Trump has Chinese birth tourists running scared
Nov 1, 2018
Photo: Alamy
Mandy Zuo andViola Zhou
Your browser doesn’t support HTML5 audio

All they wanted was to have good ol’-fashioned born-in-the-USA American babies.

But Donald Trump’s call to end birthright citizenship has sent Chinese couples eager to give birth to American nationals into a panic.

Birth tourism operators say they are getting a flood of queries from worried clients, after Trump said he planned to scrap the right to citizenship for babies of non-citizens.

“Our clients are very scared,” Hal Ma, who works for California-based birth tourism agency American Science Papa, told Inkstone. “Some families are trying to go to America as soon as possible.”

So-called birthright citizenship, enshrined by the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, has fueled an entire industry in China that helps families to deliver their babies in America.

Chinese culture dictates that mothers be put under intensive postpartum care for one month after giving birth. Photo: AFP

Birth tourism refers to the practice of people traveling to another country solely to give birth there. Most leave for their home countries right after. 

For fees in the tens of thousands of dollars, agents coach parents how to apply for US visas, arrange delivery services at American hospitals and take care of the new mothers in “maternity hotels” until they are ready to head back home with their US-citizen newborns. 

Lawyers dispute that Trump can change the citizenship rule with an executive order, as the president suggested to news site Axios on Tuesday, but the announcement has already sent chilling signals to some Chinese parents.

Other operators based in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai also say they are getting a wave of calls and messages from families, asking if their trips to the US can go ahead as planned.

A better future

Ads for birth tourism agencies are common on Chinese social media, although birth tourists probably make up a very small percentage of the three million Chinese who visit the US every year.

One estimate by the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank in Washington DC, put the total number of children born in the US through birth tourism at 36,000 in 2012. This is about 4% of the some 900,000 babies born to all foreign-born mothers annually in the States.  

Chinese students wait outside the US Embassy in Beijing for their visa application interviews in May 2012. Photo: AP/Alexander F. Yuan

Chinese agents say many families opt for birth tourism because they want to make it easier for their children to study in America in the future. Some are seeking better medical services, such as private wards and labor pain relief, which are not always available in China. Others are seeking a better quality of life.

After reaching the age of 21, the children, who are automatically US citizens, will also be eligible to petition for their parents to live in the US as green card holders.

Birthright citizenship has long been under attack from some Republican lawmakers for granting citizenship to children of unauthorized immigrants. And Trump pledged to end the practice during his 2016 campaign.

Ma, the birth tourism agent, said that instead of a constitutional change, he is more worried about the tightening of visa rules for expecting mothers. 

Ma said it’s getting harder for Chinese birth tourists to obtain the short-term visas required. About 10% of his clients who applied for visitor visas in September and October were rejected, compared with fewer than 5% in the past.

Change of plan

It’s not against the law for a foreign citizen to give birth in the US, as long as they do not lie to immigration officers when applying for visas and entering the country.

Federal agents in 2015 and in January this year raided a number of California “maternity hotels,” where birth tourist mothers stay before and after giving birth. The operators were suspected of tax evasion and participating in visa fraud.

An 18-month-old holds a placard at a protest against mainland birth tourists in Hong Kong in 2012. The Hong Kong government banned local hospitals from accepting mainland mothers the following year. Photo: Sam Tsang

Following Trump’s proposal to remove birthright citizenship, many Chinese families may instead head to Canada, which also grants automatic citizenship to newborns.

“It was like an earthquake … We have had a lot of requests for advice and many who planned to go to the US are considering Canada,” the Global Baby-Mom and Baby Care Center, an agent operating in Canada, posted on the Twitter-like Weibo on Tuesday.

The former British colony of Hong Kong, which has a separate judicial system from mainland China, grants permanent residency to babies born to ethnic Chinese parents in the city. It used to be a popular destination for Chinese birth tourists, before the government banned local hospitals from accepting mainland mothers in 2013.

Mandy is a contributor to Inkstone, and a Shanghai-based China reporter for the South China Morning Post.
Viola is a multimedia producer at Inkstone. She previously covered Chinese politics for the South China Morning Post.