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Reuters/Bob Riha Jr.
Federal agents do a sweep of suspected “baby tourism” operations in Irvine, California.

The US is going after Chinese “maternity hotels” in southern California

By Lily Kuo

Dozens of US immigration agents yesterday raided 37 ”maternity hotels“ in California that are suspected of hosting pregnant Chinese women, so that they can give birth to children who will be US citizens.

The sting operation is likely to result in the largest federal case ever against a ”birth tourism” industry driven by wealthy Chinese families hoping to emigrate —or at least have the option to do so one day. Undercover federal agents have been posing as potential clients to ferret out visa fraud, tax fraud and other violations. (It’s not illegal to give birth in the US while visiting, but it is illegal to lie about one’s intentions for getting a tourist visa.)

Chinese women pay as much as $60,000 for a package deal that includes help getting a tourist visa to the US, prenatal care, accommodation for the few months before and after the birth, and advice for how to get past border agents (wear lose clothing and come well before the due date). Another thriving business is helping Chinese women who want American surrogate mothers for similar citizenship reasons.

While some Californians and some US lawmakers have been protesting the country’s birthright citizenship laws—which grant citizenship to any child born in the US under the 14th amendment to the constitution—it’s unclear exactly how big of a problem birth tourism is in the US.

The National Center for Health Statistics said that there were 7,462 tourist births in 2008—the most recent data available—which is a tiny fraction in a country where about 4 million births take place every year. Chinese state media estimates that as many as 10,000 Chinese tourists gave birth in the US in 2012.

It’s important to note that getting your child US citizenship through “maternity tourism” is at best a long-term bet. So-called “anchor babies” cannot live or study in the United States without a guardian who is a US citizen until they are adults, according to Andy Semotiuk, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. Similarly, they cannot sponsor family members for visas until they are 21 years old.

So why target the birth tourism industry, specifically the Chinese? Authorities may be under pressure, especially from politicians who have conflated maternity tourism with the hot-button topic of illegal immigration. Chinese immigrants have become the third-largest foreign born community in the US—reaching over 2 million in 2013—with a third of them settling in California. And wealthy Chinese who have been buying up California real estate have prompted a backlash from locals who angry about rising prices.