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China’s middle-class families turn to birth tourism


To give birth in the US can guarantee foreign parents American citizenship, generous social welfare and high-quality education for their newborn and the opportunity to become US citizens in the future for themselves. 

Birth tourism, also called maternity tourism, has long been regarded as a ‘smart’ way to immigrate to the US around the globe. The US Department of State has stipulated that as long as expectant mothers have got valid business or tourist’s visa, they are entitled to give birth in the US. And the 14th Amendment to American Constitution regulates children born in the territories of the US would be automatically granted citizenship.

The late 1990s witnessed upsurge of such tourism in developed Asian countries and regions like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And since 2008, when the US government relieved visa rules for attracting more Chinese tourists to spur its downward economy, China’s middle class families began to take advantage of the policy change to join the ranks of birth tourists.

Due to limitations of China’s one-child policy, deteriorating environment and heavily criticized primary education, the number of ‘migrant mommies’ is rising steadily, despite state media reports on innocent parents being cheated by unscrupulous agencies in their effort to give birth in the US.

In 2012, there were nearly 10,000 people traveling to the US for giving birth, and the number is expected to surge to nearly 20,000 in 2013, according to Meibao Zhijia 美宝之家, one of the largest agencies in the business of connecting pregnant women to local boarding houses or maternity hotels, although there is still no official data to refer to. 

The All-America Maternal and Child Service Association, a guild organization for agencies like Meibao Zhijia, issued a survey this September which indicates that, among all the parents heading to the US, those from Guangdong have highest share of 14.89%, followed by Shanghai people with 11.52% share and Beijingers constituting 11.42%. And 30% of pregnant mothers possess a bachelors’ degree or above.

Several top agencies admitted that most of their customers are business owners and ‘grey collar’ employees with solid financial background in Chinese mainland.

Los Angeles in Southern California is the top choice for the middle or upper-class parents due to its good weather, cozy environment and widespread Chinese communities. There are around 154 maternity hotels in the city.

'Let kid make his choice'

According to the aforementioned survey, evading China’s strict one-child policy is the biggest reason for birth tourists from China. In addition, social welfare and education in the US is also a motivating factor for aspiring Chinese parents. And, the story depicted in China’s highest-grossing movie Finding Mr. Right (北京遇上西雅图) could also be true: concubines of rich people may choose to leave their homeland for the US to give birth to their babies secretly.

Shirley, who refused to disclose her real name, arrived at Rowland Heights, a community in the LA County famous for housing Chinese mainland immigrants, when she was six-months pregnant.

“My husband had done sufficient research while on his business trip to LA, so we did not contact any agency but found a house by ourselves,” Shirley told

The family already had a boy; they went to the US to have their second child. “We spent around 200,000 yuan (or $32,258) on having our second son in the US. If we had the child in China, we would be fined almost the same amount of money.”

American citizenship is not their main reason for giving birth in the US. “He (referring to her newborn) is now holding China’s tourist visa. And we are required to renew his American passport every five years. When he grows up, we would let him make his own choice,” said Shirley.

Shirley said she really enjoyed the birth trip to Southern California and during the several months there she enjoyed the beautiful weather, fresh air, and really attentive prenatal care.

“I would find the trip worth it even if it was purely just a trip,” said Shirley.

Annoyed American locals

Although middle-class Chinese families find the travel to be a good bargain, the problem is the US authorities are beginning to pay attention to these shrewd Chinese parents who take advantage of the legal loopholes. 

It was reported by LA Times last autumn that maternity trip by foreign mothers had become a revealing social problem locally. Many residents protested that their formerly quiet and clean communities are being disturbed and polluted by busy maternity hotels. “Although the expectant mothers would go back to China to raise their kids, when their kids grow up, they would definitely send them back to receive free education. It’s unfair, because they would not pay the taxes,” a local resident was quoted by the paper. 

On some Chinese websites based in the US, the argument about immigrants taking up local educational resources has long been intense, especially in recent years when American local governments have been suffering from budget crunch.

The protests by a community organization ‘Not in Chino Hills’ impressed not only local authorities but also the US Congress. Some lawmakers have attempted to introduce bills to penalize maternity-hotel owners, as well as ask for a re-interpretation of the US Constitution.

Steve King, an Iowa Republican in the House of Representatives, sponsored a bill that would limit automatic citizenship to people without at least one parent being a US citizen, or a legal permanent resident.

Although there are still divided opinions, some other residents in communities like Chino Hills or Roland Heights that are famous for housing travelling Chinese mothers expressed their support for the 14th Amendments, because they see it as good representation of America’s highly-advocated spirits of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

US Representative Judy Chu, a California Democrat, said she isn't convinced that birth tourism is a big-enough issue to warrant a re-interpretation of the Constitution.

"The 14th Amendment is fundamental to the US and too important to change because of the practice of a few," said Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to the Congress. "It would be a severe disservice to our nation if millions of immigrants are painted with the same brush."

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