Chinese women look to bear US anchor babies

When Ma Yi, 36, a senior manager from Shanghai, landed at Los Angeles International Airport on June 5, she had her own version of the American dream. She was entering her eighth month of pregnancy and intended to give birth to an American baby.

She told an immigration officer of her plan, she recalled in a recent interview. She told him she had applied for a tourist visa several months earlier, but later decided that she wanted to have her baby in the United States. She said that she checked with the American Consulate in Shanghai to see whether her visa permitted this and was told it was fine. The officer let her through, along with her mother- in-law, her husband and their 5-year-old son.

The next encounter went less well, she said. After they picked up their luggage, a customs officer stopped them to ask a few questions, including Ms. Ma’s reason for coming to the United States. She repeated her story, but, this time, it was rejected. She was accused of lying to consular officials in her visa application. Within hours, Ms. Ma and her family were on their way back to China, barred from entering the United States for five years.

“I was shocked,” Ms. Ma said by telephone from Shanghai. “I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know the U.S. would be like that.”

The United States is one of the few developed countries that grants citizenship to children born on its soil, and an increasing number of well-to-do Chinese families have taken advantage of this, believing that an American passport will give their

child access to a better education, a cleaner environment and safer food. According to All American Mother Service Management Center, a California association of so-called birth tourism agencies catering to Chinese, about 10,000 babies were born to Chinese visitors in the United States in 2012, up from about 4,200 in 2008.

“I wanted to give my baby an alternative,” Ms. Ma said. “We can afford it.”

Ms. Ma said she had hoped to educate her children abroad. “I thought, if my second baby had a foreign passport, it would be a lot easier,” she said. Others in her circle felt the same way, she said, believing this could give their children an edge in getting into good schools and later, securing good jobs. “Many of my friends and colleagues talk about this,” she added.

But, as Ms. Ma discovered, many Chinese looking to give birth in the United States are encountering new obstacles, as the government cracks down on abuses. In March, agents with the Department of Homeland Security raided homes tied to three businesses in the Los Angeles area involved in birth tourism. The owners are being investigated on suspicion of tax evasion, visa fraud and misuse of social welfare benefits. Several Chinese women who were named as material witnesses in the investigation fled the United States. In May, a lawyer who represented some of the women was arrested, suspected of having helped them leave.

The issue made the news again this week, after Jeb Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, explained that his recent use of the term “anchor babies” was not intended as an ethnic slur, but rather as a criticism of a “system of fraud in which people are bringing in pregnant women to have babies to exploit birthright citizenship.”

Although the United States announced a more liberal visa policy last year for Chinese citizens, lawyers and birth tourism organizers say that immigration controls at points of entry have become stricter.

Agencies based in Beijing and Shanghai that arrange birth tourism say that fewer Chinese are going to the United States to give birth since the March raids and that some birth tourism hotels are shutting down. On Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform, more people are talking about Chinese women being turned back at airports.

World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper serving North America, reported in June that apartments in Los Angeles County that used to accommodate Chinese birth tourists were empty.

Nolan Barkhouse, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Beijing, explained the rules in an email: “A visa allows a foreign citizen to travel to a U.S. port-of-entry (generally an airport) and request permission to enter the United States. A visa does not guarantee entry into the United States. The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at the port-of-entry have authority to permit or deny admission to the United States.”

A spokeswoman for United States Customs, Jennifer Evanitsky, declined to comment on Ms. Ma’s case, citing the Privacy Act. In an email, she wrote that it was not illegal for foreign citizens to give birth in the United States, but that they needed to be truthful about the purpose of their travel.

“The intent to enter the United States must be consistent with the visa/entry documents presented for entry,” she wrote. She did not say how many Chinese had been turned back from United States entry points.

Long Z. Liu, a lawyer based in Los Angeles who has represented Chinese women implicated in the investigation into the birth tourism business, said, “I have repeatedly been told by different U.S. attorneys that giving birth to babies is not illegal, but the current trend of actions says otherwise.”

In November, the United States announced that it would begin offering Chinese citizens multiple-entry visas valid for up to 10 years. Soon after, Ms. Ma learned that she was pregnant, and many of her friends suggested that she deliver the baby in the United States.

Ms. Ma went to apply for her visa on March 16, when she was about four months pregnant. She told the visa officer that she planned to go to the United States for tourism. She said that at that time, she had not decided yet whether to have her baby there.

“I was wearing a coat, and my belly wasn’t obvious,” she said. She received a 10-year visa.

Afterward, Ms. Ma said, she decided to try to have her baby abroad. On April 27, she telephoned the American Consulate to ask whether her tourist visa allowed that. “They told me there was no problem,” she said.

But at the airport in Los Angeles, a customs officer found messages on her phone that she had sent to friends the day before her visa interview saying that she was considering giving birth in the United States. Ms. Ma said that while that was true, she had not made up her mind yet.

“He said this was evidence that I committed visa fraud,” Ms. Ma said. “He said, ‘I’ve seen lots of people like you. There’s no way you Chinese would come here for a holiday at such a late stage of pregnancy. There’s no way you didn’t think about coming here to give birth when you applied for a visa when four months pregnant.’ ”

On July 21, Ms. Ma gave birth to a boy in Shanghai.

“I wish I’d never had that idea,” she said. “If I’d known this would happen” — being barred from the United States for five years — “I wouldn’t have decided to give birth in the U.S.”

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