The firestorm around the inclusion of the term “anchor baby” in the new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary has led to a dramatic reversal in the definition. Not only did the executive editor, Steven Kleinelder, emphatically apologize for the initial definition, he promised swift action to change it. By Monday morning, the term was labeled as “offensive.” By Monday afternoon, a new definition appeared online, one that was crafted to reflect more accurately just how artificial a term it really is:

anchor baby n. Offensive 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.

This is the kind of controversy that doesn’t fade away quickly, and many argue that the term is so offensive that it shouldn’t appear in the dictionary at all. I understand but disagree with that position, largely because the term, however offensive, exists as a political and practical reality. I think the new definition validates what many outraged voices in blogs, on Twitter, and in the press have been saying all along: “anchor baby” is a term that shouldn’t exist but does because immigration restrictionists are really good at creating words that generate fear.

While the origins are not reflected in the definition, characterizing the term as both “offensive” and “disparaging” says volumes about how it is used in real life. I would much rather have a curious student or citizen have the ability to look up the term in the dictionary and find this definition than to find no guidance and accept the meaning and agenda of restrictionists who used it.

And of course, that agenda is the repeal or amendment of the Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate citizenship at birth. The Immigration Policy Center has published numerous articles on the legal and practical problems inherent in that position. This position, in turn, arises from the misplaced notion that the problems plaguing our current immigration system would somehow be eliminated if only we could prevent persons here without legal status from having children.

It’s not solely the dictionary’s job to lay out the politics behind words. It is the job of advocates and scholars, policy-makers and politicians, community leaders, people of faith, and everyone else who values a constructive solution to immigration reform.

We must not only monitor how terms are used and defined, but must work to make hateful terms archaic. If we challenge the people who prefer fear to solutions, and direct our energies affirmatively towards an immigration system that is thoughtful, fair and reflects our country’s needs as well as our values, then hateful terms like “anchor baby” can become part of the past.

Photo by Péter Gudella.

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