“Birth Tourism” Industry Elicits Federal Raids

Federal agents raided 37 locations in Southern California amid growing concerns about so-called “birth tourism.” The object of the operation, authorities confirmed, was to gather evidence about businesses targeting wealthy, pregnant Chinese women in a bid for their children’s citizenship status.

The illegal businesses, as reported in affidavits made public Tuesday in support of search warrants, arrange for pregnant women to visit the United States on tourist visas, in order to give birth on American soil. Under U.S. law, the children will be American citizens with full entitlements to birth certificates and passports. A source described how, upon reaching age 21, these children will then help their parents become legal residents of the United States.

Detailed instructions for prospective clients were also unsealed with the affidavits. The companies providing “birth tourism” reportedly caution women to wear loose clothing, lie about the purpose of their stay to American customs officials and not to fly too far into their second trimester. Certain airports like the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) are designated high-risk due to increased scrutiny, and clients are advised to book initial flights to Hawaii or Los Vegas where security is more relaxed. Companies like USA Happy Baby even promise refunds if a client is sent home at the airport.

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stated that the purpose of the raids is to gather evidence, not to make arrests.

The affidavits describe many business’s step-by-step guidance for clients, from making housing arrangements and hiring Chinese-speaking nannies to obtaining passports and birth certificates for the babies through proxy before they leave the country.

Agents of “birth tourism” companies at sites like starbabycare.com buy maternity clothes in America to avoid closer inspection at customs and coach Chinese women on how to answer security questions. All this support comes at a hefty price; the affidavits describe businesses charging up to $60,000 per client.

The result is significant: among Mexico, Korea and several other countries whose citizens have also engaged in birth tourism, China has risen drastically to the top. Chinese government sources report that Chinese nationals had over 10,000 babies in the United States in 2012, compared to about 4,200 babies in 2008. One affidavit states that Chinese women delivered more than 400 American babies at a single Orange County hospital in Southern California, where the majority of the businesses operate.

The spike represents a demographic shift as well: instead of lower-income families sneaking into the United States, nearly all of the expecting Chinese mothers are affluent enough to pay top rates.

The spate of search warrants is the largest of its kind. Reports about maternity hospitals for Chinese women have become regular over the last five years. In 2011, local officials in San Gabriel closed a house after neighbors described many pregnant or infant-accompanied women coming and going, and in 2013 Los Angeles County cited 16 “maternity hotels” in Pheasant Ridge and surrounding neighborhoods under county codes for operating as boardinghouses, 11 of which were subject to the raid Tuesday.

These local zoning laws have been the federal government’s primary legal tool against maternity hotels, for while the “birth tourism” industry is illegal, being a pregnant tourist and having birth while visiting is not. Tuesday’s legal response has been directed at the businesses themselves rather than their clients.

Undercover informants were used to find out the location and details of the business owners, who were revealed to have hid their income in foreign bank accounts. The raids on Tuesday targeted several upscale apartments and business owners’ homes in Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties in addition to the maternity houses. Among the materials sought were documents, computer records and transactions to provide evidence of tax and immigration fraud.

In one case, an American-based Chinese national posed as the cousin of a potential client in China and consulted several businesses, even asking to see firsthand what accommodations might be available.

Jon Feere, a legal and policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said he was optimistic about the policy, which represents a move in favor of legislation favoring tighter immigration laws.

Federal Agents enter suspected house seeking evidence of illegal tax evasion connected to "birth tourism" industry.
Federal Agents enter suspected house seeking evidence of illegal tax evasion connected to “birth tourism” industry.

Photo Courtesy of L.A. Times