Birth Tourists Come from Around the Globe

By Jon Feere on August 26, 2015

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently got tripped up on use of the phrase "anchor babies" and explained to media the following: "What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed where there's organized efforts — and frankly it's more related to Asian people coming into our country, having children in that organized effort, taking advantage of a noble concept with birthright citizenship."

Bush appears to have been referring to birth tourism, the practice of foreigners traveling to the United States to give birth and add a U.S. passport holder to the family. We estimate that perhaps as many as 36,000 birth tourists come to the United States every year.

There is not any breakdown of the nationality of birth tourists, in large part because the practice is largely clandestine. However, there are media reports (both American and international) that shed some light on the origins of birth tourists. The reality is that birth tourism to the United States is practiced by people from around the globe, not only from Asia, as the examples below illustrate.

China and Taiwan

Most media attention on birth tourism is focused on Chinese birth tourism. It may be that the largest percentage of birth tourism originates in China, but there are no numbers to verify this. It has been reported that there are "at least 500 companies" offering birth tourism services in China. A Chinese news article titled "China's 'Born in the USA' Frenzy" details the efforts one Chinese birth tourist took to conceal her fraud and quoted an organizer of birth tourism who explained that "The return on investment is higher than robbing a bank."

The article also notes that "Giving birth to a child abroad is not a privilege reserved to the stars and the very wealthy. An increasing number of expectant middle-class parents also fancy giving their children passports that they can feel proud of."

Rolling Stone recently published a lengthy expose on Chinese birth tourists noting that "birth tourism has become extremely popular in China".

In 2011, city officials in southern California uncovered a makeshift maternity ward described by the media as one "that primarily caters to Chinese and Taiwanese" birth tourists. City officials shut the operation down after a resident complained about traffic, density, and building code issues. A city official noted that he had seen makeshift maternity homes in cities throughout Los Angeles County over his 13 years working for the city of San Gabriel, but that this operation was the largest he had ever encountered.

Earlier this year, federal agents investigated 37 locations in southern California involved with birth tourism. The federal affidavit notes that Chinese government sources have reported that Chinese nationals had 10,000 babies in the United States in 2012, up from 4,200 in 2008.

One woman born to a birth tourist in New York in 1989 returned to the United States at age 15 to take advantage of U.S.-taxpayer subsidized high schools in Idaho, Utah, and California. She told the Sacramento Bee, "I'm Taiwanese more than American." (She was brought back to Taiwan two months after being born.) Though she is considered a U.S. citizen, she describes the United States as a "foreign country".

While it seems likely that Asian immigrants account for a significant share of the birth tourist population, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) gave a bizarre response to Jeb Bush's statement, indicating that he is not any more informed about the subject of birth tourism than the former governor. The senator called Bush's statement "an attack on Asian immigrants" and said the comments were "derogatory and offensive", exclaiming that Bush "should immediately retract his statements and apologize to the Asian community for his insensitive behavior." Since Sen. Schatz's press release provides nothing more than two sentences, the senator's reasoning is unclear. Does the senator think that birth tourists do not come from Asia or that it's improper to point it out? It may be that this is simply another example of the open-border crowd trying to silence any discussion about immigration that does not fit the mass immigration agenda.

Korea

The Korea Times has explained that Los Angeles is "the top delivery destination among pregnant Korean women" and notes that there are "dozens of birthing hotels run by Koreans in and around downtown Los Angeles".

The Korea Times also explains that: "People in the 'industry' say the number of pregnant women from Korea who flew in to give birth quadrupled since the [Visa Waiver Program] took effect in November 2008."

"If they could afford it, all my friends would go to the United States to have their babies," one Korean woman told the Los Angeles Times. "It's easy. If you register the birth, it's automatic that your baby can get an American passport," she noted. The birth tourist also explained that Korean schools were too demanding and that it would "be a big gift for [her son] not to be burdened with military service."

Nigeria

The Nigerian media published an article in 2010 analyzing discussions among American lawmakers about limiting the scope of birthright citizenship and ending birth tourism. The article is titled, "American Agitations Threaten a Nigerian Practice". According to the article, the practice of Nigerians traveling to the United States to have a child is "spreading so fast that it is close to becoming an obsession."

As explained in the article, "Though many modern Nigerian immigrants go to the United States to pursue educational opportunities in undergraduate and post-graduate institutions, quite a large number go there under the pretext of visiting, but end up giving birth. The most noticeable exodus occurs among professional and middle-class Nigerians who, along with their children, take advantage of education and employment opportunities in the United States."

Turkey

According to Selin Burcuoğlu, a Turkish woman who traveled to the United States to give birth, the process was easy: "We found a company on the Internet and decided to go to Austin for our child's birth. It was incredibly professional. They organized everything for me. I had no problem adjusting and I had an excellent birth. I don't want her to deal with visa issues — American citizenship has so many advantages."

A Turkish paper reports that "Burcuoğlu is not the only Turkish parent who wants her child to have U.S. citizenship. Many Turkish parents-to-be are now seeking tourism companies to 'guarantee' their child's life." The paper cites sources estimating that Turkish doctors, hotel owners, and immigrant families in the United States have reportedly helped arrange the U.S. birth of 12,000 Turkish children between 2003 and 2010 (when the article was published).

The article notes that "birth tourism organizations are located throughout Turkey" and quotes one organizer as saying, "Before, only celebrities gave birth in the U.S. We are now aiming, however, to make this service accessible to everyone. And surprisingly, our customers are not just from İzmir and Istanbul, there are also many people from smaller provinces, such as [southeastern] Gaziantep."

The Turkish-owned Marmara Hotel group offers a "birth tourism package" that includes accommodations at their Manhattan branch. "We hosted 15 families last year," said Nur Ercan Mağden, head manager of The Marmara Manhattan, adding that the cost was $45,000 each.

Russia

The Moscow Times reports that birth tourism is a "growing trend among Russians keen both to ensure their child has coveted U.S. citizenship and to make use of the country's vaunted private medical care."

"If previously our clients were mostly very wealthy families, today the middle class is actively making use of our services," said Vera Muzyka, head of Status-Med, a company helping to arrange birth tourism. She notes that the number is "growing every year" and says "Overall, we estimate there are about 40 to 60 such births in Miami every month."

The paper reports that the organizer told them "Miami is the most popular destination for Russian birth tourists due to its year-round good weather, warm ocean current, and range of reputable hospitals with lower prices than New York and California."

Birth tourism includes citizens of other former Soviet bloc countries as well.

In New Jersey, the Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center offers an “AmeriMama” package that it designed to offer primarily Russian mothers a six-month stay. A Russian-language website promises citizenship papers, passports, and travel visas for the baby for fees ranging from $8,500 to $27,500. The program started in 2014 but an investigative report found that the service has been going on for much longer.

The hospital's website notes that the practice is becoming more popular: "Before, only very wealthy families could afford birth in the US, but today this service is becoming more accessible."

Officials at the hospital do not want to talk about their practice. According to a journalist who investigated, the hospital’s CEO “did not respond to emails and calls, and other hospital leaders refused repeated invitations made through various channels to talk about the program. The facility’s lobbyist, Princeton Public Affairs, which was paid some $160,000 in 2015 to represent the hospital, also opted to not answer questions about the facility's birth-tourism program.” None of the hospital staff would talk either.

An official with the New Jersey Department of Health which oversees the state’s hospitals noted that the state doesn’t monitor how hospitals recruit patients and argued that “Hospitals recruiting international patients is a national practice.” But state Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) said he "never observed a hospital in New Jersey that has behaved like this" and said, "It's like medical Travelocity".

Officials worry that the hospital is being run too much like a business. The investigative reporter found that the hospital has "an extremely high rate of elective early deliveries -- chemically induced births that add convenience but can prove harmful for both the baby and the mother" and that although hospitals across the country induce fewer than 3 percent of births "Meadowlands prompted nearly three out of four babies in 2014".

Brazil

Brazilian doctor Wladimir Lorentz decided to found a birth tourism agency in Miami after discovering similar services aimed at Russian tourists. He explained to BBC Brazil, "A pregnant women in Sao Paulo beginning labor at rush hour runs the risk of giving birth in traffic or ending up in a bad hospital. We do not have that danger." He says his main challenge is convincing Brazilians that the service is legal.

One birth tourist explained her motivation, noting, "Here education is free, while in Brazil a quality education consumes much of the family income."

Another birth tourist who came to the U.S. for only two months before returning home explained, "Even before I knew I was pregnant, I wanted to give birth there."

The U.S.-Mexico Border

The practice of traveling to the United States to give birth is something that is not limited to people who fly over the Pacific or Atlantic. But because the term "birth tourism" does not have a settled definition, people oftentimes do not think of immigrants crossing the border as birth tourists. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "Women have long been crossing the border from Mexico to give birth, pursuing the age-old yearning of parents everywhere to give their children better lives."

In fact, back in 1982 the New York Times spoke with one Mexican woman who the Times described as "fairly typical of the Mexican women, now numbering in the thousands, who are coming across the border every year to have their babies in the United States." The woman explained, "I'm not the only one to do this. One of my best friends did it last month."

"To have their babies on American soil, Mexican women simply apply for visitors' visas that permit border residents to travel inside a 25-mile zone in the United States for up to three days for shopping and family visits," explained the Times. The article highlighted the story of Gabriela Nicolas, a Mexican national who twice traveled to San Diego to give birth. She told the paper that "several of her friends and relatives have also crossed the border to have babies" and that "Many children who live here in Tijuana are American citizens."

The Times noted that the cross-border traffic of pregnant Mexican mothers was largely made up of women who were well off, but that poorer women made the trek as well. It is difficult to conclude that these individuals are not birth tourists.

A USA Today article attempted to marginalize concerns about the practice of illegal immigrants crossing the border to give birth by highlighting a Pew Research report, noting: "The report found that 350,000 babies were born in the United States between March 2009 and March 2010 to at least one illegal immigrant parent. Of those parents, 91 percent arrived before 2008." An expert from the pro-amnesty think tank Center for American Progress (which agrees that birth tourism is fraud) responded, "It's real concrete data that I think destroys this notion that immigrant women are crossing the border illegally and having babies."

Of course, using that data, it means that 9 percent of illegal immigrant parents who gave birth to child on U.S. soil during that time frame arrived in or after 2008. Without more data like date of entry figures, it is too speculative to determine how many of these 31,500 illegal immigrants came specifically to give birth, but some very likely did.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the San Diego Fire and Rescue crews "were called to the San Ysidro border crossing for nearly 160 childbirth emergencies in 2012 — one almost every other day." Though the paper noted that it is unclear what percentage of births were to non-citizens, it did note that the phenomenon continues and that "such calls continued in 2013, with 15 childbirth emergency calls to the gateway into Tijuana in January, eight in February, and 17 in March."

CBS News interviewed one Mexican woman who crossed the border nine months pregnant. The report noted that she was "rushed to a south Texas hospital to undergo a C-section — a $4,700 medical procedure that won't cost her a dime. She qualifies for emergency Medicaid."

"Do many women in Mexico make the choice to have their children in the United States?" asked CBS.

"Yes," the woman said through a translator. "I know people who have done that. Things are much better here in the United States because they help children so much more."

CBS also interviewed the CEO of the McAllen Texas Medical Center near the Texas-Mexico border who described seeing pregnant women "about to give birth that walk up to the hospital still wet from swimming across the river in actual labor ... dirty, wet, cold ... here to have a child in the United States."

NOTE: If you have verifiable information on birth tourism from other countries, please contact me at jdf@cis.org. This report will be updated as more information becomes available.