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What does the Term "Anchor Baby" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

The terms “anchor baby” and “jackpot baby” are used pejoratively in the United States to refer to the children of undocumented immigrants. Since all people born in the United States are automatically offered citizenship, except for the children of diplomats, some people fear that anchor babies are used to ensure citizenship for their parents and family members. Despite the fact that this is not, in fact, the case, the term is often thrown around at anti-immigration rallies, as part of a larger anti-immigration rhetoric.

In fact, if the parents of an anchor baby are illegal immigrants, they are not guaranteed the right to citizenship merely because they have children on American soil. They are at risk of deportation, although many judges will not deport the parents of a young child because they do not want to split up a family. However, when the anchor baby reaches adulthood, his or her parents may be deported if they are unsuccessful at applying for citizenship.

After the age of 21, an anchor baby could apply to sponsor his or her parents in a citizenship application. As a minor, however, the child has no real ability to “anchor” parents to American soil, despite beliefs to the contrary. While it is true that many parents make a deliberate effort to have children in the United States in the hopes of offering them a better life, these parents are often aware that the child is not always a ticket to citizenship.

Life as an anchor baby can also be very difficult. Many such children are deeply steeped in American culture, and they have no real connection to the homeland of their parents. They may not have much of an opportunity to visit their parents' home, because the parents may be concerned about being stopped at the American border and denied entrance. While these children are routinely told to “go home,” they respond that they are in fact already home, by right of birth and the law.

The law that guarantees citizenship to American-born children is sometimes called the Citizenship Clause, and it is found in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Amendment was included to ensure that the descendants of former slaves would be considered full American citizens, and it seemed sensible to extend that right to other American-born children as well. Despite extensive lobbying by people opposed to the 14th Amendment, it is unlikely to be struck down, as amendments are notoriously difficult to remove from the American Constitution. This difficulty is built in by design, to ensure that changing political climates and moods do not have a permanent impact on American life without a substantial amount of effort from Congress.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Feb 26, 2014

Well, times change and things change. When this amendment was written up (the 14th amendment), there were probably very few illegal immigrants in the country (USA), and virtually every person who was born on the soil of USA was the child of at least one US citizen.

However, things are different now. We now have all these illegals from Mexico having babies in the US. They knowingly broke this country's laws and came here illegally, just to get something that they want (as in, giving US citizenship to their would-be child). So, it is now up to us the people to come up with a counter.

And I say the fastest and probably the best way is to change the law such that a person must 1. Be born on the US soil and 2. Be born to at least one US citizen, in order to be granted citizenship. Of course, laws are hard to change and it's even more true for the Constitution, but it is about the only sensible (and legal) thing that we can do. Otherwise, a lot of other Mexicans will be encouraged by it and they will all want to stream into the USA.

Another thing: I can just imagine these illegal aliens being smug and self-righteous, preaching to Americans about "tolerance", and "human rights". They act this way because they know the US media is on their side (along with a lot of other people. Liberals for one). I really think some of them were even "coached", to act in this moralizing, self-righteous, holier-than-thou way. My question to all of you is this: who has been teaching these illegals what to say to Americans, and how to get more, more, ever more from the US?

By anon338235 — On Jun 12, 2013

The author misses one of the primary reasons for anchor babies. Anchor babies are given a valid social security number. The illegal parent now possesses a social security number they can use to obtain employment. And it is a very special one. It is certainly valid. More importantly, the owner of the number is not going to complain if his/her number is used. As a bonus, the name might even match.

The government could easily stop this by analyzing wages associated with social security numbers, but they don't and the illegal immigrants know it.

By anon333860 — On May 08, 2013

People should have the right to go anywhere in the world. God did not put up a fence.

By anon330139 — On Apr 14, 2013

I don't believe it's feasible or rational to deport undocumented immigrants from the US at this point, and I understand that the majority come here to create a better life for their family than what is possible in their home countries.

That said, just because someone's reason for emigrating here is understandable or logical, doesn't equate to any right. I'm sorry but there is no right to a better life. I know I'm fortunate to be born here, but life isn't fair or equal - even if all the wealthy people gave up all their money, it would not create income equality, let alone quality of life parity.

I keep waiting for a reporter to challenge an undocumented immigrant they interview who says they have a 'right' to be here, and I reject the argument that we are 'a nation of immigrants' and 'immigrants built this country', because while both sides of my family were immigrants from Europe in the 16th through 18th centuries, they had papers, they were documented, and they registered on arrival.

While I think the argument that undocumented workers steal jobs from American workers is a bunch of crap - if we raise the price of farm labor, we're not going to see a bunch of poor Americans give up their welfare checks to work in the fields and migrate around the country following the seasons. But we would see an incentive for people to invent new ways to mechanize agriculture, as we did with the cotton gin. And that would be good for everyone.

On a related note, let's talk about the Mexican government's incentive for Mexicans to immigrate to the US: A payment of $3 for every $1 sent to Mexico by collectives formed by the undocumented in the US. (see pg. 104 in the book "Hyperborder", by Fernando Romero). Many towns in Mexico are empty of adult men, and the residents literally have stopped working in any way because they get enough money from their relatives in the US to live. The Mexican government is trying to close their southern border with Latin America to stop the flow of illegal immigration into Mexico from Guatemala and other countries whose people are streaming into these 'ghost towns' in Mexico to do the work that residents don't want to. How ironic.

By anon324543 — On Mar 11, 2013

@anon324067: Most foreign diplomats and their families will eventually return to their country of origin once their terms of service are over. At best, they could be considered alien residents. The 14th Amendment was an attempt to solve a lot of different problems the U.S. government faced while trying to herd and count millions of cats. One major problem was defining exactly who should be included under the large umbrella called “citizens.” Should freed slaves be included in the count, for example. As part of that effort to define which bodies should be counted as citizens, the U.S. government decided that if a person was born on U.S. soil, then that person could be counted as one citizen on a census or for other purposes.

The problem lies in what to do about the family members who were not born on U.S. soil, but still have an obligation to take care of the “citizen” who was. Are they legally required to move back to their country of origin and take the legal U.S. citizen with them? Should the U.S. government allow them to remain with the U.S. citizen on U.S. soil as “alien residents,” meaning limited or no access to federal assistance reserved for U.S. citizens?

Personally, I don’t believe the 14th Amendment was written intentionally for the creation of so-called “anchor babies.” It was meant to be a definition of which bodies standing on U.S. property can be counted as legal citizens and which should be considered foreign visitors. If there were no federally funded social welfare programs at all, and no tax dollars could possibly be given to the families of so-called “anchor babies,” we probably wouldn’t even view the 14th Amendment as all that controversial.

By anon324067 — On Mar 08, 2013

What purpose does it serve to have children who are of a different nationality than their parents? Clearly the 14th Amendment did not provide for this.

If the child of a foreign diplomat is not a citizen, then why would children born to other foreigners be citizens? It is illogical and wrong. The 14th Amendment was about giving citizenship to former slaves and their children. Period. Foreign nationals can go to consulates and embassies to register births and secure proper citizenship.

By anon298384 — On Oct 19, 2012

You are all so wrong. This has nothing to do with flags. Or to be honest, with children either. We are talking about people -- humans. We all breathe air and we all will die. What does it matter if they want to become citizens? Do they complain when you all want to get away to their city, state or country? Do they complain when you leave their homes lined with filth and litter their beaches with debris, or when you are flying in and out of their airports?

When you want something quick to eat, you're pulling out all the menus for Mexican takeout, Chinese takeout and all that good stuff. I hope some of these cultures spit in your food.

You talk about crime, get out of here. Almost all crimes committed here in the great USA are committed by the citizens of this great country.

By anon285868 — On Aug 17, 2012

My brother-in-law was here with his wife and she gave birth because of something medically wrong, but they went back to Mexico, and have not been back since the birth of their son in 2001. So, not many come to have an anchor baby because they leave and never come back to this country. My nephew may come to visit since he was born here, but he has told me he won't be happy being in a place he doesn't understand and to me, it may be the language barrier.

By anon285248 — On Aug 14, 2012

Yes, Mexican women do come to the US to have tons of babies to get food stamps and medicaid because the child is entitled since they have a social security number. Believe me. I work as a spanish-english interpreter and I hear it all the time. Sad but true.

By anon263817 — On Apr 25, 2012

Once the anchor baby is born in our hospitals at our expense and soon after their parents can get Social Security and food stamps for that baby. They will never stop coming in pregnant.

The ages of these young Mexicans should also be a great concern. They get pregnant at 12 or 13 years old. This country knows what it has been doing for 50 years. Slave labor. But Mexicans are costing America too much money now. The elites want them so they can stay rich. It's terrible what's happened to Mexican slaves and middle class America.

By pollick — On Feb 03, 2012

There seems to be more than a few misconceptions about the services "illegal aliens" can qualify for in this country. The federal government is *not* just handing out welfare checks and food stamps to anyone who fills out the paperwork and waits. A qualified applicant for many of those benefits *must* be able to demonstrate legal US citizenship. If a truly "illegal" immigrant, one without any documentation at all, tries to apply for federally funded benefits like welfare, he or she will be rejected.

Some programs don't strictly require citizenship, just demonstrated need based on income and other factors. I don't know why some people have such a difficult time with the idea of a wealthy country feeding hungry people, but apparently they do. Food stamp recipients aren't enjoying filet mignon and lobster on the taxpayers' dime -- most recipients don't even get enough food stamps to make seven decent dinners a week, and their children would starve if it weren't for subsidized school meals. I seriously doubt many of those who complain about food stamp recipients would ever change places with them.

I'm not suggesting that people can't game the federal benefits system, but when it comes to presenting falsified information, regular citizens have it all over illegal immigrants. A regular citizen can produce social security cards from dead spouses, claim more children than they actually have, work under the table or pool their resources with other "poor" welfare cheats. Most illegal immigrants try their best to fly under the radar, so they're not about to try anything nearly as underhanded.

The 14th Amendment did not specifically create the modern day "anchor baby" situation. What it tried to do was define who could be considered a legal citizen of the United States. The definition happened to include any person born on US soil, regardless of their parents' country of origin. Many foreign children born in US hospitals just go back home with their non-citizen parents. Babies born to undocumented immigrants on US soil are indeed considered legal citizens, but that's not the same issue as illegal border crossing.

The fact remains that millions of undocumented workers cross into this country in order to work, and some of those people are going to have children while they are here. Most of the time, there's no malice aforethought. These couples weren't trying to defraud the US government, just raise a family. In fact, the fact that their child IS considered to be a legal US citizen makes voluntary deportation even more difficult. The parents are free to go back to their country of origin when ordered out of the US, but the child cannot be forced to leave his or her new country, the United States. When state laws like Alabama's HB56 went into effect, many Hispanic parents signed over their parental rights to near-strangers in order to keep their so-called "anchor babies" safe and protected legally in the United States.

By anon234376 — On Dec 11, 2011

"all people born in the United States are automatically offered citizenship, except for the children of diplomats..."

If this is true, then is there a way to put the illegal aliens into the same category as diplomats, since both groups are citizens of a foreign nation?

By anon218743 — On Sep 30, 2011

Why does everyone feels that everyone who wants to have their baby in the US wants citizenship? I did not. All I wanted was the excellent health care that your country has, especially neonatal care. My daughter has since returned to my country where she lives and would be living until she reaches the age to make that decision on whether she wants to live in the US or not. I had a high risk pregnancy and my country infant mortality rate is very high, so I made the decision to travel to the US so that her and my life could be saved. I have no desire to acquire US citizenship and my health care cost was borne my me.

So before we pass judgment on every baby who was born on US soil to "illegal immigrants," we must first look at three sides of the coin.

By anon132526 — On Dec 07, 2010

RE: the colors of the U.S. flag.

most of the world doesn't know the color of your flag. We really don't care.

By anon131025 — On Nov 30, 2010

I agree with anon105787. not only do illegals break and not obey the laws of this great nation, but they take advantage of the Human Health Services by applying for, and getting food stamps, federal assistance for housing and Medicaid, that we the taxpayers pay for at the end of every year. All because they have children who were born here. So yes i think they should not give out citizenship like it was candy on Halloween.

By anon105787 — On Aug 22, 2010

I believe that it is wrong to give citizenship to a child of an illegal immigrant. Just because you cross a border knowing you have a baby on the way is no reason or excuse to give away citizenship to anyone regardless of the border they illegally “crossed” (another term for trespassing!)

There are certain things that makes a person a citizen, and breaking laws and trespassing or crossing borders illegally is not one of them. for god’s sake, most of these immigrants don’t even know the colors of the U.S. flag! The funny thing is, here are these illegal immigrants, mainly from Mexico, preaching about human rights and that the U.S. would show no heart or human emotion if we were to send them back to their own country and that we are prejudiced and racist in doing so and that we should give them special treatment, etc., etc., but wait: here’s the kicker! Do you have any idea what the mexican government does to the illegal immigrants who cross the southern mexican border? well first they kick the crap out of them, then they take everything they have except for the clothes they wear, then they get thrown in a dungeon that makes Gitmo look like a five-star summer getaway camp, then after they get the crap kicked out of them for a couple of weeks, if they are healthy enough, they get to go home. if not, then you get to spend some time in one of mexico’s “top of the line” public medical clinics recuperating from the abuse you just endured! then if you survive the ordeal and you’re lucky enough, you get to go home with some sort of sexually transmitted disease because in Mexican jails the use of rape is very common (both by inmates and the jail police) and if you’re from another country then every one gets a turn on you!

Of course I’m not saying we should do the same with our borders and illegal immigrants! on the contrary, I believe we should treat them with care and compassion and respectfully return them to their place of origin, like the U.S. constitution says. These people don’t understand there are laws and rules that every country places within its borders to accommodate its citizens and offer a certain quality of life and protection from countries that threaten that way of life! if we let everyone in and change the laws every time these illegal immigrants trespass our borders and give special treatment and make special laws to cater for covering up their illegal status in the U.S., then what is this country becoming?

Why are we waging war in the middle east preaching about protecting borders and rebuilding nations when we can't even protect our own borders properly! furthermore, who are we to offer protection to citizens of countries halfway around the world when our own government can't even protect its citizens from the illegals who cross our southern border and break every law in the book from the minute they set foot in this country? They drive around without licences or auto insurance, they don’t pay taxes, they falsify documents and steal identities, they don’t respect or even know the laws and so on. And the funny thing, is our government here in our great state of California allows the illegal immigrant to get away with it!

I’d like to see what would happen if a citizen got caught falsifying documents or stealing identities or committing fraud against the IRS by not paying taxes (also called tax evasion) or even driving around without a license! the least that would happen is you get your car taken away and you end up in jail for a few months and then you get to pay anywhere from three to five thousand dollars in fines. what happens when an illegal gets pulled over without a license? Absolutely nothing, because supposedly, it is not the police’s job to deport them or check their status in this state. How ridiculous is that? if you’re driving without insurance or a license, it shouldn’t matter where in the galaxy you’re from. You’re breaking the law, and not only local laws but state and federal laws too!

So as you can see, it is not just a case of being prejudiced or racist or discriminating against the illegal immigrant. It goes way beyond that. It’s about equal rights and laws and citizenship and love for one’s country and our way and quality of life! If you pay 50.00 dollars for running a stop sign then I should pay the same and everyone else who does should pay. If you pay taxes on every payday and at the end of the year, then we all have to do the same. After all, we are the U.S. citizens. It’s up to us to keep this way of life, and keep this great nation from becoming another mediocre third world nation by following and respecting our laws and rules and traditions.

We have nothing against immigrants or anyone who wants to come here for whatever reasons. What we don’t agree with or support is the arrogance of illegals who trespasses our border and in doing so insults and slaps the faces of all the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to this nation and went through the legal process and fought and earned the right to be here, not by sneaking through in the night with a pregnant wife and a false document with a stolen identity and then demanding help and human rights and equal opportunity.

So back to the question: no, they should be helped and cared for in the delivery of the baby but they should all be sent back and the father or mother should be put in jail for abuse and cruelty when dragging the child or woman across a scorching desert with no water and no food risking the death of the child to begin with. when all they have to do to avoid all of this is follow the legal process by going to an immigration office in their country and applying for a visa of some kind!

If they can come up with five or six thousand dollars to pay a “coyote” to illegally cross them over the border, then they should instead use that money to properly get a visa. That much money goes a long way in Mexico. why do they prefer to pay for the illegal way and risk all kinds of misfortune happening instead of paying for the legal way to come across? Yeah, it may take a little longer but they’ll be safe and legal and they won't have to worry about being “deported” or “separated from their families” or “mistreated.” This is part of my comment. thank you for reading it!

By anon56925 — On Dec 18, 2009

Deport all illegal immigrants and their babies. Illegal is illegal. The baby is illegal also because parents are illegal.

What law/or laws are you willing to allow me, an American citizen, to violate without having to pay a price? Deport all illegals -- period.

By anon38986 — On Jul 29, 2009

The term "anchor baby" refers to that hypocritical, racist right-wing blogger Michelle Maglalang Malkin.

By stemcells — On Sep 30, 2007

i think the US now has a law that nullified the anchor baby. For example, if you are a Nigerian and came to delivered your baby in the States, that child can not claimed to be a US citizen!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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