At 10 a.m. on a cold morning in April at Whittier Medical Center, Sophia was born.
She was a healthy baby girl at 7 pounds and 1 ounce, with a future in America to look forward to, if she chose it.
Her mother, Tracy, came from Shanghai to give her this choice — a chance at the world’s best education, a safe childhood and reliable medical care without long lines.
“I’m here to give my kids better options,” said Tracy, who asked to be referred to by her first name because she has read stories about U.S. officials cracking down on mothers who come to America to give birth.
Even as middle class incomes in China enjoy explosive growth, and 96% of Chinese people in a recent Pew Research poll say their lives are better than their parents’, an unknown number of “birth tourists” like Tracy cross oceans each year to have their babies in America.
And in America’s Chinese enclaves, they find a cottage industry of Chinese midwives, drivers and doctors who accept cash and “maternity hotels” — apartments or homes run as hotels for the women during their pregnancies.
There is nothing in the law that makes it illegal for pregnant women to enter the United States.
Chinese listing sites show several hundred maternity hotels in Southern California, though it’s not clear how many of the listings are active.
Anyone who lies about the purpose of their visit to the U.S. can be charged with visa fraud, but birth tourism per se is not illegal.
“There is nothing in the law that makes it illegal for pregnant women to enter the United States,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Critics, however, blast the practice as a way to gain citizenship for children by unfairly gaming the immigration system. And spurred in part by those complaints, U.S. officials at every level are exploring ways to crack down on maternity hotels.
That the practice persists, birth tourists say, is a testament to the hold that America still has on Chinese imaginations.
Restrictive family planning policies may have driven some Chinese mothers to give birth in America before 2015, when the one-child policy ended. But many others are simply curious about America and exploring the possibility of a life in the U.S., said Kelly, a birth tourist who has settled in Riverside County’s Eastvale neighborhood.
“China has developed very quickly,” said Kelly, who also declined to provide her first name. “But … Chinese people still have this perception of America as a dream place to live, that it is bigger, better, stronger.”
In 2015, the State Department issued 2.27 million visas to Chinese tourists. It does not track what proportion of visas are issued to birth tourists. Childbirth is a legitimate reason to travel to the U.S., and as long as Chinese nationals provide the correct paperwork and evidence they can pay for their medical care, they will be issued a visa, department officials said.
Chinese people still have this perception of America as a dream place to live, that it is bigger, better stronger.
But other federal officials have handled the issue differently, acting on suspicions that the practice involves large-scale visa fraud. Border Patrol agents at major ports of entry such as Los Angeles International Airport have recently tightened security for pregnant Chinese women and sometimes block them from entering the country.
And last year, ICE officials raided birth hotels in Riverside, Rowland Heights and Irvine, accusing the operators of tax code violations and of committing fraud by helping birth tourists get visas under false pretenses.
“People who provide false information in order to gain entry to the U.S. pose a potential security vulnerability,” Kice said.
In the San Gabriel Valley, where birth hotels are an open secret, local leaders field a steady stream of complaints from area residents who oppose maternity hotels. In Chino Hills, a group of residents protested the presence of birth hotels in the neighborhood, and Arcadia police even assigned a detective to investigate the businessesin response to residents’ complaints.
In 2013, Los Angeles County formed a birth tourism task force to tackle the issue. The task force has identified and cited 34 birthing hotel operators for running businesses on land that is zoned for residential use. But there is still no county regulation against running hotels for foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. for the sole purpose of giving birth.
The same year that authorities cracked down on birth tourism, “Finding Mr. Right,” a dramatization of a Chinese mother’s trip to Seattle to give birth, grossed $82 million in China, the ninth-highest-earning domestic film that year.
The film wraps the controversy of birth tourism in the familiar narrative confines of a sugary romantic comedy, telling the story of a Beijing tycoon’s wife who flies to Seattle to give birth and falls in love with a driver at the maternity hotel.
One of the first scenes shows her preparing to navigate customs by wrapping a loose cloth around her pregnant belly. At customs, she tells the officer that she’s here to “travel.” When he asks if she’s married, she responds by performing Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance.
Rosy depictions of the U.S. in that film and others fuel the American dreams of the growing Chinese middle class. And a deteriorating belief in China’s future drives still others to consider giving birth in America.
Food safety, pollution and income inequality are now among Chinese citizens’ top concerns, according to Pew Research. Just 6% of high-net-worth Chinese individuals say they plan to remain in China full time, according to a Hurun Report poll in 2015, and the U.S. is their top destination.
Authorities say it’s virtually impossible to tell how many Chinese birth tourists come to the U.S. each year. The Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative-leaning think tank, estimates that nearly 36,000 Chinese nationals give birth in the U.S. each year, but “that’s just a guess,” said Jessica Vaughan, the center’s executive director.
Birth tourists are using U.S. citizenship as a safety net, Vaughan said. And they can use welfare and healthcare benefits that they did not pay taxes for. She thinks the government should make it harder for babies born from birth tourism to retain their citizenship by requiring them to spend the first five years of their lives in the U.S., rather than allowing families to take the babies back to their homeland.
“Birth tourism commodifies U.S. citizenship rather than keeping it something that is earned through the legal immigration system. It cheapens citizenship in the eyes of native-born Americans,” Vaughan said.
Karin Wang, a vice president at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says she is concerned that such attitudes toward birth tourism reflect xenophobia and anti-Asian sentiment. She cast birth tourism as the side effect of a broken immigration system.
“If the immigration system itself worked better, then these convoluted paths that people take to secure status in America would lessen or disappear,” Wang said.
Birth mothers often arrive in the U.S. a few months before they’re set to have their babies because their pregnancies aren’t as visible then, and they’ve heard that officials block pregnant women from entering the country.
Many mothers stay in the U.S. at least long enough to observe the Chinese custom of zuo yuezi, a month-long regimen and diet that is supposed to promote health among new mothers.
Birth tourism commodifies U.S. citizenship rather than keeping it something that is earned through the legal immigration system.
Before and after the birth, the mothers, who are sometimes joined by their husbands, fight boredom in the suburban communities around Los Angeles where the hotels are often located.
On a recent weekday in Rowland Heights, a block from the birth hotels raided by immigration officials last year, Target was having a 50%-off sale on baby clothes and items. Pregnant Chinese mothers packed the aisles.
Tracy settled into a chair at the Starbucks in the Target, wrapped a jacket around Sophia, installed a toy in her chubby fists, then warmed her hands on a cappuccino.
For better or worse, Chinese mothers’ first impression of American life is often in places like Rowland Heights, a mostly-Asian sprawling suburb of homes and vast strip malls 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
Birth tourism is the neighborhood’s incognito economic engine — dozens of pregnant Chinese women visit these shopping centers each day, walking from nearby maternity facilities or transported by cars the hotel operators provide. There’s OshKosh B’gosh, Babies R Us, Ibiya Family, mattress and crib stores, doctors, dentists and Chinese banks.
Life in America tempts from the strip malls. Among the baby stores, there are home loans on offer, car rentals to go see the homes, real estate agents to guide shoppers and immigration attorneys to handle paperwork.
Many mothers, like Tracy, consider staying. Her reasons have more to do with China’s flaws than U.S. freedoms.
In Shanghai, she says, the buildings are tall and modern, but the rent is high. The skyline is beautiful, but the air isn’t clean and the food isn’t safe. The airport is architecturally impressive but inconvenient.The people speak her language, but they are always judging and comparing, evaluating the clothes she wears, the home and neighborhood she lives in, the school her children will attend. A life in America is a break from all of that.
“Here people are not so competitive, trying to wear better clothes and use better things,” Tracy said. “I don’t even have to wear makeup.”
Later in the afternoon, two pregnant Chinese women wandered into the Starbucks at the Target with a pint of Haagen-Dazs each, searching for spoons
They couldn’t speak English, and the employees behind the counter were busy with a long line of customers. They settled for wooden stirrers, poking away small dabs of ice cream at a time, laughing at each other’s failed attempts.
The women are birth tourists from China who met in Los Angeles. Zhu is not married yet, and she’s not sure when she will be or if she wants to stay in the U.S. But she flew from Guangdong to have her baby because she says she has no other choice.
She says she’s fleeing family-planning regulations that fall particularly hard on single mothers in China. To have a baby, the government must issue a reproduction permit, and single women have had trouble getting them. In Wuhan, China two years ago, authorities even considered fining single pregnant women 80,000 yuan.
Rowland Heights, along with Arcadia and Irvine, have long been plagued with rumors that the communities host “mistress villages” — a slang term in China to describe a housing complex where rich Chinese men house their mistresses.
The rumors are unverifiable, but birth tourists, birth hotel operators, nurses and other people working in the industry told The Times that Chinese single women form a significant part of the birth tourism industry.
A baby without the proper permits can’t access public services like school or healthcare, Zhu said. And mothers giving birth out of wedlock face withering social persecution.
So a few months ago, she came to the U.S. alone to give birth. It was her unborn child’s only chance at a future, she said.
Green fields, tall trees, modern cities, stylish people and nothing to worry about — those are the things Kelly expected before she came to America to have her baby.
What she found was something slightly different: a big empty home in Eastvale, with nothing but suburbia to see for miles in every direction but the occasional strip mall and the San Gabriel Mountains.
Still, they own their home, something they could have never afforded in Zhejiang. And her husband, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, has found better career opportunities than he ever could have in China.
“As a young person in China, you walk slowly upwards, unless you have an uncle in the right place,” Kelly said.
Eventually she plans to go back to work. But for now her life consists of trips to the nearby library, walks to the park and time spent in the living room of their home, where on a recent weekday, she tries to steer some noodles into the mouth of her 7-month-old son.
For the time being, they plan to stay.
“We haven’t really decided that we want to be American, but we like America,” Kelly said.