baby” is a word/term. We must acknowledge it’s existence. I hate certain words: Slut, bitch, cunt, gold digger, but they are all placed in the dictionary b/c they are terms that people use and are therefore are a part of our language and it is the editor’s responsibility to put them in the dictionary.

    Recently the word “Bling Bling” was put into the dictionary, the editor’s probably rolled their eyes at this word because of it’s silliness, but they put it in their because it had become relevant with our culture. It doesn’t make it a any less stupid.

    Just because there is a term in a dictionary that you don’t like: 1) tough cookies, there’s plenty in there already 2) why would we blame the dictionary? Isn’t it society that we need to focus on? 3) by raising the argument you give the word more power, now that the word has more power, what are you going to do? USE the word against itself!

    Our time would be better spent actually explaining how hard it is to gain citizenship even when you’ve been working in this country and paying taxes and having children for years. I think those are the facts that people don’t know, so they will continue to use the word ‘anchor baby’ b/c they don’t know any better.

    Mary G: If you’re gonna roll over so easy on this definition then I have some others I’d like looked at…

  12. Steve Kleinedler says:

    The omission of a label was a mistake on our part, and I recognize and apologize for the error. Our revision will rectify this error.

    Kestrel articulates eloquently the role of dictionaries as a mirror of society. Unabridged dictionaries include derogatory slurs and offensive words and phrases. (However, we recognize that many people prefer a reference work without these items, which is why we make other, abridged titles available, such as our Desk Dictionary.)

    I am grateful for forums such as this one where people can discuss these matters and to Mary for pointing out our mistake.

    – Steve

  13. David Padilla says:

    Stop this outrage and stop the classifications because it only splinters our society even more. It is nativist and discriminatory in nature and after so much progress this only puts us steps behind.

  14. Be sure to check out today’s post which highlights the response from the folks at the American Heritage Dictionary: http://immigrationimpact.com/2011/12/03/american-heritage-dictionary-responds-%E2%80%9Canchor-baby%E2%80%9D-definition-criticism/

  15. Rich Canter says:

    Hmmm…….are liberals the only folks viewing this forum? I definitely think “anchor baby” should be classified as a word because it is used frequently in this country. Remember, this is an American Heritage Dictionary. The dictionary shows absolutely no bias in its definition…….it just states a fact.

  16. Daniel G. DeGriselles says:

    This particular set of two words, however pejorative, is used sufficiently to require recognition in a dictionary. A dictionary can be prescriptive (declaring how words ought to be used): both Johnson’s and Webster’s were to a degree; but dictionaries are most helpful when they are descriptive: defining words (and phrases) as they are actually used in a society. However, I think the editors missed the boat on this one by leaving out what should have been included. I appreciate the efforts of those involved in obtaining correction. The phrase is clearly discriminatory, inflammatory, derogative.

  17. Citizen says:

    Stop having anchor babies here and we won’t need to have a term for anchor babies. Also, stay home until you learn English because we aren’t going to re-label everything for you.

  18. Edi says:

    Okay first of all it’s called the Right to Free Speech; you know that pesky right to say what you want when you want where you want? We the people have chosen our vernacular and regardless of how a dictionary defines a word you have the right not to use the word. With that being said you also have the right to petition people to recognize how demining a word is. However you have to recognize that people can be demining and if they wish to be they can be.

  19. Brenda says:

    I think more should be added to it, like “anchor babies” are used to get government entitlements and housing.
    We need to remember the child born to people who are not citizens are not citizens themselves. At least one of the parents has to be a citizen. This amendment has been misconstrewed in many ways. So please support “No Birthright Citizenship” in the United States.

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