Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Anchor Babies" by any other name

Where ‘Anchor Babies’ Can Be a Lucrative Business

Wealthy Chinese ‘birth tourists’ on visas spend freely in Southern California

By Miriam Jordan, As reported in the Wall Street Journal

COSTA MESA, Calif.—Thousands of wealthy foreign women, mostly Chinese, come to America each year for the express purpose of having babies on U.S. soil. The women arrive on tourist visas and typically go home with the baby after several months.


But before the women leave with what critics have called “anchor babies,” they typically spend thousands of dollars in private hospitals, high-end shopping malls and luxury apartment complexes. That has made this practice, known as maternity or birth tourism, a lucrative business in certain areas of the U.S., including this one southeast of Los Angeles.

On a recent Sunday at the upscale South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Mandarin speakers, many of them visibly pregnant, far outnumbered other shoppers at Chanel, Christian Dior, Giorgio Armani and other designer stores. Two women with protruding bellies emerged from Fendi speaking Mandarin, one of them pushing a new-looking stroller overflowing with bags. Down one mall corridor, seven women who appeared pregnant chatted in Mandarin on a bench, shopping bags at their feet.

“They see something they like, they buy it,” said Joanne Lee, one of three Mandarin-speaking salespeople out of six at a Coach shop. “They buy multiple pieces.”

The rise of Chinese birth tourism reflects the new wealth in China, and uncertainty among some of its citizens regarding the country’s long-term economic future. A child born in the U.S. automatically becomes an American citizen, and under federal law, when the child turns 21, he or she can sponsor foreign family members for a green card, and eventually citizenship.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which supports a crackdown on the practice and favors more immigration restrictions overall, estimates that 40,000 women visit the U.S. annually on birth tourism, most from China.

Birth tourists represent a fraction of the 2.2 million Chinese visitors who spent about $24 billion in the U.S. last year, according to the Commerce Department. But Chinese tourists overall were the biggest foreign spenders per capita, and the pregnant visitors typically stay much longer than the two-week average for Chinese visitors.

Though there are few hard figures on its full impact, maternity tourism has left a noticeable imprint on the regional economy here in recent years. Federal investigators, who raided several Southern California businesses that facilitate maternity tourism in March on suspicion that they had committed crimes including visa fraud and tax evasion, estimate that each woman pays $40,000 to $80,000 on packages that include accommodation, transportation to hospitals, and help getting passports for their newborns.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has studied the phenomenon, estimates the women spend about $1 billion annually in the U.S., a figure that excludes discretionary spending on the likes of shopping and dining out.

“These are people of means who are not going to a county hospital to deliver their babies,” he said.

Even if some maternity tourism businesses face prosecution following the March raids, Chinese women, their doctors and the hospitals where they give birth are unlikely to be penalized, said Carl Shusterman, a former federal immigration lawyer. It is legal for foreigners who are pregnant to travel to the U.S. and give birth, though it is considered fraud to lie to U.S. officials about the purpose of a visit to obtain a visa.

On a recent evening in nearby Irvine, about a dozen Chinese pregnant women strolled in the park of a resort-style residential complex. Most declined to answer questions, but Wasie Su said she entered the U.S. on a multiple-entry tourist visa to give birth. She plans to have a daughter in the country Nov. 20, and said she was doing it for the child’s future, not as a plan to gain U.S. citizenship.

“It’s worth the money and time spent here to give my daughter better options,” she said, adding, “I got my family, friends and business” in China. “I don’t want a green card from this baby.”

Donald Trump, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, suggested over the summer that the U.S.’s birthright citizenship policy be reconsidered in light of the phenomenon of “anchor babies.” That move would likely require changing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, according to legal experts.

While the women from China entered legally, thousands of women in the country illegally have babies on U.S. soil—295,000 in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center. Those babies can later sponsor their family for residency and enable them to secure public benefits.

Unlike the poorer women, who are uninsured, most Chinese women have their children at private hospitals. Newport Beach Hoag Hospital offers a “maternity package” in which, assuming no complications, a vaginal delivery costs $7,500 and a Caesarean-section birth costs $10,750. Those are substantially higher rates than are paid to hospitals by health plans of insured American patients, according to health-care experts.

In response to questions about Chinese birth tourists, Hoag said it provides health care to whoever seeks it. “Our only priority is providing the very best care for those in need,” it said in a statement.

Though they are popular with retailers and other businesses, some in Orange County voice displeasure about Chinese birth tourists.

“It bothers me that my grandchildren will be competing with these women’s babies to get into college,” said John Michael of Irvine, a retired physician, adding: “My family will have paid taxes all along, and they’ll walk right in.”

Some businesses report that the number of pregnant Chinese women coming here recently appears to be declining, which could be due to the faltering Chinese economy, or the negative publicity from the federal investigation, they say.

A salesperson at a Giorgio Armani had a different theory: It is the Year of the Ram in the Chinese Zodiac, a less auspicious time for childbirth than the Year of the Dragon, which ended in February.

Ben Ferro (Editor)

Benferro @insideins.com