Peter Dutton au pairs
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton

Would you believe it, Peter Dutton has used a fallacious slur against asylum seekers?

Dutton was speaking to good friend Ray Hadley yesterday, complaining about how many millions of dollars its cost to detain the Biloela family of four in sunlight-deprived detention centres, when he dropped the phrase “anchor babies”.

Somehow, Dutton managed to pack decades’ worth of Australian race policy into just two very American words. Crikey unpacks the ugly history behind the phrase, and how it relates to where both countries are now.

Where did the phrase ‘anchor baby’ come from?

While slightly different, the term “anchor children” was first deployed against Vietnamese people seeking asylum by boat in America in the late 1980s.  

The US confers birthplace citizenship, and children can then act as sponsors for their parents. So while there was some initial debate over just how neutral the term was —  see early dictionary controversies — “anchor children” or “anchor babies”, in the ’90s, quickly appealed to anti-immigration groups who argued that asylum seekers or immigrants were giving birth in the country simply to obtain de-facto citizenship. 

Similar slurs have cropped up in other countries. For example, “birth tourists” over in Canada has, unsurprisingly, seen a resurgence in Donald Trump’s war against undocumented migrants (weirdly, he even used it against Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada to a Cuban father and an American mother, in an early Republican primary debate). Trump has even proposed ending birthright citizenship, despite, y’know, the constitution.

White Australia, of course, has a long history of demonising non-white parents. Indeed, it goes all the way back to the first Stolen Generation. John Howard’s great “Children Overboard” lie — not to mention “we will decide who comes to our country” — was designed to demonise asylum seeker parents and entrench government control, while Labor isn’t exactly opposed to weaponising similar phrases (see Kristina Keneally’s attempt to make “airplane people” a thing).

However, Australia doesn’t confer birthplace citizenship. The closest thing Dr Jordy Silverstein, an ARC Postdoctoral Associate investigating historical government policies towards child refugees, can point to is a (now defunct) policy of family reunion visas, where people who successfully sought asylum by boat could then sponsor relatives.

“I have seen people suggesting that the often young men who came acted as a sort of ‘anchor’ to bring their families,” Silverstein told Crikey. “So it has been used here, but in a different way.”

That Dutton would deploy the phrase relates less to the specifics of the Biloela family — again, their two children are not classified as Australian citizens — but his attitudes and policies towards non-citizens more broadly.

How does this fit into Dutton’s broader campaign?

Incorrectly using the phrase “anchor babies” against the Biloela family wasn’t exactly Dutton’s first misrepresentation. He claimed in the same interview that “it’s been very clear to them at every turn that they were not going to stay in Australia, and [yet] they still had children” despite the fact Priya was on a bridging visa when she gave birth to Kopika and only had her asylum claim rejected days before Tharunicaa was born.

He also told Hadley that has been found by multiple courts not to be refugees, when in fact it was two bureaucrats who determined the fast-track refugee assessment, and every actual court case since has related to Home Affairs’ authority to make those decisions. He also said that the father, Nades, traveled from Australia back to Sri Lanka (just an outright lie, one that the department has since attempted to backtrack).

Dutton has also accused women on Nauru of seeking abortions (following rapes) as a tactic to move and stay in Australia. He has accused activists of coaching adults and children into self-harm for similar reasons. And he has generally accused migrants of concurrently stealing Australian jobs and mooching off our welfare. 

It would take a book to track every single example of his rhetorical war. When coupled with concrete policies — like increasing deportations on “character grounds”, which have included both New Zealand teenagers and Indigenous Australians — it all points to an increasingly strict form of control (see also his addition of the word “Border Protection” to the Immigration Minister’s title).

“What’s really important is that, since Children Overboard, successive governments have said ‘these children should have no future, these children should not be in this country. And in order for us to have a future, we need to get rid of these children’,”  Silverstein explained.

It’s also one that, Silverstein notes, we’re sharing with America right now: we gave the US the idea of massive detention facilities for asylum seekers, and the US gave us “anchor babies”.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey