In a few weeks, Kim Jeong Yeon will put on her baggiest overalls to disguise her bulging belly and board a flight for Los Angeles. She will spend three months in the United States, staying on a tourist visa, after which she will return to South Korea with a newly minted U.S. citizen in tow.
"It's easy. If you register the birth, it's automatic that your baby can get an American passport," says Kim, a 31-year-old importer of Italian shoes who is pregnant with her first child.
One might say it is the ultimate gift that South Korean parents can give their newborns. Those who can cough up the $20,000 or so it costs are coming to the United States by the thousands to give birth so their newborns can have American citizenship. Their reasons range from a desire to enroll their offspring in American schools to enabling them to avoid South Korean military service.
Los Angeles is the most popular destination because of its large Korean-speaking population, along with New York, Boston, Hawaii and even Guam. Although there are no figures on how many "tourists" overall have babies in the U.S., the practice is also believed to be popular among women from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
So many are doing it, in fact, that a mini-industry has developed here of agencies that refer expectant mothers to travel agents, immigration lawyers, prenatal clinics, hospitals and even baby-sitters, arranging what are, in effect, package tours for pregnant women.
"From birth to citizenship," advertises one Korean-language Web site (www.birthinusa.com) that helps women give birth in Los Angeles.
The United States is one of the few countries that grants citizenship to anyone born on its soil. Britain and Australia altered similar laws in the 1980s.
Efforts by immigration foes in Congress to stop the practice have failed because the citizenship rights of such children, even those of illegal immigrants, appear to be guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, added after the Civil War to bestow the right on the descendants of slaves.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service says the birth tours are not illegal as long as the women have enough money to pay their medical bills.
"There is nothing inherently illegal about somebody coming over here as a tourist and bearing a child. Doing so doesn't necessarily violate the terms of being a tourist," said Thomas Schiltgen, district director of the INS office in Los Angeles. "Any tourist needs to establish that they have the funds to accomplish their purpose in the United States."
The South Korean women giving birth in the United States tend to be well educated and upper-class, with big ambitions for their children. Since many have been to America before and have good jobs in South Korea, they are deemed unlikely to overstay their welcome and thus can easily get tourist visas. Indeed, most are eager to fly home as soon as they can get the birth certificates and passports for their newborns.
"I bought a first-class plane ticket. I go to the United States frequently on business, so I know my way around. I had no problems," said a 36-year-old advertising executive, whose daughter was born in December at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Kim Chang Kyu, an obstetrician and gynecologist with a practice in the wealthy Kangnam neighborhood of Seoul, estimates that as many as 5,000 South Korean babies--about 1% of annual South Korean births--are born in the United States each year. In his practice alone, about 10 maternity patients each month deliver in the United States.
They are motivated by a desire to get their children into American schools, which are considered less grueling and often better quality than South Korea's, and, in the case of boys, to keep them out of the 26-month mandatory military service. Others believe that having a child who is a U.S. citizen will help the parents immigrate and will make it easier to open bank accounts in the United States in order to get around strict South Korean laws regarding foreign currency.
Although it is seldom voiced, Kim says some of his patients also have a nagging fear that South Korea could become engulfed in another devastating war with North Korea, and they would like a way out if that happens.
"Most of these people are really rich. They don't want to feel like they are trapped by Korea," said Kim, who went to medical school in the U.S. and sends his own children to American prep schools. "Recently there has been a remarkable increase in my patients' going to the United States, and some of it I just think is social pressure. Others are doing it and people want to keep up with the Joneses."
A Mother's Dream for Her Children
Among several expectant mothers who talked about their plans for giving birth in the United States, Kim Jeong Yeon was unusual in that she was willing to be named. Elegant even in her eighth month of pregnancy, Kim wore pearls over a fashionable navy blue maternity dress and high-heeled sandals as she stepped out of a BMW convertible. She is not bashful about having money and what it can do for her.
"If they could afford it, all my friends would go to the United States to have their babies," Kim said. Even before she was married two years ago, she knew she wanted her children to be born abroad.
"My biggest complaint about Korea is the educational system. In high school, you have to study past midnight or else you fall behind the others and can't get on with your life. And since the baby is a boy, I thought it would be a big gift for him not to be burdened with military service."
"We're also thinking about immigration, so all in all we thought it would be better if the baby is an American citizen," Kim said.
Kim estimates the trip will cost at least $20,000, much of it in medical bills that would be covered by her health insurance if she stayed at home. That figure does not include the loss of her income from having to leave South Korea a full month before her due date in order to comply with airline restrictions regarding pregnancy. It would be even higher if she didn't have a grandmother in Los Angeles with whom she can stay.
Doctors say most South Korean women who come to the United States to give birth--many to be joined by their husbands just before the due date--pay in cash. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of services catering to their needs. Most operate discreetly, relying on word of mouth for their clientele. But there are others that market aggressively, such as Hana Medical Center, which last year launched the birthinusa.com Web site, complete with graphics of a stork carrying a baby back to South Korea.
South Korean-run Hana has three centers for expectant mothers--on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, in Panorama City and in Pacoima--and last year opened an elegantly furnished postnatal facility called Larchmont Villa in Koreatown where women can stay until it is time to fly home. Their services include such conveniences as a private car for pickup at the airport and a guide to help get the baby a Social Security number and passport.
U.S. School System Attracts Parents
"Education is the main reason women come here," said Cindy Kim, who counsels patients at Hana. "It is really a tough system in Korea. At 2 or 3, they teach the children English. At 7 or 8, many of the children are sent to the United States to be educated. It is harder than it used to be to get study visas, so it is easier if the children have U.S. citizenship."
Kim says that Hana has five to seven patients each month who fly in from South Korea to have their babies and that none has had problems with the INS in entering the United States.
But there is some apprehension among expectant mothers about new immigration rules that could take effect this summer that will shorten the standard tourist visa from six months to 30 days unless visitors can explain satisfactorily to the immigration officer at the airport why they need to stay longer.
Although the new rules are designed to deter terrorists from establishing a foothold in the United States, they could also intimidate South Korean women, particularly those who do not speak English.
Immigration critics believe that far stricter measures are needed to prevent women from coming to the United States for the sole purpose of giving birth.
Immigration Critics Decry Loophole
"Even though it is not illegal immigration per se, it is exploiting a loophole," said Jack Martin, a project director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates restrictions on immigration.
The federation is especially critical of what it calls anchor babies, whom mothers arrange to have in the United States with the hope that the child will later help the entire family immigrate. Under the law, a U.S. citizen cannot sponsor anyone for immigration purposes until the age of 21, but according to Martin, the long wait is not a deterrent.
"It is hard to conceptualize a strategy that is so long-term with regard to U.S. citizenship, but that's what they are doing--establishing a foothold," he said.
The federation says 165,000 babies are born in the United States each year to illegal immigrants, most of them from Mexico.
For South Koreans, the harshest condemnation of the practice comes not from immigration critics in the U.S. but from other Koreans.
"It is not natural to fly for thousands of miles to have a baby far away from family members," said Catherine Choi, a South Korean-born physician who runs the Beverly Health and Birthing Center in Los Angeles. She often sees patients who fly in from South Korea. "Koreans think this is a way to give their baby a better chance in life, but I do not encourage it."
In Seoul, travel agent Min Yong Kee, who says he has sold many pregnant women plane tickets to the U.S., says he nevertheless adamantly disapproves.
"It may be technically legal, but the majority opinion is that it is ethically dubious. Koreans are nationalistic. Why should they go to the United States to give birth? It doesn't seem right," Min said.
Under South Korean law, children can have both Korean and U.S. citizenship, but they must choose between them when they turn 18. But that could change. American births have become so popular among the privileged that Koreans are starting to complain that soon only the children of the poor will serve in the army.
Having U.S. citizens in the family has also become something of a political liability for public figures.
Lee Hoi Chang, the conservative opposition leader who is running for president, has faced staunch criticism because his son and daughter-in-law went to Hawaii earlier this year to have their baby.
Lee reportedly has consulted a lawyer in an effort to get his granddaughter, now 5 months old, to forfeit her U.S. citizenship. He reportedly was told it couldn't happen until she reached the age of 18 and could make her own decision.