Birth tourism: Maternity homes in U.S. used by foreigners who give birth so child gains citizenship

Jennifer Shih, a senior at the University of California, Davis, was born in New York and attended high schools in Idaho, Utah and California. But even she will tell you she's anything but an all-American girl.

Shih was reared in her parents' home country, Taiwan, and returned to the United States at age 15, when it was time to claim her birthright as a U.S. citizen for a public education.

"I'm Taiwanese more than American," Shih, a 23-year-old communication and psychology major, said on a recent weekday afternoon.

Shih personifies an immigration trend that can be seen as the mirror opposite of those teens and young adults who came to this country illegally as children and are now trying to secure legal residency.

Eight months pregnant, Shih's mother legally entered the United States on a tourist visa in 1989. Two months after giving birth at a Manhattan hospital, she returned to Taiwan with her U.S. passport-bearing daughter in tow.

The family acknowledges it planned the birth so that Shih could become a U.S. citizen and eventually go to school here. "The educational system in the U.S. is better and more open," said Shih's father, Simon, 55.

Critics call it "birth tourism" and the practice is solidly entrenched in the Los Angeles area, though so-called maternity homes catering to expectant mothers from East Asia are also advertised in the San Francisco Bay Area.

No one knows how many "birth tourists" visit this country each year.

In 2010, the mothers of 7,719 children born in the United States reported that they lived overseas, according to the National Center for Health Statistics -- a figure up nearly 55 percent since 2000.

Critics say the data vastly understate the number, because they use information self-reported by parents during their hospital stays.

Birth tourism falls into a gray area of federal law. It is legal, of course, for foreigners to give birth in the United States. But women coming here for that purpose often lie on their visa applications, saying they are traveling for pleasure or to visit family.

"The question is whether or not people are lawfully obtaining a visa and appropriately representing the purpose of their visit," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Lying to immigration officers is a federal crime, Kice said, but is difficult to prove. She said that to her knowledge no one has been prosecuted in California for visa fraud in relation to birth tourism.

Jay Chang, who shuttles between Taipei and Los Angeles, serves as a consultant for nine maternity homes. Chang, 41, had his two children born through a maternity home over a decade ago. He argues that the practice is "in line with the spirit of the Constitution," adding that the U.S. government was "getting a good deal."

"We bring cash to pay for our births; we go back to our country to raise the child, and then he comes back to work and pay taxes to the U.S. government," Chang said in Mandarin during a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Pregnant women are driven to make the long and risky trip because of educational and job opportunities in the United States, Chang said. Some hope their children can help them emigrate later; once the children turn 21, they can petition the government to grant legal residency for their parents.

The trend is on the rise, Chang said, adding that there are more than 40 maternity operations that host 1,000 women in the Los Angeles area alone.

Most operate in the shadows, advertising in Chinese newspapers and on the Internet. For $3,000 to $6,000 a month, the maternity homes provide three meals a day, transportation and child care, according to Chang. They even make arrangements with Chinese doctors in the United States who charge $7,000 for a birth.

"Expect to spend $15,000 if you want an American-born baby," Chang said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., group that supports tighter immigration controls, is among those who argue for restrictions to help guard against the practice.

"What we're doing is conferring citizenship on people who don't have a connection to this country," he said.

Krikorian and others argue that the United States' grant of citizenship at birth, adopted through the 14th Amendment in 1868, was established to ensure that newly emancipated slaves would be citizens.

"The idea that visitors from abroad who intentionally come to give birth to U.S. citizens would have been considered absurd by the framers of the amendment," Krikorian said.

Some advocates for stricter immigration controls have lobbied to have the 14th Amendment repealed -- an action Krikorian believes may be "too drastic." He suggests a middle ground: that if a child born to foreign parents in the United States was still living in the country 10 years later, he or she would be automatically naturalized.

Immigrant advocates counter that the birth-tourism issue is too small to warrant the government's

attention.

"Any effort to try and control it leads you down some pretty drastic policy and constitutional changes," said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington, D.C., think tank. "How realistically could you regulate it?"
 
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)

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