NEW YORK • Three people who operated multimillion-dollar birth-tourism businesses in Southern California have been arrested in the biggest federal criminal probe ever to target the thriving industry, in which pregnant women come to the United States to give birth so their children will become US citizens.
The businesses coached their clients to deceive US immigration officials and pay indigent rates at hospitals to deliver their babies, even though many of the clients were wealthy, investigators said.
Some Chinese couples were charged as much as US$100,000 (S$135,000) for a birth-tourism package that included housing, nannies and shopping trips to Gucci.
A tip sheet for customers, titled Strategies To Maximise The Chance Of Entry, recommended stating on a visa application that pregnant mothers intended to stay at the "five-star Trump International Waikiki Beach" hotel, to convince immigration officials that they were well-to-do vacationers, not mothers travelling with the intention of giving birth on American soil, investigators said.
Grand jury indictments unsealed on Thursday in the US District Court in Los Angeles brought the total number of people charged in the schemes to 19, including both business operators and clients. But some of those targeted in the indictments are not currently in the US.
The appeal of bearing an American child, long associated with immigrants who enter the country illegally, has spurred a birth-tourism industry that now caters to people from all over the world.
The industry is growing at a galloping pace, especially among Chinese nationals experiencing uncertainty over their country's long-term economic prospects.
The number of businesses in operation is undoubtedly much larger than the three agencies targeted in the latest indictments in the Los Angeles area, said Mr Mark Zito, assistant special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles.
"We are talking about three takedowns in LA, when there are probably 300 (such businesses)," Mr Zito said. "We have seen more businesses pop up."
Dongyuan Li, a resident of Irvine, California, who ran a business called You Win USA, is accused in the indictment of renting about 20 units in a luxury apartment complex in Irvine under the names of people who did not occupy them as part of an "illegal international birth-tourism scheme".
Li was arrested on Thursday, along with the operators of USA Happy Baby, another agency associated with birth tourism, according to the indictment: Michael Wei Yueh Liu and Jing Dong.
While the agencies charged in the investigation cater mainly to Chinese parents, Mr Zito said investigators have also found evidence of Russians heading to the north-east and Nigerians travelling to Texas for the sole purpose of having American children. The Middle East is also a growing generator of birth tourism, investigators said.
There are no official figures for how many babies are delivered to tourists on American soil.
In a 2015 report, the Centre for Immigration Studies, a group that supports restricting immigration, puts the number at about 36,000 annually.