By Carol Morello and Maria Sacchetti
Washington: A US State Department plan to issue new entry rules could make it more difficult for some pregnant women to obtain visas to visit the United States – the latest in a series of government efforts to restrict foreign travelers from reaching US soil, officials and experts said.
The plan seeks to establish new rules for women traveling to the US primarily to give birth so their children can enter the world as American citizens, the so-called “birth tourism” that the Trump administration has criticized and sought to curb.
What are the new rules?
In one draft of the regulations, pregnant women travelling on visit visas would have to clear an additional hurdle before obtaining them – convincing a consular officer that they have another legitimate reason to come to the US. It is unclear how they would make that determination or whether they will try to verify pregnancies. Also, visa applicants deemed by consular officers to be coming to the US primarily to give birth will now be treated like other foreigners coming to the US for medical treatment. The applicants will have to prove they are coming for medical treatment and they have the money to pay for it.
The guidelines, which the State Department will circulate to US consular officers, will affect B1 and B2 nonimmigrant visas, otherwise known as temporary visas for business, tourism or medical treatment. The US government issued 5.7 million B1 and B2 visas in fiscal year 2018.
Why is Trump so concerned about this?
The Trump administration has been restricting all forms of immigration, but the president has been particularly plagued by the issue of birthright citizenship – anyone born in the US is considered a citizen, under the Constitution. He has railed against the practice and threatened to end it, but scholars and members of his administration have said it’s not so easy to do. Trump’s main concern is that pregnant women are coming to the US in a planned manner to give birth and instantly claim US citizenship for their children. The draft rule is “intended to address the national security and law enforcement risks associated with birth tourism, including criminal activity associated with the birth tourism industry,” a State Department spokesperson said.
So would the new rules be easy to implement?
Not really. Regulating tourist visas for pregnant women is one way to get at the issue, but it raises questions about how officers would determine whether a woman is pregnant to begin with, and whether a woman could get turned away by border officers who suspect she may be just by looking at her. Consular officers right now aren’t told to ask during visa interviews whether a woman is pregnant or intends to become so. But they would have to determine whether a visa applicant would be coming to the US primarily to give birth.
Who would be most affected by the change?
Birth tourism is a lucrative business in both the US and abroad. American companies take out advertisements and charge up to $80,000 to facilitate the practice, offering hotel rooms and medical care. Many of the women travel from Russia and China to give birth in the US, but there are several such instances from the Middle East and India every year as well.
What’s the total number of such births every year?
There are no figures on how many foreign women travel to the US specifically to give birth. The Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for stricter immigration laws, estimated that in 2012, about 36,000 foreign-born women gave birth in the US and then left the country.
What are the other key statistics around this?
• Miami, Los Angeles, and New York are the three most popular destinations for birth tourism in North America.
• The average price for a baby delivery package can range between $35,000 to $150,000 – including processing documents, transfer, accommodation for up to 4 months, medical care before, during, and after the birth for both mom and the newborn.
• The price could rise steeply if there are any birth-related complications – and if any patient fails to pay all the hospital bills, she will be deported and blacklisted forever.
• Several immigration websites tout the fact that US citizenship will provide easier access to US universities and how American-born children can sponsor their parents’ immigration to the US once they turn 21-years-old.
• A May 2019 federal government report found that the US birth rate is at a 32-year-low.
What does the law say?
The 14th amendment of the US Constitution essentially says that anyone born on US soil becomes a US citizen, even if their parents are not citizens. The US is one of only 35 countries in the world that recognizes birthright citizenship. Although there are scattered cases of authorities arresting operators of birth tourism agencies for visa fraud or tax evasion, coming to the US to give birth is fundamentally legal. And women are often honest about their intentions when applying for visas and even show signed contracts with doctors and hospitals.
Are there any known cases of the system being abused?
Yes, there are a few. Last year, a Chinese woman pleaded guilty to US federal charges of running a “birth tourism” scheme for Chinese nationals. Dongyuan Li admitted her company assisted wealthy Chinese nationals in getting to the US to give birth – she would provide her clients training on how to bypass US immigration control and hide their pregnancies. She made more than $3 million in wire transfers from the scheme.
When will this come into effect?
The new rule is expected to appear “shortly” in the Federal Register, according to a State Department official. A congressional aide briefed by the department also confirmed the new rule and said the State Department had a conference call Wednesday to tell lawmakers the broad strokes of the policy.
36,000Foreign-born women gave birth in the US and then left the country in 2012.
32year-low for US birth rate in 2019.
$150,000Is the cost of some high-end packages for foreigners giving birth in US
However, though I had the option of going to the US and giving birth there, I was not very keen on the idea. I argued daily with my husband that this was not a good plan. I asked him repeatedly: why would she even need it in this day and age?
America, to me, is no longer the land of opportunities, the big American dream does not exist anymore.
If she did one day choose to study in the US – in which case it should be an Ivy League, to justify going all the way there – we would pay for it. In another scenario, if she fell sick and we needed the best care, we would pay to get that anywhere in the world, not necessarily the United States.
Would she ever go and live there? I don’t think so.
We already live in the land of opportunities, a land that can offer her world-class education and innovation, a land of tolerance and co-existence – a land where she is free to do and be whatever she wants to be in a crime-free environment.
So what made me go at the end? Just that we hold an Arab passport – a passport that today may be in a good place on the power index, but tomorrow, if a war starts or a coup happens, could become a curse.
We see our neighbours, the Iraqis and the Syrians. One day they were citizens and holders of respectable passports, the other day they couldn’t travel anywhere in the world and were treated like the plague.
My daughter now holds an American passport because only it is her safest option in a bad scenario, not because of anything else. My daughter one day will be 18 years old, and she will pay the US government back with income tax, though she has not cost them anything.
-The author is a journalist based in the UAE; name withheld on request.