Democrats are assailing Jeb Bush's repeated reference to "anchor babies," condemning the term as a racial insult that dehumanizes immigrants and undermines the debate over immigration reform.
"The 'anchor baby' narrative is politics at its worst — serving mostly as a Republican dog-whistle, tapping into an implicit racial sentiment that suggests children of color are less than fully American or they’re just a vehicle for gaming the system," Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, wrote Tuesday in a Washington Post op-ed.
"It accomplishes nothing other than stoking the unwarranted fear that too many Americans continue to hold about our country’s changing demographics."
Bush, a top contender in the GOP primary, raised plenty of eyebrows earlier in the month when he referred to children born to illegal immigrant mothers as "anchor babies."
On a Monday visit to the border town of McAllen, Texas, Bush attempted to clarify his comments, saying he was referring specifically to criminal operations that encouraged immigrant women to come to the United States simply to give birth.
“What I’m talking about is the specific case of fraud being committed where there’s organized efforts — frankly, it’s more related to Asian people — coming into our country, having children in that organized effort, taking advantage of that noble concept, which is birthright citizenship,” Bush told reporters after a meeting with local officials and federal border patrol agents.
The clarification didn't sit well with the Democrats, however.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the first Chinese American elected to Congress, wasted no time hammering the reference to Asians.
“No matter which ethnic group you’re referring to, ‘anchor babies’ is a slur that stigmatizes children from birth," Chu, who heads the Asian Pacific American Caucus, said Tuesday in a statement.
"The problem with our immigration system is not birthright citizenship," she added. "The problem is a broken immigration system that forces families to live apart or live in fear."
The immigration issue has long been a difficult one for Republicans, who are walking a fine line between adopting a tough enforcement position to appease their conservative base and a more forgiving platform featuring comprehensive reforms favored by most voters.
Those dynamics were on display in the last two presidential races, when President Obama garnered roughly 70 percent of the Hispanic vote — a margin that prompted national GOP leaders to urge a more lenient approach.
But the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, fueled largely by his hard-line approach to illegal immigration, has only made it more difficult for other candidates with more moderate immigration views to maintain them.
Bush is one such contender. The former Florida governor, a Spanish-speaker whose wife is Mexican-born, has been a longtime proponent of comprehensive reforms that allow for the legalization of some illegal immigrants. But in recent years, he's opposed the pathway to citizenship he once suggested he'd support. And his recent "anchor babies" comments suggest he's adopting tougher language to counter Trump's rise.
The shift has not been overlooked by the Democratic primary contenders, including Hillary Clinton, who blasted Bush's choice of language.
"They're called babies," Clinton tweeted last week.
Bush is pushing back, saying it's "ludicrous," given his background, that critics like Clinton have deemed the term derogatory.
“This is so ridiculous, give me the name you want me to use and I’ll use it,” he said in Texas Monday.
“The immigrant experience, don’t give me a lecture about that," he added in Spanish. "I am proudly married to a Mexican-American, my sons are Hispanic."
It remains to be seen if his comments will affect his standing with Hispanic voters.
A Gallup report released Tuesday found that Bush leads the GOP primary contenders in the eyes of Hispanics. In polls conducted through July and August, his favorability rating averaged 34 percent, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ranking second at 24 percent. But those polls were conducted largely before his recent "anchor babies" comments.
Capitol Hill Democrats, meanwhile, are making clear they intend to highlight the comments in an effort to frame the Republican contenders as out of touch with public sentiment.
"It’s shameful how the GOP field has perpetuated the ugly myth of a swarm of Mexican women crossing the border to have their children in this country and manipulate the immigration system — an absurd characterization that’s not supported by the facts," Sánchez wrote in the Post.
"And if Republicans think the Latino community has missed the meaning of their coded language, they should think again."