Why Birth Tourism from China Persists Even as U.S. Officials Crack Down

Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2016

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Even as middle class incomes in China enjoy explosive growth, and 96% of Chinese people in a recent Pew Research poll say their lives are better than their parents’, an unknown number of “birth tourists” cross oceans each year to have their babies in America.

And in America’s Chinese enclaves, they find a cottage industry of Chinese midwives, drivers and doctors who accept cash and “maternity hotels”—apartments or homes run as hotels for the women during their pregnancies.

Chinese listing sites show several hundred maternity hotels in Southern California, though it’s not clear how many of the listings are active.

Anyone who lies about the purpose of their visit to the U.S. can be charged with visa fraud, but birth tourism per se is not illegal.

“There is nothing in the law that makes it illegal for pregnant women to enter the United States,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Critics, however, blast the practice as a way to gain citizenship for children by unfairly gaming the immigration system.  And spurred in part by those complaints, U.S. officials at every level are exploring ways to crack down on maternity hotels.

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Restrictive family planning policies may have driven some Chinese mothers to give birth in America before 2015, when the one-child policy ended. But many others are simply curious about America and exploring the possibility of a life in the U.S., said Kelly, a birth tourist who has settled in Riverside County’s Eastvale neighborhood.

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In 2015, the State Department issued 2.27 million visas to Chinese tourists. It does not track what proportion of visas are issued to birth tourists. Childbirth is a legitimate reason to travel to the U.S., and as long as Chinese nationals provide the correct paperwork and evidence they can pay for their medical care, they will be issued a visa, department officials said.

But other federal officials have handled the issue differently, acting on suspicions that the practice involves large-scale visa fraud. Border Patrol agents at major ports of entry such as Los Angeles International Airport have recently tightened security for pregnant Chinese women and sometimes block them from entering the country.

And last year, ICE officials raided birth hotels in Riverside, Rowland Heights and Irvine, accusing the operators of tax code violations and of committing fraud by helping birth tourists get visas under false pretenses.

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In the San Gabriel Valley, where birth hotels are an open secret, local leaders field a steady stream of complaints from area residents who oppose maternity hotels. {snip}

In 2013, Los Angeles County formed a birth tourism task force to tackle the issue. The task force has identified and cited 34 birthing hotel operators for running businesses on land that is zoned for residential use. But there is still no county regulation against running hotels for foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. for the sole purpose of giving birth.

The same year that authorities cracked down on birth tourism, “Finding Mr. Right,” a dramatization of a Chinese mother’s trip to Seattle to give birth, grossed $82 million in China, the ninth-highest-earning domestic film that year.

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Authorities say it’s virtually impossible to tell how many Chinese birth tourists come to the U.S. each year. The Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative-leaning think tank, estimates that nearly 36,000 Chinese nationals give birth in the U.S. each year, but “that’s just a guess,” said Jessica Vaughan, the center’s executive director.

Birth tourists are using U.S. citizenship as a safety net, Vaughan said. And they can use welfare and healthcare benefits that they did not pay taxes for. She thinks the government should make it harder for babies born from birth tourism to retain their citizenship by requiring them to spend the first five years of their lives in the U.S., rather than allowing families to take the babies back to their homeland.

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Karin Wang, a vice president at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says she is concerned that such attitudes toward birth tourism reflect xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment. She cast birth tourism as the side effect of a broken immigration system.

“If the immigration system itself worked better, then these convoluted paths that people take to secure status in America would lessen or disappear,” Wang said.

Birth mothers often arrive in the U.S. a few months before they’re set to have their babies because their pregnancies aren’t as visible then, and they’ve heard that officials block pregnant women from entering the country.

Many mothers stay in the U.S. at least long enough to observe the Chinese custom of zuo yuezi, a month-long regimen and diet that is supposed to promote health among new mothers.

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Rowland Heights, along with Arcadia and Irvine, have long been plagued with rumors that the communities host “mistress villages”—a slang term in China to describe a housing complex where rich Chinese men house their mistresses.

The rumors are unverifiable, but birth tourists, birth hotel operators, nurses and other people working in the industry told The Times that Chinese single women form a significant part of the birth tourism industry.

A baby without the proper permits can’t access public services like school or healthcare, Zhu said. And mothers giving birth out of wedlock face withering social persecution.

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