Federal Homeland Security agents raided 20 alleged “maternity hotels” in Southern California where pregnant Chinese women pay tens of thousands of dollars to live to ensure a “made in America” baby, reports said.
The feds raided locations in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties on Tuesday, targeting three competing birth-tourism schemes, officials told NBC News, which was on the scene of one of the raids.
One of the properties was the ultra-deluxe Carlyle building in Irvine, California, which housed pregnant women and new moms for fees ranging between $40,000 and $80,000 to ensure their children would have American citizenship, the outlet reported.
“I am doing this for the education of the next generation,” one of the women told NBC News.
None of the moms or moms-to-be were arrested. Police treated them as material witnesses and paramedics were standing by during the raids in case any of the women went into labor.
It’s not illegal to have a child in the US while in the country with a tourist visa, but lying to obtain the visa is illegal.
“If you lie about your reasons for coming here, that’s visa fraud,” Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations for Los Angeles, told NBC News.
Cops focused their efforts on the ringleaders behind the scheme. Court papers allege the fraudsters pocketed hundreds of thousands of tax-free dollars to help Chinese nationals get visas and a pampered life once they arrived, up until their delivery date in an American hospital.
The organizers allegedly used a website to attract customers, drawing in expecting mothers with the attractive benefits of a child with US citizenship: 13 years of free education, low-cost college financial aid, less pollution and a path for the entire family to emigrate when the child turns 18.
The women were advised on what lies to tell to obtain a tourist visa; how to fly through Hawaii, Las Vegas or Korea to avoid the suspicions of immigration officers at Los Angeles International Airport; and how to disguise their pregnancy during their trip, court documents allege.
The women’s handlers escorted them to doctors’ visits and trips to restaurants and shops, the court papers say. One agent followed one of the suspects to Target and Babies R Us.
While birth-tourism schemes are nothing new, investigators believe the practice is growing, NBC reported. Court papers cited a study that found 40,000 children are born to women in the US on a travel visa each year.
Tuesday’s bust marked the first large-scale federal probe into birth-tourism kingpins. The suspects behind the schemes could be charged with high-level fraud and tax evasion if they’re found guilty.