According to the Los Angeles Times, it was an undercover federal agent named Xiaoyan Zhang, posing as a potential birth tourist to speak to tourism ring operators and get inside their facilities, who helped crack the federal case open. The tourism company gave Zhang advice on how to fabricate a visa application that would increase her chances of approval (creating a false employment history, paying for an itinerary of popular tourist sites that she had no intention of actually visiting). And the company’s fee for this assistance in setting up the most elaborate birth plans of all time? A cool $38,000.
A document from the federal court case estimates that as many as 40,000 children a year are born via birth tourism, and their mothers pay anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 for the privilege. American citizenship is desirable for a lot of reasons: NBC News reported one birth tourism website touting free public education, a lack of pollution, and a possible path for the entire family to immigrate to the USA in the future.
Once a family is on the hook, the huge fee is paid to a “trainer”–essentially, an extremely shady version of a travel agent–who helps the pregnant traveler assemble a visa application and plan entry into the country. And while there’s nothing illegal about planning a trip to the USA to give birth here, lying on your visa in order to get here definitely is not above board. And there’s even more shady dealings where the tourism companies themselves are involved: visa fraud being the most obvious, but tax fraud, money laundering, and even conspiracy are also on the table for the feds’ case against them.
One other big problem with the birth tourism program is their use of local hospitals–which received little or none of the money the pregnant women paid to the program operators. Often, the women would receive care under a hospital’s low-income reduced-fee plan (if fees were involved at all) while the tourism company helped plan elaborate Disney vacations and luxury hotel stays–and of course pocketed thousands of dollars for themselves. That, of course, means less money for hospitals to provide top-line care to their own local low-income families … families who are also looking to provide their children with the best possible start in life, and who probably don’t have $40,000 in hand to buy that start.
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