Just How Does an Anchor Baby Anchor the Illegal Alien Parent?

By David North, January 16, 2011

A reader asked: "Just what is the mechanism that allows an anchor baby to keep his or her illegal alien parents in the U.S.?"

There are four different mechanisms at work here, as my CIS colleague, Jon Feere, and I see it:

  • the most obvious, and the least numerically significant, is the right of a 21-year-old citizen to petition for immigrant status for a non-citizen parent. By definition, this cannot happen until at least 21 years have passed.
  • under some quite precise circumstances the presence of a U.S.-born child of an illegal alien, or a green card holder in trouble with the law, can cause a judge to grant legal status to an alien who would not get it otherwise.
  • much more important is the hidden, undocumented, and uncounted influence of the presence of a U.S.-citizen child in the household of an illegal alien; officials are less likely to deport the parent of such a child than they are to deport an alien who is otherwise similar, but childless.
  • the fourth mechanism may be more important than all the rest, and is the least susceptible to counting. This is the perception in the minds of the illegal alien parents, usually mothers, that somehow the presence of a U.S.-born baby will be helpful to parents in immigration proceedings. That thought process probably works, in most instances, without any detailed knowledge of the three mechanisms noted above.

From a broader policy point of view the presence of the U.S.-citizen child of an illegal alien is part of the whole business of chain migration, a worrisome process to many of us.

As Jon Feere has pointed out in a recent CIS Backgrounder on birthright citizenship, "family-sponsored immigration accounts for most of the nation's growth in immigration levels. Of the 1,130,818 immigrants who were granted legal permanent residency in 2009, a total of 747,413 (or, 66.1 percent) were family-sponsored immigrants. A change to U.S. immigration laws in the late 1950s – one that allowed for the admission of extended family members outside the nuclear family – resulted in the average annual flow increasing from 250,000 then, to over 1 million today. This number continues to rise every year because of the ever-expanding migration chains that operate independently of any economic downturns or labor needs. Although automatic and universal birthright citizenship is not the only contributor to chain migration, ending it would prevent some of this explosive growth."

There is an anomaly in the first of the four mechanisms listed above. Although the U.S. citizen must be 21 before he or she can petition for the admission of a parent, the same person (born in the U.S. to one or two illegal alien parents) can, at the age of 18, seek admission for an overseas spouse or for his or her foreign-born children. That's the way the law reads.

As to the second mechanism, it can come into play only when an illegal alien has all of the following qualifications; the alien:

  • is involved in a formal removal procedure, and
  • has had a "continuous physical presence" in the U.S. for 10 or more years, and
  • has not been convicted of certain criminal offenses, and
  • whose removal would result in "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to a citizen relative, including a child.

Then an immigration judge – if he rules favorably on all four counts – can grant a legal status to the alien in question.

My reading of Table 15 of the Executive Office of Immigration Review's Statistical Yearbook suggests that this kind of relief was granted 11,383 times during FY 2009. There are other legal circumstances in which the presence of a U.S. citizen-child can play a role when a judge makes an immigration-related decision.

I think it would be useful to examine that 11,383 figure a little more closely, as it overstates the significance of anchor babies and illegals. In 2009 the non-deportation order was handed down 3,787 times on behalf of a permanent resident alien who had committed a serious crime of some kind, meaning that in the remaining 7,596 cases the decision helped an illegal. That figure should be shaved again, maybe by a third, because a U.S.-citizen parent of an illegal (rare) or a U.S.-citizen spouse of an illegal (much more common) could be the citizen with the hardship, rather than a baby.

In the last couple of months I have often been in the courtrooms of immigration judges and heard cases where the judge has discretion on the hardship issue. Routinely, the attorney for the (often incarcerated) illegal alien father argues that the presence of one – or usually more – citizen babies, often with health problems, should override the anticipated removal. Often the attorney is clever enough to make sure that the kid or kids are in the court room, and that the judge is told of their presence.

So, for all these reasons, the baby of the illegal is born on the north side of the border. Certainly, in some cases, a baby is conceived for these purposes, but I suspect that this kind of family planning is the exception, not the norm. In more cases, the baby arrives without planning, but the location of the unplanned birth may well be planned, and hence we have very pregnant women crossing the border to give birth in the U.S. And, in many more cases there is no planning at all; the anchor baby is born to a parent already living illegally in the States.

These four mechanisms, all rooted in the immigration system, run counter to a far older pattern. At one time, a young mother, if distant from her own mother, would return to her mother's home for assistance and moral support at the time of the forthcoming birth.

The vague sense in the minds of illegal aliens that a U.S.-born baby may help the parent or the parents later, of course, leads to another consequence, a demographic one – a further increase in America's already booming population.

As my colleague, Steven Camarota, pointed out in a recent CIS Backgrounder, in the last decade America lost one million jobs, but obtained 29 million more people, largely due to immigration and births to immigrants, legal and illegal. Do we need to encourage more births?

We should adjust our policies – and let the world know we have done so – to minimize the benefits illegal alien parents get for having anchor babies in the U.S. Exactly how the law should be changed is another question, to be addressed later, but one thing is immediately clear: there ought to be a firm administrative policy of denying entrance to very pregnant tourists and border crossers – and there is no such policy at the moment.