SAN GABRIEL, Calif.: The building inspectors and police officers walked into the small row of connected town houses here knowing something was amiss. Neighbours had complained about noise and a lot of pregnant women coming and going. And when they went into a kitchen they saw a row of clear bassinets holding several infants, with a woman acting as a nurse hovering over them.
A diaper box outside houses in San Gabriel, Calif., where officials say Chinese women stayed to have their babies born as citizens.
For months, officials say, the house was home to “maternity tourists,” in this case, women from China who had paid tens of thousands of dollars to deliver their babies in the United States, making the infants automatic American citizens. Officials shut down the home, sending the 10 mothers who had been living there with their babies to nearby motels.
“These were not women living in squalor – it was a well taken care of place and clean, but there were a lot of women,” said Clayton Anderson, a city inspector who shut down the house on March 9. “I have never seen anything like this before. We really couldn’t determine the exact number of people living there.”
For the last year, the debate over birthright citizenship has raged across the country, with some political leaders calling for an end to the 14th Amendment, which gives automatic citizenship to any baby born in the United States. Much of the debate has focused on immigrants entering illegally from poor countries in Latin America. But in this case the women were not only relatively wealthy, but also here legally on tourist visas. Most of them, officials say, have already returned to China with their American babies.
Businesses in China, Mexico and South Korea advertise packages that arrange for doctors, insurance and postpartum care. And the Marmara, a Turkish-owned hotel on the Upper East Side in New York City, has advertised monthlong “baby stays” that come with a stroller.
For the most part, though, the practice has involved individuals. The discovery of the large-scale facility here in the San Gabriel foothills raises questions about whether it was a rare phenomenon or an indication that maternity tourism is entering a new, more institutionalised phase with more hospital-like facilities operating quietly around the country.
Signs of a makeshift maternity houses were evident everywhere. In one kitchen, stacks of pictures showing a mother holding her days-old baby sat next to several cans of formula. In another, boxes of prenatal vitamins were tucked into rice cookers. Several bedroom doors had numbers on them. Some rooms were rather luxurious – B9, for instance, had a large walk-in closet, a whirlpool and a small personal refrigerator.
The Center for Health Care Statistics estimates that there were 7,462 births to foreign residents in the United States in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That is a small fraction of the roughly 4.3 million total births that year.
Immigration experts say they can only guess why well-to-do Chinese women are so eager to get United States passports for their babies, but they suspect it is largely as a kind of insurance policy should they need to move.
Angela Maria Kelley, the vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning research group, said the existence of businesses helping foreign women give birth in the United States had only just begun to enter the public consciousness.