NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The Facebook post advertised a tantalising offer for pregnant women in Turkey. "If you believe your baby should be born in the USA and become an American citizen," the ad said in Turkish, "then you are at the right place."
In exchange for payments between US$7,500 and US$10,000 (between S$10,000 and S$13,400) each, the women received transport, medical care and lodging at a so-called birth house on Long Island, federal prosecutors said - allowing them to travel to New York on tourist visas and return to Turkey with babies who were American citizens.
On Wednesday (Dec 2), prosecutors charged six people with running a "birth tourism" operation on Long Island that had facilitated the births of an estimated 119 babies to Turkish women since at least 2017.
The costs of the births were fraudulently billed to the state, causing New York's Medicaid programme to lose more than US$2.1 million, prosecutors said.
"The defendants cashed in on the desire for birthright citizenship, and the American taxpayer ultimately got stuck with the US$2.1 million bill," said Mr Seth DuCharme, acting US attorney in Brooklyn.
"The indictment unsealed today reinforces the principle that American citizenship is not for sale, and that our benefits programmes are not piggy banks for criminals to plunder."
In total, the defendants received about US$750,000 in payments from pregnant women, prosecutors said.
Birth tourism is a longstanding phenomenon. In recent years, it has drawn mostly well-off mothers from China, Korea, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Nigeria to the United States for birthright citizenship.
A 2018 case involving the stabbing of three babies at a maternity centre in Queens exposed the risks of the unregulated practice.
Earlier this year, the State Department gave visa officers more power to stop pregnant women from visiting the US if the women were suspected of travelling to give birth. The new rule described giving birth as "an impermissible basis" for visiting the US.
After children who are US citizens turn 21, they can sponsor a parent for a green card.
The State Department has estimated that thousands of babies are born to tourists from abroad every year, but there are no official numbers. In 2018, there were about 3.8 million total births in the US, according to the National Centre for Health Statistics.
The defendants on Wednesday were charged with fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.
Four of them are Turkish nationals accused of advertising the scheme and of facilitating the women's lodging and transport. The other two are US citizens who are suspected of helping to file the fraudulent Medicaid applications.
The mothers were not criminally charged and are not targets of the investigation. Prosecutors said it would be unlikely for the children to lose their US citizenship.
The federal investigation on Long Island, which took more than a year, involved surveillance photographs, wiretapped conversations, search warrants for iCloud accounts and even an undercover agent.
Ibrahim Aksakal - an accused leader of the scheme - said in a recorded conversation in May 2019 that the women needed to apply for a tourist visa before the pregnancy became "obvious", prosecutors said. At the time, he was speaking to an undercover Homeland Security employee posing as the spouse of a pregnant Turkish woman.
A lawyer for Aksakal declined to comment.
An unnamed co-conspirator told the undercover employee that the women should arrive no later than their 34th week of pregnancy, prosecutors said.
The investigation began when local police received a tip-off that a group of Turkish women, all with the same address, had given birth around the same time. Investigators eventually found seven birth houses across Long Island where the women stayed.
One pregnant woman who applied for a visa in October 2019 said she was travelling to the US for tourism and would stay at a Manhattan hotel. In reality, according to prosecutors, she stayed at a house in West Babylon on Long Island. In April, she left the US after an American passport application had been filed on her child's behalf.
Prosecutors said that to cover the prenatal and delivery costs, the defendants filed dozens of false Medicaid applications that concealed the women's immigration status, claiming they were permanent residents on Long Island with no income.
Mr DuCharme said at a news conference on Wednesday that some of the women were actually "of substantial means".
Mr Christopher Lau, a top official with Homeland Security Investigations, said at the news conference that birth tourism providers often act as unlicensed healthcare providers, placing pregnant women and babies in unsafe conditions.
China has historically been the biggest market for the birth-tourism industry.
Last year, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles brought criminal charges against 19 people who participated in birth-tourism schemes for Chinese clients across Southern California. One company charged couples as much as US$100,000 for a package that included housing, nannies and shopping excursions to Gucci.