A Chinese woman was sentenced on Monday to 10 months in prison for running a business that helped pregnant women in China lie on visa forms and to immigration authorities so they could travel to Southern California to give birth to children who would automatically have U.S. citizenship.
U.S. District Judge James Selna issued the sentence in Santa Ana to Dongyuan Li, who wiped away tears with her hand several times during the hearing.
Selna said he expected her to be released from custody later Monday due to time served.
Federal prosecutors opposed the sentence and said they believed Li should face years in prison to deter others from helping women lie on visa applications and hide pregnancies in these so-called birth tourism schemes.
“I just think it sends the wrong message,” Charles Pell, the federal prosecutor, told the judge.
Li pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy and visa fraud for running a birth tourism company in Southern California known as “You Win USA.”
Federal authorities said the company helped more than 500 Chinese women travel to the United States to deliver American babies, and that Li used a cluster of apartments in Irvine to receive them.
Authorities said the company coached the women to lie on their visa applications and to hide their pregnancies when passing through customs in U.S. airports.
Li was arrested this year following a years-long investigation into birth tourism schemes that charged Chinese travelers tens of thousands of dollars to deliver their babies in Southern California. Authorities said Li was a birth tourism customer and later got involved in running the business.
In a letter to the court, Li, a mother of four, said she had taken English and music lessons and read books and exercised daily while in custody.
“I am very sorry for the mistakes that I have made,” she wrote in the Dec. 1 letter filed with the court. “I truly sincerely apologize for any harm that I have caused to the American society.”
Her attorney, Thomas O’Brien, told reporters the sentence was fair as prosecutors only documented seven cases where travelers lied to engage in birth tourism. He said others stated on visa forms they were traveling for tourism or medical reasons.
Dan Showalter, supervisory special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security investigations in Los Angeles, said Li had a valid visa in the United States but following the sentencing immigration authorities would begin proceedings to deport her to China.
He said agents would continue to investigate birth tourism cases, noting that this one was the first of its kind.
“I don’t think we’re going to let the sentence sway us from doing what we do,” he said.