To dodge fines in China for violating the one-child policy and give the advantages of an American passport, many Chinese women are flying to the U.S. to give birth. But there are risks involved.
FUJIAN — The Chinese romantic comedy Finding Mr. Right, released earlier this year, portrays the droves of Chinese going overseas to have their babies.
Lin Hao (not his real name) is a senior executive at a well-known enterprise in Fujian and is part of this wave. He arranged for his wife to give birth to their second child in the U.S., a rare chance to have an “American Baby.”
To many Chinese, traveling to the United States to give birth makes good sense. The U.S. Constitution provides that children born on U.S. soil automatically receive American citizenship. Meanwhile, parents like Lin Hao face expensive fines amounting to several years’ income for having more children than China’s family planning policy allows. A baby with foreign citizenship isn’t subject to these fines.
Contrary to the stereotype of poor immigrants giving birth to “anchor babies” in the U.S. to secure citizenship, those leading China’s overseas birth tourism are the nouveaux riches — celebrities, officials, professors, doctors, business owners and media executives. In addition to dodging punishments for violating Chinese family planning policies, they also hope a U.S. passport will enhance their child’s travel and education opportunities down the line.
There are also those who absolutely must give birth abroad or face unthinkable consequences. These include mistresses giving birth out of wedlock and government officials who risk their political careers if they have too many children.
Searching for a host
In the past, Hong Kong was the hottest destination for Chinese birth tourists since it also follows the “principle of territory,” giving citizenship to any child born within its borders. But locals became angry when so many mothers from Mainland China started crowding the city’s hospitals. So the new Hong Kong government recently announced that both public and private hospitals would stop accepting pregnant women in cases when neither the mother nor father are Hong Kong residents.
Since these mothers started flocking to the U.S., locals there have also protested. Many have called on the government to end the birthright to citizenship, but doing so would be virtually impossible. It would entail amending the U.S. Constitution, which requires the support of two-thirds of Congress — something that’s happened only 27 times in American history.
But even though America’s door is open, there are fairly high thresholds for giving birth in the country. Getting a visa, passing through customs, finding a place to live, giving birth and transporting the baby back to China are all difficult hurdles to overcome. Just getting the visa is often the toughest. It requires an interview with a U.S. consular who’s on the lookout for these very kinds of birth tourists.
To ensure his wife would get a visa, Lin visited a host of websites that outline the process of traveling to the U.S. to give birth. After this preparation, he decided to make the trip there alone first to scope out the situation.
But even Lin’s scouting trip would be a challenge. People like him from Fujian have high rejection rates for U.S. visas, because many have attempted to immigrate illegally in the past.
He applied for a three-month tourist visa and gathered every document he could imagine proving his income, employment, assets and ties to China. In the end, his conversation with the visa officer was short and sweet, taking less than two minutes. The visa officer told them “You’ve passed. Welcome to the United States.”
Lin noticed that a few people ahead of him in line had been rejected. He owes his successful admission to “being honest.”
“Many Chinese choose a business visa because they think it’s easier to get,” Lin says. “They prepare lots of materials and even entrust intermediary agencies to prepare materials. But the business visa officer will ask many questions. If there are any fake materials, they’ll likely be scrutinized. But visa officers don’t focus on your materials. They look at you to gauge whether you’re lying or not.”
After Lin’s scouting trip, he set out for the U.S. with his wife and daughter to give birth to their new baby.
The U.S. is home to many “confinement centers” that house these pregnant women in cities with large Chinese communities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. To save housing costs, many Chinese mothers will go to the U.S. late in their pregnancy, even though it might raise alarm bells for customs officials.
Lin had thought going through customs would be easy at any entry point in the United States, so he chose to go through San Francisco without thinking much about it. But that may actually be the most difficult entry point of all.
The official he met was a Mexican-American man, who, Lin asserts, was probably worried that an influx of immigrants would harm his own minority community’s interests. But since his wife was already seven months pregnant and honesty had worked well in obtaining the visa, Lin decided to stick with the truth. When asked why his family was coming to America, he replied, “to give birth.”
The official pressed him, asking why they didn’t choose London or Morocco. When Lin tried to explain it was because of China’s family planning policy, the official said, “China’s policy has nothing to do with American law.”
The official went on to say that he was an American taxpayer, so why should Chinese people who don’t pay taxes enjoy the benefits of America’s health care system? Lin immediately responded that he had the ability to pay all costs and slapped down a bank deposit in English showing he had $100,000.
After a bit more interrogation, they were admitted. In hindsight, Lin says it would have been better to go through customs in Los Angeles rather than San Francisco, Seattle or Hawaii.
The American dream
Because of work commitments, Lin couldn’t stay with his wife for the three months she was to be in the U.S., so he arranged for her to stay at a Los Angeles confinement center. The center was a detached villa with a yard, swimming pool and separate rooms for up to four mothers. There were also nannies on hand to cook and take care of the women. More high-end confinement centers sometimes even feature nutritionists, doctors, nurses and specialists in child development.
Lin paid a lump sum of 130,000 yuan ($21,227) for his wife’s stay at the center and hired a nanny to look after her and the baby. The nanny was from Beijing but had been in the U.S. for years. Local rates for these nannies run from $2,000 to 3,000 per month.
For many Chinese families, the potential payoff for having an American baby is well worth these investments. But they tend to have overly lofty expectations — often stoked by intermediary agencies — of what U.S. citizenship for their child will bring. The agencies will tout the marvelous “American dream” and advertise with slogans like, “Just invest 200,000 yuan, and you’ll get tens of millions of dollars in return.”
But during his time in the U.S., Lin realized that the country is in fact quite competitive and ill suited to lazy people. He learned that if you want your child to go to universities like Harvard or Stanford, it requires a lot of effort, especially when the child has the disadvantage of foreign parents. “Having U.S. citizenship doesn’t mean you can have the American dream,” he says. “These are two different things.”
Translated by Zhu Na