LOS ANGELES — At 10 a.m. on a cold morning in April at Whittier Medical Center, Sophia was born. She was a healthy baby girl at 7 pounds and 1 ounce, with a future in America to look forward to, if she chose it.
Her mother, Tracy, came from Shanghai to give her this choice — a chance at the world’s best education, a safe childhood and reliable medical care without long lines.
“I’m here to give my kids better options,” said Tracy, who asked to be referred to by her first name because she has read stories about U.S. officials cracking down on mothers who come to America to give birth.
Even as middle-class incomes in China enjoy explosive growth, and 96 percent of Chinese people in a recent Pew Research poll say their lives are better than their parents’, an unknown number of “birth tourists” like Tracy cross oceans each year to have their babies in America.
And in America’s Chinese enclaves, they find a cottage industry of Chinese midwives, drivers and doctors who accept cash and “maternity hotels” — apartments or homes run as hotels for the women during their pregnancies.
Chinese listing sites show several hundred maternity hotels in Southern California, though it’s not clear how many of the listings are active.
Anyone who lies about the purpose of their visit to the U.S. can be charged with visa fraud, but birth tourism per se is not illegal.
“There is nothing in the law that makes it illegal for pregnant women to enter the United States,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Critics, however, blast the practice as a way to gain citizenship for children by unfairly gaming the immigration system. And spurred in part by those complaints, U.S. officials at every level are exploring ways to crack down on maternity hotels.
That the practice persists, birth tourists say, is a testament to the hold that America still has on Chinese imaginations.
Restrictive family planning policies may have driven some Chinese mothers to give birth in America before 2015, when the one-child policy ended. But many others are simply curious about
America and exploring the possibility of a life in the U.S., said Kelly, a birth tourist who has settled in Riverside County’s Eastvale neighborhood.
“China has developed very quickly,” said Kelly, who also declined to provide her first name. “But … Chinese people still have this perception of America as a dream place to live, that it is bigger, better, stronger.”
In 2015, the State Department issued 2.27 million visas to Chinese tourists. It does not track what proportion of visas are issued to birth tourists. Childbirth is a legitimate reason to travel to the U.S., and as long as Chinese nationals provide the correct paperwork and evidence they can pay for their medical care, they will be issued a visa, department officials said.
But other federal officials have handled the issue differently, acting on suspicions that the practice involves large-scale visa fraud. Border Patrol agents at major ports of entry such as Los Angeles International Airport have recently tightened security for pregnant Chinese women and sometimes block them from entering the country.
And in 2015, ICE officials raided birth hotels in Riverside, Rowland Heights and Irvine, accusing the operators of tax code violations and of committing fraud by helping birth tourists get visas under false pretenses.
“People who provide false information in order to gain entry to the U.S. pose a potential security vulnerability,” Kice said.
In the San Gabriel Valley, where birth hotels are an open secret, local leaders field a steady stream of complaints from area residents who oppose maternity hotels. In Chino Hills, a group of residents protested the presence of birth hotels in the neighborhood, and Arcadia police even assigned a detective to investigate the businesses in response to residents’ complaints.
In 2013, Los Angeles County formed a birth tourism task force to tackle the issue. The task force has identified and cited 34 birthing hotel operators for running businesses on land that is zoned for residential use. But there is still no county regulation against running hotels for foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. for the sole purpose of giving birth.
The same year that authorities cracked down on birth tourism, “Finding Mr. Right,” a dramatization of a Chinese mother’s trip to Seattle to give birth, grossed $82 million in China, the ninth-highest-earning domestic film that year.
The film wraps the controversy of birth tourism in the familiar narrative confines of a sugary romantic comedy, telling the story of a Beijing tycoon’s wife who flies to Seattle to give birth and falls in love with a driver at the maternity hotel.
One of the first scenes shows her preparing to navigate customs by wrapping a loose cloth around her pregnant belly. At customs, she tells the officer that she’s here to “travel.” When he asks if she’s married, she responds by performing Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance.
Rosy depictions of the U.S. in that film and others fuel the American dreams of the growing Chinese middle class. And a deteriorating belief in China’s future drives still others to consider giving birth in America.
Food safety, pollution and income inequality are now among Chinese citizens’ top concerns, according to Pew Research. Just 6 percent of high-net-worth Chinese individuals say they plan to remain in China full time, according to a Hurun Report poll in 2015, and the U.S. is their top destination.
Authorities say it’s virtually impossible to tell how many Chinese birth tourists come to the U.S. each year. The Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative-leaning think tank, estimates that nearly 36,000 Chinese nationals give birth in the U.S. each year, but “that’s just a guess,” said Jessica Vaughan, the center’s executive director.
Birth tourists are using U.S. citizenship as a safety net, Vaughan said. And they can use welfare and health care benefits that they did not pay taxes for. She thinks the government should make it harder for babies born from birth tourism to retain their citizenship by requiring them to spend the first five years of their lives in the U.S., rather than allowing families to take the babies back to their homeland.
“Birth tourism commodifies U.S. citizenship rather than keeping it something that is earned through the legal immigration system. It cheapens citizenship in the eyes of native-born Americans,” Vaughan said.
Karin Wang, a vice president at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says she is concerned that such attitudes toward birth tourism reflect xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment. She cast birth tourism as the side effect of a broken immigration system.
“If the immigration system itself worked better, then these convoluted paths that people take to secure status in America would lessen or disappear,” Wang said.