LOS ANGELES – Six pregnant Asian women stroll across a road in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Two others cross the road in the opposite direction. In a nearby store, around 10 such women compare baby clothing.
Nearby, a string of “maternity hotels” — where Asian women, often Chinese and Taiwanese, come to give birth to babies who will automatically acquire a U.S. passport — have drawn the attention of authorities.
There is nothing illegal about foreign women giving birth in the United States. But federal officials are investigating possible related crimes, while local officials say planning regulations may have been violated.
Since December, there have been 64 complaints, mostly involving the districts of Hacienda Heights and Rowland Heights, said Alex Garcia, a Los Angeles County planning department official. Inspectors entered 16 of these lodgings for pregnant women, and found that five of the buildings were operating as boarding houses for Chinese or Taiwanese women, he said.
A seven-months-pregnant 26 year old Chinese national, who offered the pseudonym Xui Li, has just arrived from Beijing to give birth on U.S. soil. Like her compatriots, she hesitates before discussing the reasons for coming to the United States. But in the end she opens up — not giving her real name, of course — as she browses in the stroller aisle in a store across the road from Pheasant Ridge, where she lives.
“It’s my choice for my baby. Maybe later he can have a good education. The U.S. has the best universities in the world. In the future, maybe he can come here if he wants,” she said.
As a U.S. citizen, her baby will be eligible for college loans and grants. And, if they want to settle in the United States, the child’s parents will be able to apply for a family visa.
A Chinese couple, who also ask not to be named, cited a different set of reasons.
“We want to have another child. After the birth of a child, it’s not possible,” the man said, referring to China’s one-child policy.
“If the child is born in a foreign country, Chinese (officials) are not going to ask for ID.”
USA Baby Care, which has a hotel in Anaheim — near Disneyland, south of Los Angeles — offers lodging and prenatal care for expectant mothers but provides other reasons to convince Asian women to give birth in the U.S.
“In the case of political instability or unrest, U.S. citizens enjoy the protection of the U.S. government,” the service says on a Chinese-language website that has a picture of a baby next to the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. Capitol. “Even if there is an airspace shutdown, they enjoy priority to get on a plane to leave.”
The service has prices ranging from $14,000 to $22,000.
But mothers, like the organizations or people who house them, run serious risks with U.S. authorities, depending on exactly how they go about it.
“There is nothing in the law that makes it illegal for pregnant women to enter the United States,” Virginia Kice, regional spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.
“However, if a pregnant woman or anyone else uses fraud or deception to obtain a visa or gain admission to the United States, that would constitute a criminal act.
“Likewise, that would also be true if someone conspires with others who then commit fraud on his or her behalf,” she added.
Kice noted that the “focus in any visa fraud probe would be on the instigators or organizers, since that is key to disrupting and ultimately dismantling the criminal activity. Often, the defendants who orchestrate such schemes face violations beyond just visa fraud,” including possible conspiracy, money laundering and making false statements, she added.
As for those women who rent lodgings, the homes are often in purely residential neighborhoods where commercial activity is illegal. Such services could face prosecution for tax evasion, said Garcia, the planning department official.
But inspectors then face the task of proving that they really are renting out rooms — difficult if they are not allowed in, if they say they can’t speak English or agree among each other to claim they are family member or friends.
In those cases no action can be taken, Garcia said.