An entire industry has been built to exploit Chinese couples desperate desire for their children to obtain U.S. or Canadian passports. But because the process requires both operators and clients to distort the truth, homeland security has launched a crack
BEIJING — Swarms of federal homeland security agents from California's Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties recently raided 37 maternity care centers, known in Chinese as "month-sitting centers." The establishments in question recruit and serve Chinese clients trying to find a way for their babies to be born in North America so they can obtain citizenship.
To understand why these operations are being targeted, some background is in order. Although these centers claim to serve locals, their true target clients are couples from China, where it is believed that women should be confined to the house for a month of rest and recuperation after a delivery.
But of course the reason why so many Chinese and other Asian parents-to-be are there in the first place, sparing no expense to travel and stay to the United States or Canada for delivery, is what's come to be known as "birth tourism."
Advertisements by agencies running such services are quite explicit: For 200,000 RMB $32,000, I'll fulfill your American or Canadian dream.
Many Chinese parents want their children to be born in North American because the United States and Canada both link citizenship to place of birth, and seen as having excellent social benefits and quality education opportunities. After 2007, when Canada raised its immigration threshold and Chinese no longer had any real hope to enter as skilled migrants, the so-called "maternity industry" suddenly boomed.
Such an industry turns out to be largely built on lies, essentially composed of three layers. There are the people who provide lodging, usually in an ordinary apartment complex or somebody's home. Above them are the birth operators who receive the pregnant women and arrange all the delivery services and postpartum care.
The starting point, however, are the intermediary agencies that advertise and attract clients who want their children to have American or Canadian passports. These same businesses usually also run services for assistance in immigration and studying abroad.
In the United States, running a maternity center is not illegal per se. Neither is applying for a visa with the goal of giving birth in America illegal, although the immigration office would probably refuse the visa request if the motivation was known.
This is why the recruiting agencies usually coach clients to enter North America by making statements in bad faith. Meanwhile, to ensure that they obtain full payment from these parents, the birth operators force the clients to lie about their true financial situations so that they can be billed at a reduced fee as uninsured or low-income parents. U.S. federal law enforcement agencies are now going after the industry, investigating these operators on charges of tax and benefits fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy.
The issue is even more complicated in Canada. As one British Columbia alderman points out, the maternity tourism chain is composed of three services that all require licenses and come under different government supervision — the home-hotel, postpartum care and baby care. That puts them in a sort of "limbo," and it's a big headache for the relevant agencies.
Hong Kong example
The first report that people were cashing in on these maternity tourism operations was in 2003. But the business had already existed for many years. Before Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, this industry had already become very profitable thanks to those who were tired of the time-consuming legal formalities of immigration. In recent years, thanks to China's growing affluent class and the rising immigration threshold, the business has evolved to cater mainly to the Chinese from the mainland.
But these parents often neglect to consider the disadvantages of this strategy. For instance, many clients don't understand that the United States isn't a complete welfare state. Nor do they know that as "non-resident" Canadians, they aren't entitled to any social benefits and can't legally rent out housing they have acquired.
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A high-end delivery room. Photo: Footloosiety
They also underestimate the huge mental and physical cost and the cumbersome inconveniences involved in staying in the country with a baby until they reach legal age. The same goes for parents who return to live in China until the child can legally exercise the right to choose nationality at 18 or 21. In the latter case, because the child is considered a foreigner in China, he or she must obtain a visa or travel document to enter China. Those papers are usually valid for six months to a year. Going back and forth between two countries becomes very costly; and as foreigners, these children are refused enrollment in local schools and lose their Chinese social security benefits.
Still, the reality is that maternity tourism is driven by demand. And for now, enough wealthy Chinese are convinced that the North American dream for their child begins at birth.