In California, ‘Birth Tourism’ Appears to Grow

Richard Chang, The Sacramento Bee, September 24, 2012

Born in New York, Jennifer Shih, a UC Davis senior, attended high schools in Idaho and Utah before graduating from her alma mater in California.

But even she will tell you she is anything but an all-American girl.

Shih was reared in her parents’ home country, Taiwan, and returned to the United States at age 15, when it was time to claim her birthright as a U.S. citizen for a public education.

“I’m Taiwanese more than American,” Shih, who is 23 and double-majoring in communication and psychology, said on a recent weekday afternoon in Davis.

Shih personifies an immigration trend that can be seen as the mirror opposite of those teens and young adults who came to this country illegally as children and are now trying to secure legal residency.

Eight months pregnant, Shih’s mother legally entered the United States on a tourist visa in 1989. Two months after giving birth at a Manhattan hospital, she returned to Taiwan with her U.S. passport-bearing daughter in tow.

The family acknowledges it planned the birth so that Shih could become a U.S. citizen and eventually go to school here.

“The educational system in the U.S. is better and more open,” said Shih’s father, Simon, 55.

Critics call it “birth tourism” and the practice is solidly entrenched in the Los Angeles area, though so-called maternity homes catering to expectant mothers from East Asia are also advertised in the San Francisco Bay Area.

No one knows how many “birth tourists” visit this country each year.

In 2010, the mothers of 7,719 children born in the United States reported that they lived overseas, according to the National Center for Health Statistics—a figure up nearly 55 percent since 2000.

Critics say the data vastly understate the number, because they use information self-reported by parents during their hospital stays.

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Pregnant women are driven to make the long and risky trip because of educational and job opportunities in the United States, Chang said. Some hope their children can help them emigrate later; once the children turn 21, they can petition the government to grant legal residency for their parents.

The trend is on the rise, Chang said, adding that there are more than 40 maternity operations that host 1,000 women in the Los Angeles area alone.

With names such as Star Baby Care and Little Sunshine, the homes are scattered across the suburban cities of Monterey Park and Temple City. Most operate in the shadows, advertising in Chinese newspapers and on the Internet. A quick online search of “giving birth in America” in Chinese yields numerous businesses, including Chang’s.

For $3,000 to $6,000 a month, the maternity homes provide three meals a day, transportation and child care, according to Chang. They even make arrangements with Chinese doctors in the United States who charge $7,000 for a birth.

“Expect to spend $15,000 if you want an American-born baby,” Chang said.

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Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., group that supports tighter immigration controls, is among those who argue for restrictions to help guard against the practice.

“What we’re doing is conferring citizenship on people who don’t have a connection to this country,” he said.

Krikorian and others argue that the United States’ conferment of citizenship at birth, adopted through the 14th Amendment in 1868, was established to ensure that newly emancipated slaves would be citizens.

“The idea that visitors from abroad who intentionally come to give birth to U.S. citizens would have been considered absurd by the framers of the amendment,” Krikorian said.

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