How Much Would You Pay To Be Born In America?

"Made in America" now comes with a hefty price tag, especially for Chinese women who have been duped into paying tens of thousands of dollars in order to give birth to their children in the United States. In a scheme that has been colloquially deemed "birth tourism," these expecting mothers pay ringleaders between $40,000 and $80,000 to come to America and await the births of their children. Because laws in the United States grant automatic citizenship to anyone born in the country, these children are considered Americans and can later apply for visas on behalf of foreign relatives. Although there is nothing implicitly illegal about traveling to the United States to give birth, authorities are more concerned with more serious offenses, including visa and tax fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy.

In the rather bizarre scheme, those running the "birth tourism" operations enticed pregnant women (with several thousand American dollars to spare), to leave their native China and come to the U.S. where their children could take advantage of "13 years of free education, low-cost college financial aid, less pollution, and a path for the entire family to emigrate when the child becomes an adult." Before and after giving birth, the women were housed in "maternity hotels," luxury properties throughout California in which soon-to-be-mothers could lounge in the lap of luxury while awaiting and recovering from labor. In order to come to the United States and bypass customs and immigration, the women were apparently coached by ringleaders in terms of how to obtain a tourist visa, which airports to fly through in order to avoid more stringent immigration examinations, and how best to hide their pregnancies while en route.

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Once safely in the United States, their fees included housing, transportation, and food, and sometimes (but not always) medical care. According to court documents, some "birth tourism" kingpins would manage to scam hospitals, sometimes paying just $4,000 or even nothing for the normally $25,000 total associated with giving birth at Orange County hospitals. Instead, much of the money went to other luxury items, like the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel, and retailers Rolex and Louis Vuitton, investigators claim.

Some of the higher-end packages even included vacations to Disneyland, with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency noting that the most expensive deals "include[d] recreational activities, such as visits to Disneyland, shopping malls and even an outing to a firing range," apparently all key components to the real American experience. Around 20 different locations throughout Southern California were subject to raids for dealing in this sort of illicit activity, and while none of the women implicated in these investigations are to be charged, some may serve as material witnesses in cases against the "birth tourism" ring leaders.

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According to court documents, the masterminds behind these plots may be charged with "bringing in and harboring of undocumented visitors; conspiracy, fraud and misuse of visas and permits; tax evasion and false tax returns; and willful failure to file report of foreign bank and financial accounts." Authorities told CNN:

Based on the results of the investigations to date, it appears the women pay cash for prenatal visits and the actual delivery. As part of the package, clients were promised they would receive Social Security numbers and U.S. passports for their infants, which the mothers would take with them when they left the U.S.

This represents a rather alarming trend of international mothers coming to the United States for the express purpose of giving birth to their children, so that their progeny have a "way out" should the situation in their home countries (or their parents' home countries, rather) deteriorate. Nearly 40,000 babies are born every year to "tourists" who are only in the United States for the duration of their hospital stay. And this has become a rather lucrative business for those seeking to turn a profit off of this arrangement. According to court documents, "birth tourism" can earn its ringleaders "hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from their visa fraud scheme," as little to none of their earnings are reported on tax forms.

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While these raids represent an effort to address the growing problem, the targets of the investigations are not the mothers involved, but rather the industry itself. Still, some experts wonder whether, without repercussions, there will be any tangible benefits to conducting such raids. Jon Feere, a legal and policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, told The New York Times:

It’s a good start if the goal is to discourage fraudulent acts related to birth tourism. It’s a possibility that this will send a message to future birth tourists that maybe the trip isn’t worthwhile. But if the government isn’t going to prosecute the actual birth tourists, or prevent the issuance of passports to their babies, this may not have much effect.

As per Chinese state media numbers, around 10,000 Chinese women had their children in the United States in 2012, more than doubling the 4,200 births that took place in 2008. These children effectively become their parents' (and the rest of their family's) ticket out of potentially dangerous situations — as Leti Volpp, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told CNN Money last month, "If things become economically or politically uncertain in one's country of origin, the children have a place to come to." And not only do the children have a place to come, but they can also bring along their family members.

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It remains unclear what the final outcome, or even goal, of these preliminary investigations will be. Virginia Kice, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, told the Times, "This is still very much an ongoing investigation, coming after undercover activities that have lasted most of the last year. Today is just the execution of search warrants and evidence gathering. We are not anticipating any arrests right now." After all, what exactly is the crime associated with selling citizenship?

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