Commentary Politics

Trump’s ‘Anchor Baby’ Comment and the Racialized Reproductive Politics of the 2016 Primary Season

Andrew Jenkins

As we move closer to the election, we must remember to continue calling out these attacks for what they are: a political rallying cry for an extremist agenda.

I could spend all day on a soapbox about the grotesque sexism and racism that has surfaced in the 2016 presidential race thus far. But I want to bring particular attention to Donald Trump’s recent comment on the so­-called anchor baby epidemic, in which he suggested that children of undocumented immigrants were not American citizens.

Trump’s comments are offensive and dangerous.

But more importantly, they are indicative of a racialized and gendered trope that has long been used by anti-immigrant politicians, pundits, think tanks, and organizations to proliferate a dominant narrative about women’s reproductive health—that the control of women’s bodies is an issue of both morality and national security. As we move closer to the election, we must remember to continue calling out these attacks for what they are: a political rallying cry for an extremist agenda both to undermine marginalized communities and to attack the reproductive health and rights of the people who need it the most.

The “anchor baby” rhetoric first rose to prominence in 2006 during debates on immigration in the Republican­-controlled House and Senate. Trump then rekindled this racist commentary this August while divulging his plans to end birthright citizenship, spurring other presidential candidates, pundits, and reporters to double down on this phrase.

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Trump’s ideological outlook on this issue is no isolated position. Not by any means. It is a popular story that has been manufactured and sold for decades to galvanize support for anti-­immigrant policies. It’s a racist and sexist narrative that conveniently scapegoats blame for a faulty immigration system, corrupted trade policy, and failed economic reform on the reproductive health decisions made by immigrant women and their families. Because it couldn’t have anything to do with the dominant economic structures that exacerbate poverty, violence, and other oppressive conditions that drive immigration, right? That would be silly.

Nope. Blame it on immigrant women.

This rhetoric is rooted in a deep history of reproductive oppression, in which the bodies of marginalized communities are controlled and exploited in some broader benevolent attempt to fix the world’s problems. The mass sterilization of women of color in an attempt to control population growth. The pervasive cultural fear of young people’s sexuality as a rallying cry to limit access to affordable birth control options and justify the growing influence of conservative ideology in the classroom. The coercive sterilization of women in prisons.

The state­-sanctioned control of people’s bodies has—and always will be—a source of power for dominant systems of oppression. Women’s bodies (and trans, gender­-nonconforming, or racialized bodies) will continue to be situated as political battlegrounds over a variety of issues. I mean, we live in a country where the government could be shut down over funding for reproductive health providers—and that’s just one of a few attempts to decrease public funding of safety net family planning resources.

​And yet, funding for Planned Parenthood isn’t only about reproductive rights. Just like the “anchor baby” comments aren’t just about immigration. They are both tactics for the extreme right to justify other radical policies on social services, LGBTQ rights, foreign policy, and even debates on climate change. I have no doubt that we will continue to see the sexual and reproductive health choices in the months building up to the 2016 general election—whether it’s abortion, adoption, parenting, sexual freedom, or even birth control—leveraged as a tool to galvanize multiple bases on the far right. Conservatives will then carry that momentum to justify a paternalistic policy agenda that undermines the well-­being of all marginalized communities.

The interesting irony here is that we have a set of candidates who are willing to, on one hand, speak about immigrant women and their children as villains and criminals that should be deported and driven into conditions of extreme poverty, and yet on the other hand, rally their bases around a promise to take away abortion care under a misguided sense of compassion for the life of the unborn. This paradox couldn’t make it any clearer that these candidates have zero interest in protecting any lives—that of the “unborn,” the person carrying the pregnancy to term, or the children living in extreme poverty. The hypocrisy is astounding and yet a perfect reminder of the politics of mourning in this country, in which certain lives are awarded value and others are stripped of their basic humanity.

Whether we’re talking about the “anchor baby” narrative, the trope of the “welfare queen,” or the pervasive fear­-driven rhetoric about sexuality, it all boils down to the same conservative strategy: securing control over the reproductive health choices of marginalized communities—immigrant women, young women, and women of color in particular—as a means of limiting economic opportunity for disenfranchised communities, while simultaneously securing their own access to power.

The attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, for example, will continue indefinitely and are nothing short of one incremental tactic in a broader campaign to ultimately gut social service programs that women and families depend on the most. To extend tax cuts to the rich and reallocate funds to anti­-youth, anti­-sex, anti­-choice programs like abstinence-only education and crisis pregnancy centers. And to ultimately expand federal funding for the military and prison-industrial complex. This system is ironically enough set up to structurally perpetuate reproductive oppression, racial injustice, and violence against the most vulnerable communities.

One community particularly under attack is low­-income trans women of color, who are facing extreme rates of violence, poverty, and abuse. It comes as little surprise then that GetEQUAL and Black Lives Matter organizers have called on presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton in particular, to “divest from private prisons and invest in the liberation of black transgender women.”

Trans individuals, immigrant women, and Black women are stigmatized and targeted as reproductive burdens on the system. Conservatives ask us to deny them the ability to choose if, when, and how to become pregnant and then blame them for having too many children, or having children for the “wrong reasons.”

In that context, the “anchor baby” narrative can be seen as a powerful discursive tactic—embedded in a much larger, coordinated strategy—to galvanize public support for extreme right­-wing policies that hurt people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, young people, and those at the intersections. It’s a narrative used to ensure radical security measures at the border, as well as massive deportation policies that split families apart and deny young immigrants access to education and economic security.

Therefore, the resurfacing of this so-­called anchor baby problem should serve as a reminder of what’s truly at stake in the battle for reproductive freedom in the 2016 election. And as a catalyst for working to challenge these dominate tropes and telling our own stories. Advocates’ ability to secure economic, social, and political justice for the most marginalized communities will depend on how we redefine these narratives moving forward. As radical and extreme as the tropes may seem to us, these dangerous ideologies and insidious representations of race, gender, and sexuality are unfortunately resonating with a large chunk of the electorate. We cannot let them go unchallenged.

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