Federal prosecutors filed charges Thursday against 11 Chinese nationals in connection with "maternity tourism" businesses that help pregnant women fraudulently travel to the U.S. to give birth, authorities said.
Ten of the individuals -- who are mostly pregnant women and their husbands -- are charged with obstruction of justice and contempt of court for leaving the country after a judge ordered them to remain and provide information to investigators.
Most are also accused of lying on their visa applications to give birth to children who would automatically become U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
Prosecutors said the defendants, who are believed to be in China, are considered fugitives.
The charges follow a large-scale federal raid in March targeting three Southland-based "maternity tourism" schemes that charged up to $50,000 for services assisting women who wanted to give birth in the U.S.
Swarms of agents served search warrants on apartment complexes and offices in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties linked to the businesses, which agents said helped women fabricate documents for visa applications and trained them to falsely claim that they were traveling to the U.S. for tourism.
Agents wrote in affidavits that the schemes' operators instructed women to travel early in their pregnancy, wear loose clothing to hide their baby bumps and arrive in the U.S. through Hawaii or Las Vegas rather than Los Angeles, where authorities are more likely to suspect maternity tourism.
No charges were filed at the time of the raids. A total of 29 individuals, including the 10 who fled, were designated by a magistrate judge as material witnesses, according to prosecutors.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Charles Pell said authorities initially decided to target those who were most culpable, the operators of the businesses, including Star Baby Care and You Win USA, and treat customers as witnesses. Once the customers had violated the instructions that they were to follow as government witnesses, prosecutors had little choice but to file charges, Pell said.
"Because they violated the court order ... now their credibility is destroyed and they will not be helpful as witnesses," he said.
An attorney representing four of the charged individuals, Long Z. Liu, publicly released a statement from Jie He, one of the women who violated the court order. In the statement, signed "a mother," He claimed she left the country because her grandmother was terminally ill.
"I realize that my abrupt departure has caused a lot of trouble to many," the woman wrote, acknowledging that she left "in a questionable manner."
If convicted, the individuals face up to 25 years in prison for the visa fraud charges and up to five years for obstruction, authorities said.