Jeb Bush struggled Monday to explain his position on birthright citizenship, suggesting that his use of the term “anchor babies” was directed not at Hispanics but rather at Asians.Now, if you parse only the words, Jeb's words themselves aren't (unduly) offensive. Who's going to defend the idea of scurrilous foreigners entering the U.S. just long enough literally to drop a baby and to file the paperwork proving the circumstances of the birth?
“What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed,” Bush told reporters during an immigration-focused press conference in McAllen, Tex. “Frankly it’s more related to Asian people [who are] coming into our country, having children, and… taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship.”
But of course, you cannot parse only the words. You have to parse the circumstances in which those words are uttered. In this case, the circumstance of interest is the racially-charged atmosphere the GOP has created with its rhetoric. GOP candidates and far-right conservatives have criticized the #BlackLivesMatter movement as another cry of "victimization" from blacks; they've pandered to their base with racist fearmongering against Hispanics in the guise of "immigration reform". It's not a great surprise that Bush, increasingly desperate to garner some attention for his candidacy and some traction with the far-right base that dominates the GOP's primaries, has now gone after the other major subgroup That Doesn't Look Like Us.
There are more charitable ways of interpreting his remarks. For one thing, he may well be right that there is a substantial number of foreign-born Asians who travel to the U.S. expressly for the purpose of gaining a literal toehold on American citizenship for their children. For another, Bush may genuinely feel Hispanics are being railroaded by his conservative brethren, and he may have tried to redirect some of the nativist fury at "others" away from Hispanics.
But in the current, charged atmosphere in which the likes of Trump are demonizing non-whites, simply saying that he meant Asians rather than Hispanics invites the nativist, borderline racist GOP base to target Asians and Asian Americans rather than (or in addition to) Hispanics.
Did he mean to stoke anti-Asian sentiment? Well, look at it this way: he used to govern Florida, a state with a sizable non-white population. If he habitually blundered into minefields of ethnicity with catastrophic results, I doubt he would have secured two terms as governor. He didn't blunder into this remark. He didn't accidentally drag Asians and Asian Americans into the nativist GOP base's lashing-out against non-whites.
From a purely numerical standpoint, Asian Americans don't matter in national politics: there just aren't enough of them. But as a matter of optics, to use the currently popular term, substituting "Asians" for "Hispanics" simply gives the sizable pool of covert and overt racists in the GOP's fold an additional set of targets. Or rather, since these racists already loathed non-whites, Bush gave them rhetorical cover.
Bush could dig himself out of his hole, but it would take a lot of further clarifications and explanations, none of which will make him a more viable candidate in the eyes of GOP primary voters. So, like many who have insulted Asian Americans in the past (hello, Rush), he won't bother — and he likely won't pay a political price, either.