10 China nationals charged in absentia in US over 'maternity hotels'

Federal agents walking past a location of a suspected "baby tourism" operation, in Irvine, California on March 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Federal agents walking past a location of a suspected "baby tourism" operation, in Irvine, California on March 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - Ten Chinese nationals who fled the United States this month were charged on Thursday with violating federal court orders to stay during investigations into so-called maternity hotels in southern California, the US Department of Justice said.

It said that all but one of the defendants were customers of Chinese maternity hotels, which cater to foreign mothers-to-be seeking US citizenship for their babies.

One woman considered a material witness in the investigation was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport last week while trying to board a flight to China with her husband and newborn child, prosecutors have said.

The Department of Justice said in a statement that criminal complaints were filed in US District Court on Thursday accusing the 10 of obstruction of justice and contempt of court for leaving the country after being told to remain.

The 10 were also charged with making false statements on visa applications for allegedly lying to federal immigration authorities about the true purpose of their trips to the United States, the statement said.

It said customers had paid up to US$50,000 (S$66,283) to obtain temporary visas for authorisation to travel to the United States by fraudulently claiming their visit was only for several days.

In March, federal agents raided about 20 apartment complexes and other southern California locations suspected in the scheme.

The US Constitution grants citizenship to any child born on US soil, regardless of parentage, and immigration experts say there is nothing inherently illegal about women coming from abroad to give birth in the United States.

But investigators have said they are seeking evidence of possible criminal offences including visa and tax fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.

The Department of Justice said federal arrest warrants have been issued for the 10 defendants, all of whom are believed to be in China.

If convicted, they face statutory maximum sentences of 25 years in federal prison for the charge of false statement on a visa application, and five years for the obstruction of justice charge, the department said.

There is no maximum penalty for the charge of criminal contempt of court.