Inside the Homeland Security crackdown on deluxe services helping Chinese women have American babies
|Photo illustration: 731; Photographer: Science Photo Library/Alamy|
After the March raids, 29 Chinese mothers and relatives were designated material witnesses and ordered to stay in Southern California until the federal court decided they could leave. Fiona He moved from her apartment in Rancho Cucamonga to one in another part of the Inland Empire. “I want my children to have the best they can,” she says. “But I had no idea I would have this trouble. We didn’t hurt anyone. We just found an easy way to stay here to give birth. Is that wrong?” She was interviewed by a federal grand jury on March 11 with the promise of immunity if she continued to cooperate. No charges have been brought against any of the maternity services, nor have any promises been made to the women about their return home. As the weeks passed, He was feeling desperate.
In China, there’s nothing secret about birth tourism. It’s just another way to help a child get ahead. A hit 2013 movie, Finding Mr. Right, told the story of a woman who goes to America to give birth. That same year, 68 percent of people surveyed by Internet provider Tencent said they would want their child to be born in the States “if opportunity allows.” The maternity services maintain blogs and a steady patter of self-promotion. USA Happy Baby featured an ad with a baby lying on an American flag; Dong, the owner, regularly posted pictures of smiling customers, their newborns, and their U.S. passports. “The moms must be missing the time at our maternity center. It was real fun. Everything was taken care of. You lived like a ‘queen,’ ” read a post on social media by another service, called Enchong.
Fiona He used Enchong to have her first baby. When she was planning her second stay, she opted for USA Happy Baby because it offered housing with fewer pregnant Chinese women around. She wanted the quiet.
“Birth tourism is a money-making opportunity,” says Liang. “The operators shouldn’t squander it.” He would like them to come out of the shadows and push for regulations. “This could have a long-lasting positive impact for the U.S. Bruce Lee was a birth tourism baby. Maybe we’ll get another genius out of it.”
Fiona He brought her daughter to the Riverside Federal Courthouse on April 7. Judge David Bristow was holding a hearing to determine when—or if—the Chinese women designated as material witnesses might return home. As the other women huddled around a translator, He walked in and out of the courtroom, distracted. One woman was still pregnant; another had a baby in a car seat. After three hours in court, they learned it was unlikely that any of them would be allowed to leave soon. On the courthouse steps, the women were distraught. The men were smoking. Fiona He remained at a distance. “I’m disappointed in the system,” says Liu, her lawyer. “These women are being treated like criminal defendants, not witnesses.”
On April 30, He officially became a fugitive. The government charged He and nine others with alleged obstruction of justice, contempt of court, and visa fraud and issued warrants for their arrest. “It’s pretty ironic,” says Liu. “She did so much to get passports for her kids. Now they can come to America anytime. But she probably can never come again.”