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Jeb Bush's failure to cast off 'anchor baby' controversy muddles stance

Presidential contender's use of pejorative term could eclipse his more moderate position on immigration reform

Two controversial words have dogged the presidential campaign of Jeb Bush over the last several days, try as the former Florida governor might to shake them: “anchor babies.”

The hullabaloo on the campaign trail erupted last week when Bush, in the course of describing his immigration proposals on a radio show, used the term to refer to children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants.

“Greater enforcement so that you don’t have, you know, ‘anchor babies,’ as they’re described, coming into the country,” Bush said to conservative Salem Radio Network host Hugh Hewitt.

The comment ignited a furor among many Latinos and immigrant rights advocates who said they found the term derogatory and unfit for political discourse — as offensive as “illegal aliens.” Attempts to clarify his remarks by specifying that he used the term to refer primarily to Asians in the United States seemed to have merely shifted the source of criticism toward Asian-American groups.

“Anchor babies,” critics say, conjures up a false stereotype of immigrants coming to the United States solely so that their as yet unborn children can claim citizenship as part of a carefully concocted scheme to eventually obtain legal status — a very rare phenomenon.

“It shows a lack of understanding of why people are coming to this country,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, an organization that encourages Latino civic participation. “That’s not what we do — we come for better jobs and better opportunities.”

Bush, unlike some of his competitors for the GOP nomination, has been steadfast in his support for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship and has urged his party to speak more compassionately about the issue.

"I'm 62-years-old. When I was 17-years-old I fell in love with Columba," Bush said Tuesday during a campaign stop in Colorado, referring to his Mexican-American wife. "It's going to be really hard for me to get lectured about the politics of immigration."

Luis Alvarado, a California-based Republican strategist who advises campaigns on Latino issues, said he doesn’t believe the gaffe will distract voters from Bush’s sober and reasonable immigration positions.

“The actual verbage is a hammer — it depends on how you swing it. Unfortunately it’s been swung so many times as a weapon of hate,” he said. “I don’t think [Bush] has used it in a hateful way — I think he’s tried to use it constructively and I think he’s fine if he puts it in the proper context.”

“Once the general population starts paying attention to the issue and not to the outer fringes of both parties, I think he will have a better opportunity to demonstrate his reasonable stance on immigration,” Alvarado added.

Al Cardenas, a close ally and family friend of Bush, agreed that Jeb Bush’s larger point on immigration reform should not be lost in the kerfuffle over "anchor babies" — in particular how it compares to the immigration plan of GOP rival Donald Trump, the business mogul who has called for mass deportations.

“I predict that at the end of the day, all the GOP presidential candidates will come around to a position on immigration similar to Gov. Bush's — except perhaps Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz. That's called ‘leading from behind’” Cardenas wrote in an email.

“Gov. Bush's visit to McAllen, Texas yesterday was, in part, to point out to all Americans how unlawful, impractical, inhumane and unworkable Mr. Trump's proposals on immigration have been.”

Still, Bush appeared to struggle this week in his efforts to clarify his comments. In an attempt to do so while in the border town of McAllen, Bush earned the ire of a different set of immigrants.

"What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed where there's organized efforts — and frankly it's more related to Asian people — coming into our country, and having children, in that organized effort, taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship," Bush said to reporters, in an apparent reference to the Asian birth tourism industry that has in recent years flourished on the West Coast. "I support the 14th amendment."

This time, it was Asian-Americans' turn to take offense.

“No matter which ethnic group you’re referring to, ‘anchor babies’ is a slur that stigmatizes children from birth,” Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., the first Chinese-American woman elected to Congress, said in a statement. “All that is accomplished through talk of anchor babies — be they from Latin America, Asia, Europe, or Africa — is to use xenophobia to further isolate immigrants. It’s time for our country to return to a substantive discussion on immigration.”

Michael Kwan, the president of the Organization of Chinese Americans-Asian Pacific American advocates, said the GOP is walking a dangerous path not just with Hispanic-Americans, whose support is essential in winning elections, but with Asian-Americans, whose political power is growing.

“If they continue along these lines, they are going to lose Asian-American voters — that’s true of any candidate,” he said. “For the longest time, Asian-Americans were seen as the invisible model minority where you didn’t have to pay attention to them and you could occasionally scapegoat them. We as a group are now understanding that we can’t allow this type of neglect and mistreatment to continue.”

Monterroso added too that there was another term for so-called “anchor babies”: future voters.

“Those 'anchor babies' are the ones who are going to be electing the next president of the United States,” he said. “And they are not going to support someone who is dismissive of our community and belittles us.”  

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