Andrew Blankstein et al., NBC News, January 9, 2018
Southern California apartment complexes that doubled as “maternity hotels” for Chinese women who want made-in-America babies were raided early Tuesday, capping an unprecedented federal sting operation, officials said.
NBC News was on the scene as Homeland Security agents swept into The Carlyle, a luxury property in Irvine, California, which housed pregnant women and new moms who allegedly forked over $40,000 to $80,000 to give birth in the United States.
Instead, the investigation was aimed at ringleaders who pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars tax-free to help Chinese nationals obtain visas and then pamper them until they delivered in an American hospital at a discount, court papers show.
All told, the feds raided 20 locations in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, targeting three competing birth tourism schemes, officials said. The suspected operators have not been charged but are being questioned.
The organizers who allegedly ran the Carlyle site, Chao Chen and Dong Li, used a website to drum up business, touting the benefits of a child with U.S. citizenship: 13 years of free education, low-cost college financial aid, less pollution, and a path for the entire family to emigrate when the child becomes an adult.
Clients were counseled on what lies to tell to obtain a tourist visa; how to fly through Hawaii, Las Vegas or Korea to avoid suspicious immigration officers at Los Angeles International Airport; and how to disguise their pregnancy in transit, according to search warrant affidavit unsealed Tuesday.
The women were then set up at the Carlyle, which charges about $3,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment and features amenities including private balconies, a resort-style pool, and cabanas with flat-screen televisions.
The women’s handlers provided transportation for doctor visits and trips to restaurants and shops, the court papers say. An agent tailing one of the suspects followed them to Target and Babies R Us.
They were funneled to several Orange County hospitals to deliver, but they didn’t pay full price — approximately $25,000 — for medical services, officials said. Instead, they got reduced rates for the indigent, ranging from nothing to $4,000, the court papers say.
The fraud, authorities say, went beyond the visas.
Li didn’t file a U.S. tax return and Chen didn’t declare hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds, the affidavit says. In addition, Chen and his wife, Jie Zhu committed marriage fraud, pretending to be divorced so they could get “green-card” marriages in the U.S., the feds charged.
The phenomenon of foreigners coming to the U.S. to have babies is not new but appears to be growing. One study found that 40,000 children a year are born to women here on a travel visa, the affidavit notes.
Tuesday’s crackdown marked the large-scale federal probe of birth-tourism kingpins in the continental U.S.
In addition to the operation at the Carlyle, the feds zeroed in on two other alleged schemes.
Wen Rui Deng, Li Yan Lang and Wen Shan Sun were accused of charging women $10,000 to $25,000 to put them up at the Pheasant Ridge apartments in Rowland Heights, where the “one dragon service” included baby nurses, the court papers say.