Federal Crackdown on Birth Tourism Sets the Tone for American Immigration Policies

By Kimberly Tuttle (CMC’19)

Birth tourism, or birth immigration, is a phenomenon that occurs all over the world; it is the practice of traveling to another country for the purpose of giving birth in that place. The main motivation behind this practice is for the parents and children involved to obtain citizen status in a country with birthright citizenship. Canada, Hong Kong, and the U.S. are common destinations for birth tourists. In recent years, there has been a noticeable influx of birth tourism throughout Southern California. As a result, in January 2019, federal authorities cracked down on a birth tourism business in Irvine, California and charged 20 people with various crimes, including immigration fraud, identity theft, and money laundering. This is the first time that criminal charges have been filed in a U.S. federal court over this common immigration practice. These events shed light onto a larger debate over immigration and U.S. foreign policy.

The construction of birth hotels, or maternity hotels, may have been the trigger for a federal investigation. In the past decade, birth hotels began popping up all over California, usually taking the form of upscale apartments, where mothers-to-be pay between $15,000 and $50,000 to give birth in the U.S. These hotels have drawn thousands of well-off women, mostly from China and Russia, to Southern California.

Birth immigration companies, like the one being prosecuted in Irvine, offer pregnant women package deals that include housing in birth hotels, nanny services, shopping excursions to name brand stores, and even coaching on how to deceive U.S. immigration officials. Notably, some Chinese couples have paid fees as high as $100,000. Due to the wealthy clientele of this kind of business, some birth immigration companies have become multimillion-dollar operations.

Supporters of harsher immigration policies have expressed frustration with the practice of birth tourism, claiming that birth tourists express a contempt for U.S. law. Some customers of the company involved in the Southern California lawsuit, for example, have ignored court orders and neglected hospital bills. Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California is a popular destination for birth tourism schemes. It has been one of many California hospitals to be defrauded by birth immigration customers, some of who, though may be financially well-off, avoid healthcare payments by claiming they are low-income patients without medical insurance.

Due to the deceptive nature of some birth immigration tactics, certain groups are advocating for a federal crackdown on the practice. The movement against birth tourism has fueled the larger debate of birthright citizenship in America, which advocates for the repeal of the constitutional right altogether.

The 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” has become a part of popular political debate in such a manner. In late 2018, President Trump expressed his desire to revoke birthright citizenship and said he believes he could do so with an executive order. While he still has not followed through on his promise to strike down the 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause, he has initiated federal investigations against birth tourism companies and instilled a level of unrest amongst their customers, who are motivated to use America’s jus soli, or “right of the soil,” to provide a better life for their children.

Echo Wang, a mother from Shenzhen, China went on a birth tour in America that cost her more than $40,000. Wang stated “I want to give my children more options… when my daughter visits Hong Kong, her U.S. passport allows her to enter without a visa. Ironically, we Chinese need a visa to enter a Chinese territory.” Explaining the motivations behind the birth tourism movement, Wang brings to light the underlying political factors that are the root cause of this phenomenon: the desire for increased access. Countries with restrictive governments, like China and Russia, grant their citizens very limited access to travel, which acts as a pathway to mobility and a plethora of opportunities. Thus, an American passport, in the eyes of Chinese and Russian citizens, is deemed valuable in terms of worldly access.

Wang expressed her intent to partake in another birth tour despite any executive order President Trump might sign. Wang’s sentiments toward birth tourism exemplify the importance of understanding the rationale behind the movement as a whole. An analysis of the reasoning behind birth tourism demonstrates how the practice is entwined with the search for increased international access. And in order to comprehensively solve this issue, the U.S. needs to examine the roots of the movement and approach it at its origins—through the engagement in foreign policy with Russia and China—rather than relying on prosecution. Otherwise, the phenomenon is likely to subsist. Wang’s tenacity proves that the commitment she has made to her children is more important to her than negative legal consequences that the U.S. may try to impose.

In the meantime, however, American birth immigration companies are faced with a challenge to reform their business practices to abide by Americans laws. Immigration fraud, identity theft, and money laundering are inadmissible crimes in the U.S., and if they continue to persist in the birth immigration industry, the movement as a whole may cease to exist.

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