When Jeb Bush tried to justify his use of the term “anchor baby” by saying it referred to “Asians,” it got him heavily mocked. The mockery was only partly justified. Some people mocked Bush because they didn’t understand what he was actually saying — that the “real” anchor babies are children born in the US as part of the “birth tourism” industry, which mostly caters to China. Others mocked him because he wasn’t doing himself any favors by taking a term many people consider offensive on its own and applying it to a second group of people.
“Anchor baby” doesn’t actually have the same connotations when it’s transferred from Latinos to Asians, because the underlying stereotypes about each group are different. Unfortunately for Bush, however, talking about birth tourism and “anchor babies” plays into some long-established and very painful stereotypes about the inherent foreignness of Asian Americans.
The United States has often excluded Asians
When Donald Trump and others talk about “anchor babies,” they’re talking about Latinos — tying into a cluster of stereotypes that conflate Latinos, Mexicans, immigrants, and unauthorized immigrants, and that convince many of the anxious white Americans who make up Trump’s base that their culture is under threat from “illegals.” Bush claims he’s trying to back away from that argument, while still using a term that invokes it.
That cluster of stereotypes isn’t a problem for Asians and Asian Americans in the same way it is for Latinos. But by arguing that “anchor baby” ought to refer to Asians, Bush ended up backing into a different cluster of stereotypes: that Asian Americans are “foreign” and more closely tied to their “home countries” than they are to the United States.
One of the odd legacies of American immigration history is that while nativist fears have centered on immigrants from all sorts of regions — Ireland, Eastern Europe, the Middle East — Asian immigrants are the only ones the United States has ever told they can never become Americans. The first immigration restrictions in US history were the Asian Exclusion Acts of the late 1800s (inspired, in part, by a wave of racial violence against Asian immigrants), which prohibited all immigration from China — the only region from which immigration has been explicitly banned, rather than just limited.