Did you know there exists a highly lucrative business in America that consists of helping pregnant Chinese women get into the U.S. merely to give birth and get their children passports? Yep, neither did I.
Fiona He gave birth to her second child, a boy, on Jan. 24, 2015, at Pomona Valley Hospital in Southern California. The staff was friendly, the delivery uncomplicated, and the baby healthy. He, a citizen of China, left the hospital confident she had made the right decision to come to America to have her baby.
She’d arrived in November as a customer of USA Happy Baby, one of an increasing number of agencies that bring pregnant Chinese women to the States. Like most of them, Happy Baby is a deluxe service that ushers the women through the visa process and cares for them before and after delivery.
There are many reasons to have a baby in the U.S. The air is cleaner, the doctors generally are better, and pain medication is dispensed more readily. Couples can evade China’s one-child policy, because they don’t have to register the birth with local authorities. The main appeal of being a “birth tourist,” though, is that the newborn goes home with a U.S. passport. The 14th Amendment decrees that almost any child born on U.S. soil is automatically a citizen; the only exception is a child born to diplomats. He and her husband paid USA Happy Baby $50,000 to have an American son. If they had to, she says, they’d have paid more.
A week later, five men from Homeland Security Investigations, the sheriff’s department, and the fire department arrived. At first He thought they’d come from the homeowners’ association. Then she saw the bulletproof vests and handguns. They showed her a search warrant. She recognized the translator from the previous visit. “Then they asked me a lot of questions, and I became nervous,” she says.
The HSI agents told He she wasn’t in trouble. That turned out to be only sort of true. They were investigating the owners of USA Happy Baby—Dong and her husband, Michael Liu—for suspected tax evasion, money laundering, and visa fraud. Although it’s legal to travel to the U.S. to give birth, it’s illegal to lie about the purpose of a visit—or coach someone to do so. For two hours the agents gathered documents, including the family’s passports, and made copies of He’s e-mails and texts. “They took my son’s immunization record, even the paper I used to record his milk time,” she says.
Homeland Security and the IRS have been investigating the growing business of “birth tourism,” which operates in a legal gray area, since last June. The industry is totally unregulated and mostly hidden. Fiona’s apartment was one of more than 30 baby safe houses that HSI agents and local law enforcement searched in Southern California that day in March. They came with translators and paramedics, almost 300 people in all. The investigators focused on three agencies—USA Happy Baby, You Win USA Vacation Resort, and Star Baby Care—using a confidential informant, undercover operations, and surveillance, according to three affidavits.
No one knows the exact number of Chinese birth tourists or services catering to them. Online ads and accounts in the Chinese-language press suggest there could be hundreds, maybe thousands, of operators. A California association of these services called All American Mother Service Management Center claims 20,000 women from China gave birth in the U.S. in 2012 and about the same number in 2013. These figures are often cited by Chinese state media, but the center didn’t reply to a request for comment. The Center for Immigration Studies, an American organization that advocates limiting the scope of the 14th Amendment, estimates there could have been as many as 36,000 birth tourists from around the world in 2012.
The U.S. and Canada are the only developed countries that grant birthright citizenship. For those who believe U.S. immigration policies are too generous, birth tourism has become a contentious issue. “It’s like somebody giving birth in your living room and saying they’re part of your family,” says Ira Mehlman, the spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
After the March raids, 29 Chinese mothers and relatives were designated material witnesses and ordered to stay in Southern California until the federal court decided they could leave. Fiona He moved from her apartment in Rancho Cucamonga to one in another part of the Inland Empire. “I want my children to have the best they can,” she says. “But I had no idea I would have this trouble. We didn’t hurt anyone. We just found an easy way to stay here to give birth. Is that wrong?
If a woman says she’s traveling to give birth, the consular and customs officers may request proof that she can pay for her hospital stay. (The same would be asked of anybody seeking medical treatment in the U.S.) “Keep every single one of your invoices as evidence that you didn’t use the public charge,” Zhai says, referring to Medicaid. “If you have receipts with big sums, such as a watch worth tens of thousands, or a diamond ring, save those too.”
The consular and customs officers “may” ask for proof?
There’s a lot of money to be made in laundering Chinese money into America, as well as in getting Chinese citizens a green card or residency.