Column: Chinese birth tourism documentary pulls back the curtain on a controversial industry

Several people sitting in chairs on the sand under beach umbrellas, the ocean in the background
Leslie Tai’s documentary “How to Have an American Baby” takes an intimate look at Chinese women preparing to give birth in the United States, and why they do it.
(Courtesy of Leslie Tai)

In 2013 I reported on a predawn federal immigration raid at a Rowland Heights townhome complex that challenged the way I thought about journalism.

The raid was part of a local crackdown on Chinese birthing hotels, businesses that host pregnant mothers who want to give birth to American babies. I interviewed scared, confused women as broadcast TV cameras captured federal agents searching their apartments and suitcases. None of the women, most of them sheltered and in their early 20s, understood what was happening, and some asked me, the only Chinese-speaking person around.

Federal law forbids entering the country under false pretenses, but giving birth in another country is not a crime. Who was I holding accountable? Were the women the perpetrators or the victims, or something in between?


A new documentary streaming on PBS, called “How to Have an American Baby,” wrestles with that question. Filmmaker Leslie Tai embedded with a group of Chinese mothers for more than a decade as they navigated the underground industry, including one family staying at the Rowland Heights townhome complex targeted in the raid.

Tai began her film in 2013, when birth tourism was such an open secret in Southern California‘s suburbs that residents began to complain. Local officials could not work out whether enforcing federal immigration policy should be their job. Los Angeles County officials formed a birth tourism task force in 2015, but after complaints about the practice fell off in 2018, the task force ended, said Alex Garcia, who had helped lead the operation.

Even when the task force was operating, its primary purpose was to prevent improper uses of buildings and property, Garcia told me. But what troubled residents was the idea that foreigners were scamming their way into American citizenship. For months after the raid, I would get voicemails and emails leaving information on the movements of pregnant Asian women, with no guarantee that they were actually Chinese or violating immigration law.

Tai’s film tackles this question by insisting on the humanity of the women involved. Her dogged camera work follows mothers into delivery rooms, doctors’ offices and into the hotels themselves. There’s little narration except the women’s interviews, but the point is clear anyway: Few, if any of these women are getting the American dream. Most women in modern China still struggle to exercise basic financial and personal independence. Gender discrimination is illegal on paper, but Chinese laws governing divorce, inheritance and childbirth always favor men.

The birth tourism industry is depicted as a world in which everyone seems to be scamming one another. In China, Tai captures salesmen marketing birth tourism packages arguing about whether to tell customers about price hikes and cost cutting. A maternity hotel operator instructs expectant mothers on what to say at the hospital to get the most time in the hospital bed. A mother who gives birth in America decides to stay and start her own birth hotel, lured by the rumors of easy money.

Even the drivers hired to ferry the women around discuss how to avoid being taken advantage of by the clients with more powerful, wealthy connections.


“I wanted to show that the American dream is not this thing that everyone received, by virtue of coming,” Tai said. “They were sold this story of America that turned out not to be true.”

Birth tourism has always seemed too neat a term for a practice that has always been highly controversial. When mothers from Mexico, South America and Central America attempted it, the practice was called having an “anchor baby.” It raises tough questions about who gets to be an American, and there are few satisfying answers in our convoluted immigration policy.

But news of the practice never fails to stir up nationalistic, often xenophobic sentiment among conservatives, who use such efforts to argue for abolishing the 14th Amendment, which enshrines birthright citizenship in the Constitution.

Tai’s camera also captures a public hearing with the county’s birth tourism task force, where an irate older white man identifies the 14th Amendment as the culprit. “We’re just handing this out,” he snapped, and the room applauded him.

Birth tourism, as an unregulated industry, puts pregnant mothers at risk and exploits the people working in it. But what Tai’s film shows is that many Chinese women make this choice out of desperation. For some, going to America was the only way to give their baby a future, as children born out of wedlock in China do not get official residence papers.

Most observers say birth tourism as an industry has died down considerably, and I rarely get calls about it anymore. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump imposed harsher visa rules for pregnant women, who must now prove that they are not seeking to give birth in the United States for citizenship’s sake.


As a child of the 14th Amendment, I may be biased. But the only America I know is the one that gives people from all around the world a chance to become American, including my parents. And people all around the world still need America to be a refuge from tyranny and oppression.