LA targets Korean 'birth tourists'
By Jane Han
All it takes is $50,000 and a three-month trip to the U.S., but authorities here are about to make things tougher for this unwelcomed crowd they label ''birth tourists.’’
The first and most aggressive clampdown is set to begin in Los Angeles, the top delivery destination among pregnant Korean women.
The crackdown target? Maternity hotels.
''This is just an absolutely illegal operation, jeopardizing the health of the mother and the baby,’’ Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe said last week.
According to county data, more than 60 complaints about maternity homes have been filed in December alone.
One Chinese-operated facility, a large mansion subdivided into 17 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms, was shut down a few weeks ago for code enforcement violations.
The next to go may easily be one of the dozens of birthing hotels run by Koreans in and around downtown Los Angeles.
''We’re all keeping a careful lookout,’’ said Kim, a maternity helper who refused to give her full name.
According to her, more than 20 expectant and new moms are currently housed in the unit where she has been working for the past two years.
''It’s a busy place. People constantly come and go,’’ she said, adding that some women stay on a tight two-month schedule, but most stay for three months, the allowed time in the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
People in the ''industry’’ say the number of pregnant women from Korea who flew in to give birth quadrupled since the VWP took effect in November 2008.
''Currency fluctuations have little or no impact to our business because most of our clients are wealthy enough to ignore the price difference,’’ says one maternity helper, who wanted to be named Lisa.
She says prospective clients have a range of packages offered to them. From economy to luxury, each package can be as low as $25,000 to as high as $60,000.
The all-inclusive price covers airfare, city tours, pre- and post-partum care, including customized meals three times a day and general maid services, as well as English lessons for new moms.
Considering the comprehensive service, Koreans in the business say the U.S. birthing trip is a win-win for moms and their babies.
But not in the eyes of U.S. authorities, who increasingly believe that the so-called anchor babies are sinking the American economy.
According to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, anchor babies cost the county roughly $600 million in 2010. The figure was estimated by adding up welfare benefits, public safety and health care costs.
This is just Los Angeles alone, so if you take into account other popular birth tourist destinations, such as New York and Hawaii, the amount easily exceeds billions of dollars.
''We need a common sense solution to fix the flawed interpretation of the Constitution’s citizenship clause,’’ Representative Steve King, a Republican who represents Iowa, said in a statement last month.
According to the 14th Amendment, babies born in the U.S. are automatically eligible to become U.S. citizens.
''The current practice of extending U.S. citizenship to hundreds of thousands of anchor babies must end and because it creates a magnet for illegal immigration into our country. Now is the time to ensure that the laws in the country do not encourage law breaking.’’
King, who has long fought to stop automatic citizenship, introduced a bill last month that would deny handing U.S. passports to anchor babies.
Thirteen other lawmakers co-sponsored the bill, giving the latest push to the long-standing controversial issue.
It’s uncertain whether the recent move will pick up much steam, but critics and supporters of birthright citizenship alike say permanent changes are unlikely.
''This is the 14th Amendment we’re talking about,’’ says Kim Ki-woong, an immigration lawyer based in New York. ''It’s something that just can’t be changed overnight.’’
While the birth tourism industry itself is not illegal, authorities are still expected step up crackdowns on zoning code violations to keep maternity hotels under control.