Once known pejoratively as “anchor babies,” the children of foreign nationals born on American soil have traditionally had a right to automatic citizenship. As a result, immediate family members would seek their own citizenship by virtue of the close relationship. But, after years of debate on the topic of immigration reform, are anchor babies still legal?


Where Did It Start?

Following the Civil War, America enacted the 14th Amendment to ensure fair and equal treatment for recently freed black slaves that had been denied rights of citizenship under the Constitution. It states, in relevant part, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” The nation lacked an immigration policy at the time, so no provision was made in the language of the Amendment to clarify whether it applied to immigrants or only African slaves. Although a number of court decisions held that the latter was the case, the issue resurfaced in the 1960s with the Immigration Act.

In 1965, the US Congress passed the Immigration Act. Under a loophole in its provisions, when read in conjunction with the 14th Amendment, any babies born on US soil have automatic American citizenship, whether or not their parents were in the country illegally. This led to illegal alien parents crossing the border to give birth to a child who could act as an “anchor” to keep them in the country and provide them with permanent US residency.

Is It Still Legal?

What may surprise many is that the citizenship birthright remains available to any person born on US soil, regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth. A number of attempts have been made, particularly in the last 20 years, to reform this situation. However, these reforms have remained unsuccessful. Most opposition points out that laws eliminating this practice will most likely harm the child more than the parents, making it an unpopular law to try to pass.

What many do not realize is that an “anchor baby” does not guarantee immediate citizenship for the parents or ensure continued residency in the US for the child. In most instances, while the child will have US citizenship, the child would not be able to live alone in the US until reaching the age of majority. Thus, in most cases, the parent(s) and child are returned to their country of origin, and the child has the right to return to the US as a citizen after turning 18 (or can visit anytime before that).

Thus, while it is still legal to have a child in the US for the purpose of establishing the child’s citizenship and then allowing other family members to immigrate, such a plan is a long investment at best. There is no guarantee that the child and parents would be allowed to remain in the US after birth, meaning that this “anchoring” effect might not become effective for 18 years when the child is able to return to the US on his or her own.
Impact of “Anchoring” on US

The myth of “anchoring” is so deeply ingrained in some populations (particularly Mexico) that an entire industry of medical tourism has sprung up around the practice. Services will help expectant mothers from other countries arrange for transportation, accommodations, and hospital arrangements to ensure the nationality of their child upon birth. Unfortunately, many of these parents will ultimately leave the country disappointed that their stay cannot become indefinite as they had hoped.

At the other end of the spectrum are parents who cross the border illegally (or remain in the country long past the expiration of their visas) to have a child. Because of American emergency care laws, hospitals cannot turn these people away, regardless of nationality or ability to pay. This has the medical industry to absorb a large block of expenses associated with giving birth to the children of illegal immigrants. Some estimate the drain on the American medical and insurance industry at several billion dollars per year.