Republican presidential candidates are jostling to stake out positions on birthright citizenship and “anchor babies,” as immigration takes center stage in the 2016 primary race.
The issue highlights the fine line Republicans seek to walk in pleasing hard-line conservatives in the primary without alienating swing voters in the general election.
At issue is the phrase “anchor baby,” meant to describe the children of non-U.S. citizens born within America’s borders and thus immediately given citizenship.
Federal law dictates that those children can sponsor their parents for nationalization once they turn 21 — allowing entire families of undocumented immigrants to potentially become full-fledged Americans.
Some feel the term “anchor baby” is offensive and a distraction from the humanity of the millions of undocumented migrants.
But critics of birthright citizenship say they are unconcerned about political correctness as they push for strong action against a policy they believe encourages illegal immigration.
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpAfter 100 days of Trump, middle America has suffered — bigly Trump's America? Not for long. Democratic women are taking our country back. EPA removes climate change page from website MORE ignited debate by releasing his official immigration policies last weekend.
Trump, the front-runner for next year’s GOP presidential nomination, called for ending birthright citizenship entirely in his campaign’s platform.
“This remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigration,” he wrote. “By a 2:1 margin, voters say it’s the wrong policy, including [Democratic Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid, who said ‘no sane country’ would give automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.”
The outspoken billionaire also refused to temper his use of the phrase “anchor baby,” despite worries that it offends Hispanics.
“I’ll use the word ‘anchor babies,’ ” he told a reporter Wednesday after “child of an undocumented immigrant” was suggested as an alternative, according to CNN.
“You mean it’s not politically correct and yet everybody uses it?” he asked. “You know what? Give me a different term.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is defending his use of the phrase even though he supports birthright citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“I don’t regret it,” Bush said when asked during a town hall in Keane, N.H., on Thursday. “You give me a better term and I’ll use it. I’m serious.
“What we ought to do is protect the poor kid,” he added. “You want to get to the policy for a second? I think that people born in this country ought to be American citizens.”
Bush’s remarks prompted backlash from both Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Trump, his two most bitter rivals in the 2016 race.
“How about ‘babies,’ ‘children’ or ‘American citizens?’” Clinton sarcastically asked Bush on Twitter Wednesday, offering alternatives to the divisive phrase.
“Jeb Bush signed memo saying not to use term ‘anchor babies,’ offensive,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Now he wants to use it because I use it. Stay true to yourself!”
Trump’s was referencing a language guide sent to Republican leadership in 2013 by the Hispanic Leadership Network.
It remains unclear whether Bush signed a memo about the organization’s recommendations after he attended its GOP leadership event in Miami that year.
The Republican presidential field is splintering over birthright citizenship and the appropriateness of the term “anchor baby” in the wake of Trump and Bush’s sparring.
Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump in campaign mode at NRA convention Trump’s hands are tied on 9th Circuit Schumer: Trump's handling of North Korea 'all wrong' MORE (R-Texas) on Friday said debating the phrase “anchor baby” is a distraction from America’s pressing immigration problems.
“I think we need to stop this politically correct nonsense,” he said at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, while not using the phrase. “We need to speak candidly about the issues facing our country.”
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told a Phoenix-area ABC affiliate Wednesday that birthright citizenship is a “stupid” concept.
“We can keep families together,” he added. “If they came here and did that, we can still keep them together by packaging them up and sending them back.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) argued Thursday he is sensitive toward potential immigrants but that they must respect America’s laws when coming here.
“The people who brought these children here did so breaking the law with a full understanding,” Santorum said at the National Press Club in Washington.
“Of course I feel bad, we all feel bad, we all hope people aren’t in a situation where they have to break the law to make a better life for their family, but that doesn’t obviate the fact that they have broken the law and that there are consequences for breaking the law,” he added.
Other 2016 Republican White House hopefuls charge that using “anchor baby” is dehumanizing regardless of an individual’s position on birthright citizenship.
“I just don’t think calling human beings names is ever helpful,” former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said Thursday in New Hampshire, according to CNN.
“Well, these are 13 million people — those are human beings,” Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioOvernight Defense: Commander calls North Korea crisis 'worst' he's seen | Trump signs VA order | Dems push Trump to fill national security posts What’s with Trump’s spelling mistakes? Boeing must be stopped from doing business with Iran MORE (R-Fla.) said the same day during a CNBC interview. “And ultimately, they’re people. They’re not just statistics.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, meanwhile, refused to comment on birthright citizenship during his own CNBC appearance Friday.
“I’m not taking a position on it one way or another,” Walker said, adding that America must secure its borders before tackling the issue.
Immigration is proving a decisive topic for Republicans heading into the 2016 election cycle in part because of the difficult balancing act candidates must perform.
Many conservatives favor increased border security and tougher enforcement of the nation’s existing immigration laws, but some Republicans argue that strategy risks alienating minorities, particularly Hispanics, whose support is critical for the GOP’s efforts next year.
Latino Decisions estimated last month that Republicans need between 42 and 47 percent support from Hispanic voters to win the White House in 2016.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, earned 23 percent support from that voting bloc during his unsuccessful Oval Office bid, the group added.
The birthright citizenship issue hinges on the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to those born or naturalized in the U.S. Political strategists say the issue is a risky one for Republicans, as changes to the Constitution are traditionally rare.