Federal agents raided more than a dozen homes in California on Tuesday in a crackdown on businesses that allegedly help wealthy pregnant Chinese women travel to the United States to give birth so that their babies will automatically obtain citizenship.
Shortly after sunrise, agents swarmed an upscale apartment complex in the Orange County city of Irvine where authorities say one of the “birth tourism” businesses charged pregnant women $50,000 for lodging, food and transportation.
The crackdown on the three alleged birth tourism rings may be the biggest yet by federal Homeland Security officials, who said women may travel to the United States while pregnant — but they cannot lie about the purpose of the trip when applying for a visa.
Investigators said women were coached to lie about their travel plans when applying for tourist visas, and were promised they would receive Social Security numbers and U.S. passports for their babies before returning to China.
Similar practices have been reported involving people from a range of countries, but authorities say the most recent cases in California have catered to wealthy Chinese amid a boom in tourism from China. It is unclear how many women travel to the U.S. for birth tourism.
In one instance, a trainer in China helped fabricate employment and income information for an undercover federal agent posing as a pregnant client to secure a tourist visa, according to a copy of an affidavit filed in support of a search warrant. The trainer encouraged the woman to fly through Hawaii — where customs officers were believed to be more lenient than in Los Angeles — the affidavit said.
The business netted its owners hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past two years and helped Chinese tourists deliver more than 400 American babies at Orange County hospitals, the court papers said.
The Los Angeles Times, citing an unidentified federal agent, reported that "multiple birth tourism companies were operating out of the same apartment complex." The Los Angeles Times also reported that as authorities conducted the raids, pregnant women "in sweat clothes and carrying plastic bags of laundry cast confused looks at the agents," and that "wailing babies could be heard."
No arrests were made or charges filed. Investigators conducted the searches in Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, hoping to collect evidence of crimes — including visa and tax fraud — tied to three separate birth tourism operations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said.
The key draw for such travelers is that the U.S. offers birthright citizenship. Many apparently believe citizenship will help their children secure a top-notch American college education and provide a sort of insurance policy should economic conditions crumble in their home country — especially since the travelers themselves can apply for a green card, which allows permanent residence in the U.S., once their American child turns 21.
Bill Ong Hing, professor of the University of San Francisco School of Law, said wealthy foreigners from across the world often travel to the U.S. for medical care and are allowed to do so on visitor visas, provided they do not overstay.
Jon Feere, legal policy analyst for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said he believes birth tourism will grow along with international travel.
"There is a sense the foreigner has control over our immigration policy rather than the American people," said Feere, who wants stricter limits on immigration.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection warns on its website that officers at airports and on the border will consider a pregnant woman's due date, travel plans and medical insurance to determine whether she can enter the country.
In the Irvine case, investigators said another undercover officer posing as a pregnant traveler was told not to apply for her visa too late as she would be denied if she were noticeably pregnant. A pregnant woman who was questioned at the airport said she was told to say she was simply a tourist, court papers said.
Federal agents started investigating the business after an anonymous tip last year.
In 2013, Los Angeles County cited more than a dozen birth tourism "hotels" or complexes for code violations after an uproar in a nearby suburban community about one operating in a residential neighborhood.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press