(CBS SF) — The debate over illegal immigration and the birthright citizenship granted to those born in the U.S. was enhanced this week with the use by some Republican presidential candidates of the term “anchor baby.”

The term is often used to describe children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants, with the belief that such children would anchor the parents in the country and improve their chances of attaining legal citizenship.

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Many immigrants consider the term offensive and racist. Moreover, those in the U.S illegally are not shielded from possible deportation and must wait until the child is 21 years old to begin the arduous process of applying to have a parent obtain legal residency.

This week, as GOP candidates either announced their support or opposition to birthright citizenship, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz – among others – each used the term to either describe such children and/or defend the use of the term.

During a press call Thursday, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said she considered the term a personal attack against her and the immigrant community. “From the depths of my heart, I look at someone like Jeb Bush – who really should know better – and that all I can think of is the Spanish term, sirvengüenza, which means somebody who is completely without shame to attack children this way,” said Sanchez, as reported by the Latin Post.

“Here we have presidential candidates, these are people who want the top spot in the land … and using a term that is so vile,” she said.

A 2011 study by a Stanford sociology professor Gabe Ignatow and independent researcher Alexander Williams said the term is believed to have originated with the related term “anchor child,” used to reference Vietnamese boat people – refugees who fled the country after the Vietnam War in the 1980s and 1990s.

At that time, the term referred to a young immigrant who later would work to bring over other family members still abroad, according to the study.

“Anchor baby” was used almost exclusively on extreme right-wing and anti-immigrant websites in the early 2000s, but by the end of the decade it had appeared on most mainstream news outlets, the study noted.

Both Bush and Trump used the term on the campaign trail Wednesday while commenting on the 14th amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. Trump set off the debate by repeatedly using the term, saying he would “find out whether or not anchor babies are citizens” by testing the law in the courts.

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Bush, who is married to a Mexican woman, said Thursday he doesn’t think the term is offensive and blames Democrats for perpetuating the notion. The former Florida governor became defensive with a reporter who asked if he regretted using the term in a radio interview. “No, I don’t. I don’t regret it,” said Bush. “Do you have a better term? OK, you give me, you give me a better term and I’ll use it.”

Bush helped launch and is an advisor to the Hispanic Leadership Network which seeks to build support for the GOP among Latino voters. The group issued a memo in 2013 titled, “Dos and Don’ts of Immigration Reform,” and among tips to avoid offending Latino voters: “Don’t use the term ‘anchor baby.'”

Trump stated in a tweet that Bush was flip-flopping on the use of the term.

However, the memo in question did not have any signatories, and a campaign aide told CNN Bush had no role in the drafting of the memo.

Democrats and those on the left could only sit back and enjoy the mudslinging among the GOP candidates and their debate over the appropriateness of the term.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told Fox News he was “happy to use” the term “anchor babies” to describe birthright citizens born to non-citizen mothers.

On Friday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz chastised reporters who asked him about the term in Iowa, saying “I think we need to stop this politically-correct nonsense,” said Cruz.

Other GOP candidates are staying away from the term. Carly Fiorina told reporters during a campaign stop in New Hampshire Thursday “I just don’t think calling human beings names ever is helpful.”

On Friday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told CNBC “those are human beings … and ultimately they’re people. They’re not just statistics.”

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Carlos E. Castañeda is Senior Editor, News & Social Media for CBS San Francisco and a San Francisco native. You can follow him on Twitter or send him an email.