The Truth About Asian "Anchor Babies" and Skirting Immigration Law

Asian Anchor Babies - H 2015
Illustration by Skip Sterling

Jeb Bush might have been ridiculed, but "birth tourism" is real — and the epicenter of the multimillion-dollar cottage industry is Los Angeles.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In late September, Jeb Bush was still trying to clarify his use of the phrase "anchor babies," which has been evoked to describe the children of Latin American parents who cross the border illegally to obtain American citizenship for their kids. Bush had first said in late August that the words referred to "Asian people coming into our country having children." Donald Trump ripped him (as did Asian-American activists and academics) for everything from race-baiting to tone-deaf inaccuracy.

His choice of words might have been clumsy, but Bush had his facts straight, referring to a potentially fraudulent multimillion-dollar cottage industry that caters to affluent Asians (often from China and South Korea) who travel to have their babies on U.S. soil. Flying here to give birth is not illegal, but it is illegal to lie about the purpose of a visit to consular or immigration officials or to instruct others on how to skirt immigration law.

"Birth tourism" remains essentially unregulated, but experts estimate that 10,000 to 60,000 Asian couples on tourist or student visas pay to give birth on U.S. soil each year. Companies with such names as USA Happy Baby and Star Baby Care — both subjects of recent federal investigations — allegedly charge tens of thousands of dollars to usher families through the birth process, providing guidance at every step, from organizing rooms in prominent L.A. hospitals to securing U.S. passports for newborns (who are guaranteed access to public education and health care and could offer their extended families a chance to relocate to America). The practice was the subject of the 2013 romantic comedy Finding Mr. Right, which was a blockbuster in China.

The epicenter of birth tourism is greater Los Angeles. In 2013, L.A. County began investigating "maternity hotels" after being flooded with complaints by citizens. A multiagency task force investigated 97 locations and shut down 18 hotels for violating zoning regulations. The violations aren't limited to real estate issues: In 2014, federal agencies got involved, and officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security mounted an extended investigation involving undercover informants, email exchanges with Chinese nationals and monitored phone calls in an attempt to curb the phenomenon. Federal agents also have gone after companies that facilitate birth tourism for financial crimes such as tax evasion, money laundering and visa fraud.

Not surprisingly, birth tourism caters to the wealthy. According to a recent Bloomberg News report, several L.A. maternity tourism operators took Chinese clients to South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, where they bought "saffiano purses at Prada, sparkly Abel shoes at Jimmy Choo and lingerie with rhinestones at Victoria's Secret." Irvine-based attorney Ken Liang, who represented defendants in the federal probe, later was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly taking money from a federal witness and offering to help a Chinese national leave the U.S. illegally. He was released on $900,000 bail.