A curious global industry has emerged that caters to wealthy foreign women willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to give birth in the United States and get instant U.S. citizenship for their babies. The hefty price is worth it, according to these women, because it paves the way for easy access to American public schools, universities and jobs as the children get older and green cards for the whole family once the child turns 21.
The women stay at controversial birth tourism centers, often hidden in suburbia. The centers have riled neighbors and ignited outrage on Capitol Hill.
“They are gaming the system…and people should be put in jail,” said Representative Phil Gingrey (R-Ga), one of several members of Congress trying to put an end to birth tourism.
The United States is the only country in the developed world other than Canada that grants jus soli or birthright citizenship. The U.S. law dates back to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, ratified after the Civil War to ensure that all freed slaves and their children would be American citizens.
NBC News gained access to four birth tourism centers in the New York City borough of Queens. The owners, all women, said they know their industry is controversial, but they hope it will soon be recognized and supported by the U.S. government.
“Yes, our business is a sensitive topic, but we have a lot to offer the American culture and economy,” said Katie, a business owner who asked that her last name not be used.
“These women are the economic elite…and they are fueling the economy here. I take them on shopping trips…one woman bought 15 Coach bags,” said Katie, who said she piles her pregnant clients into her van for the hour and a half drive to Woodbury Commons, an upscale outlet mall in New York where shoppers can indulge in such luxury brands as Prada, Gucci, Dior, and Coach.
Katie runs her business out of two houses, one for pregnant women and one across the street for new mothers and their babies.
“I spoke to a lawyer before opening my business to make sure I would not get into trouble with U.S. authorities,” she said.
As with the other businesses NBC News visited in New York, many of Katie’s pregnant clients are Chinese women who were already in the United States or who travel back and forth between countries. She said the percentage of her clientele who are birth tourists varies from month to month, but she has had close to 150 clients in all since she opened her business in 2008.
She said her clients all want the comforts and familiarity of the traditional Chinese practice of zuo yuezi, a term used for the month of rest and recuperation for the mother following birth. According to Chinese tradition, the mother rests while the babies are cared for by a nurse. Feeding, bathing and sleeping times are meticulously organized in charts. A chef cooks a special diet of Chinese food with lots of meat, seafood, and cooked vegetables for new mothers. They eat five times a day, and do special exercises to slowly build back their core muscles.
“Chinese culture has a lot to offer in terms of pregnancy and new mothers’ health,” said Katie, who added she hopes that her business can spread the healthy traditions to other cultures.
Her business also helps the women navigate the logistics of obtaining American birth certificates, passports, and Social Security numbers for their babies before they fly home to China.
“We help them get information, even drive them to where they need to go to get the papers, so in the fastest possible time, they can get everything settled,” she said.
The cost of the rooms in her house range from $2,000 to $5,000 per month, depending on the size of the room, length of stay, and the woman’s financial resources. The price includes food, laundry, and care for the baby.
The women give birth in hospitals near the birth tourism centers, paying in cash. The hospital fees alone can reach as much as $10,000. Parents usually stay three to four months and spend a total of as much as $30,000 for lodging, airfare, and medical expenses.
Katie said demand has grown so much that she had to rent her second house last year.
“In August alone I had to say no to three prospective clients,” she said.
One wealthy new mother renting a room at Katie’s facility told NBC News that she came to the United States from an eastern Chinese city for the final three months of her pregnancy.
“For my baby, it’s a chance to, a step to two countries’ cultures…Chinese culture and American culture,” said Mrs. Chao, who asked not to be identified by her full name.
While in the United States, Mrs. Chao and her husband bought an iPad, suits and dress clothing, luxury brand perfumes and baby clothes from brands like Polo by Ralph Lauren.
She said that she hopes her newborn daughter, Emily, will return to the United States to attend high school and college. When Emily is 21, she could apply for her parents to become legal residents in America.
I think this is a bit much. Sure the opportunities are better in the States than a lot of other places…but I’m not from the States and it’s not like I live in destitution. I think these people should be proud of where they come from. You don’t have to be an American citizen to be successful. Do something great and put your own country on the map.