Of Anchor Babies and Welfare Queens

In his January 25, 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama identified the unsolved issue of illegal immigration as an obstacle to winning the future. Referring to the recently blocked DREAM Act, which would have offered children of undocumented immigrants the opportunity to attain legal status, he called for an end to the expulsion of “talented, responsible young people... who could be further enriching this nation.” A few days earlier, a Sioux Falls legislator, Manny Steele, R-S.D., had pejoratively referred to the children of undocumented immigrants as “anchor babies.” These children were apparently “anchors” who could pull in a host of relatives and grant them permanent US residency status.

Although both Obama’s and Steele’s comments were driven by presumably different intentions, the rhetoric of both evidences the disproportionate focus on children and youth in the supposedly ungendered immigration debate.

Behind every “anchor baby” is an immigrant woman.  Since 2009,  women have comprised a full 50 percent of immigrants from Latin America, but their experiences are rarely mentioned in the public debate. The vulnerabilities that women face in crossing the border, in finding safety as undocumented immigrants, and in the deportation or detention process are vastly under-recognized. (These vulnerabilities that uniquely affect women merit labeling immigration, among other things, a women’s issue.)

Crossing the Border

Approximately 4.1 million undocumented women live in the U.S., a number which, in 2006, constituted 42 percent of the unauthorized migrant population. Although men outnumber women, illegal immigrant women are more at risk than men for sexual assault.  “Rape is considered the price you pay for crossing the border,” stated Teresa Rodriguez, regional director of the United Nations Development Fund  for Women, in an Associated Press article. In the same article, Jesus Aguilar, a migrant rights activist in El Salvador, explained, “The normal rule, according to who migrate(s), is that before leaving their countries they have to take the pill for at least one to three months to ensure that they will not get pregnant after a rape. [...] The risk of rape is very high, not only by smugglers or by men in their same group, but also by criminals on public buses or on the cargo trains.” The lack of access to legal protection is especially harmful for immigrant women due to their high risk of sexual assault. The only sort of legal interaction they receive is with the U.S. Border Patrol who frequently deports them at night to violent border towns in Mexico, despite a 1996 U.S.-Mexico agreement that promised women and children would only be returned in daylight hours, according to an Associated Press article in the Boston Globe.

Informal Economy

To further compound the problem, immigrant women are overwhelmingly represented in the informal economy as child care workers, elder and home health care providers and domestic workers. Participation in these informal and often hidden job sectors, together with lack of legal status and language proficiency, often results in the same unsafe working conditions and lack of benefits that men experience but also in increased vulnerability to sexual harassment, discrimination, sexual exploitation and mistreatment. 77 percent of Latina immigrant workers, for instance, report that sexual harassment is a major problem at work.

Moreover, these informal and low-paying industries provide undocumented workers with neither  health benefits nor the income needed to purchase private insurance plans for themselves or their families. In addition to being unable to access private health care, undocumented women do not qualify for public programs such as Medicaid in most cases. These restrictions make access to basic reproductive health care, such as regular Pap smears, contraceptive supplies, and abortion services difficult, if not impossible.


Women make up 10 percent of the total detainee population nationwide, a number that is increasing yearly. A 2009 study by the University of Arizona documented the dangerous delays in health care and widespread mistreatment of over 300 women held in immigration detention centers in Arizona. Researchers examined the conditions facing women in the process of deportation at three immigration centers in Arizona and concluded that, considering the low flight risk that these women posed, migration authorities were overly aggressive in their detainment of women. Women experienced difficulties such as a lack of prenatal care and treatment for cancer, ovarian cysts and other serious medical conditions.  There were several cases of women who had suffered miscarriages while in detention as well. Meghan Rhoad, researcher in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, stated that “women in detention described violations such as shackling pregnant detainees or failing to follow up on signs of breast and cervical cancer.”

Women in Immigration Discourse

Despite the unique difficulties immigrant women face, the discussion surrounding immigration remains relatively ungendered. Women are, to be fair, implicitly addressed in the “anchor babies” discussion, but in a negative light that recalls the sensational reporting on welfare fraud that began during the early 1960s. This concept of a welfare queen was introduced then to refer to a mother who collected welfare payments through fraud or manipulation. The catchphrase ran: “welfare queens driving in welfare Cadillacs.” Franklin Gilliam, the author of a famous study titled “The ‘Welfare Queen’ Experiment,” concluded that images of welfare queens stamped poverty with a racial and female face, that of the African American woman who is portrayed as lazy, uncontrollably sexual and craftily manipulative of the legal system. The rhetoric of “anchor babies” similarly paints a picture of immigrant mothers as excessively fertile, irresponsible breeders and exploiters of the system.

Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.,  asserted this same picture last August when he said, “People come here to have babies. They come here to drop a child— it’s called drop and leave. To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to an emergency room, have a child and that child is automatically an American citizen.” In addition, The Nation reported that the head of an anti-immigrant group in Virginia had called for an investigation into “whether or not illegal aliens have a preferred breeding season.”

Countless studies have suggested that the anchor babies phenomenon is exaggerated. For example, the accusation that immigrant women enter the United States to give birth and reap the benefits of U.S. citizenship and service programs is unfounded. A citizen must be 21 years old in order to sponsor the permanent residency application of a parent or immediate relative. The applicant must then show documentation proving that he or she has not been in the United States unlawfully for more than one year. Without such proof, the parent must return to the country of origin for ten years before being allowed to lawfully re-enter the United States and resume the application process. This practice, commonly referred to as the “touchback rule,” is among the major restrictions placed on the naturalization process in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. This effectively means that if undocumented immigrant men and women were to exploit their children for citizenship status, they will effectively be punished with a ten-year separation from their families. Moreover, according to a 2010 report by University of California,  Berkeley and University of California, Davis, when undocumented parents were deported, their children, who had permanent residencies, had no choice but to go along. “We are de facto deporting American citizens,” points out Representative José Serrano, D-N.Y.

Unlike the welfare debate that began in the 1960s, the immigration debate faces the additional burden of the anti-immigrant lens of the post-September 11 world. Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle  warned of terrorist strategies wherein pregnant women from abroad travel to America as tourists in order to give birth, only to then raise the children as “little terrorists.” A new, unlikely figure has been added to the line-up of stock images of male day laborers, terrorists and gang members crossing the border: the pregnant mother.

To call immigration a women’s issue is to highlight the implicit images of women in public rhetoric and the unique vulnerabilities that immigrant women face. It is not to deny the legitimate experiences of men, children or any other demographic group in the immigration experience. It is one step in humanizing the experience of largely faceless immigrants in order to lay the ground for a more precise and productive conversation.