Welcome to Maternity Hotel California
Peter and Ellie Yang, by all outward appearances, are living the Beijing dream. They have a condo in an up-and-coming area, a white Honda that Peter keeps immaculate and a rambunctious one-year-old son, Xiongxiong. They wear brand-name jeans and own separate iPhone 6s. On holidays, they go to Sanya — “China’s Hawaii” — as well as Hong Kong and Japan. On weekends, they eat out and take hikes in the Fragrant Hills. It’s enough to make them the envy of many. But when Ellie found out she was pregnant in 2014, Peter said he wanted to have their second child in America. “It’s for him to get a good education,” Peter says. “But it’s also for us — to find business opportunities and to make friends. Chinese who do this tend to be well-connected.”
Peter began researching maternity hotels that operate within the underground birth tourism industry. He chatted with sales agents and scanned large photos on forums like LA Fat Dad, USA Baby DIY and America Baby Home. One option was staying in a single-family home, rented solely to birth tourists, but moving into a close-knit residential community as part of a rotating cast of pregnant Chinese felt risky. Renting an apartment in San Francisco, as some of their friends had done, was less expensive and lower profile, but Peter didn’t know anyone there. At last he and Ellie agreed on a “middle of the road” option — a 16-room hotel in suburban Los Angeles for $20,000.
At the end of October, Ellie and Peter — who asked to use pseudonyms — boarded a 10-hour flight from Beijing to have their second child. The decision had made Ellie uneasy from the start. It seemed potentially dangerous for the baby and expensive. A friend with permanent residence in the U.S. told them the process was also legally fraught. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had turned pregnant women away at West Coast airports. She finally consented, though — it was worth the risk to give their child a better education outside of China.
By the time they got off the plane in Honolulu, which is thought to be an easier spot for birth tourists to enter, Ellie, seven months pregnant and showing, was in a state of intense anxiety. Online forums had advised wearing voluminous black dresses and holding a purse to block the belly, but at least one poster wrote this was exactly wrong: “Since there are so many pregnant women now, if they’re all wearing the same thing, they know right away you’re pregnant.” Ellie decided to wear a maroon jacket and a gray dress with a flowing cowl.
While birth tourism has become extremely popular in China, no one knows exactly how many Chinese visit the U.S. each year to have a baby. In 2012, according to Chinese state media, there were some 10,000 tourist births from China; more recent estimates have put the number as high as 60,000 a year. Some of the boom is due to a 2012 crackdown by the government in Hong Kong, where an excellent education system, top-notch healthcare and the prospect of political freedom attracted expecting Chinese parents for years. No small portion is also a result of the 2013 blockbuster rom-com, Beijing Meets Seattle, about a mistress who finds true love staying in a maternity hotel. Above all, though, it has to do with the sense among middle-class Chinese that they can’t provide the life they want for their kids — clean water, clean air, access to quality education — in China.
As they neared customs in Hawaii, Peter reminded Ellie to stay calm. “Remember,” Peter whispered, “we just came here for a holiday.” Everything depended on getting a six-month stamp, the typical length of stay granted to Chinese tourists entering the U.S.
They stepped up to the counter and handed over their passports. The officer, a middle-aged white man, asked how long they were traveling. “Ten days,” Peter said. The officer nodded and smiled, stamped their passports and said, “Enjoy your trip.” They headed towards baggage claim trying to hide their excitement. As they rolled their suitcases through customs, a Hispanic officer with CBP stopped them. Even with a visa, they could be deported if he believed they were here to give birth and couldn’t afford it; Chinese forums were full of such stories. The agent’s eyes roved over Ellie. He pointed at her belly and asked, “Does she have a baby?”
Peter and Ellie spoke almost no English, but they understood the agent’s question. Ellie’s mind raced as she remembered reading that if you lied to an official, they would take you into a “little black room.” Peter pulled out his phone and showed the agent a picture of their infant son, Xiongxiong, who was staying with Ellie’s parents in China. “Our baby!” Peter said.
The CBP agent asked what was in their bags and how much money they were carrying. Peter told him $9,900, just under the $10,000 limit on undeclared cash. Large bundles of currency might seem suspicious under normal circumstances, but it likely saved Peter and Ellie. Whether or not they had come to the U.S. exclusively to have a baby, the money showed they could pay for medical care. The agent waved them through. Ellie fought back tears as they went to pick up their Chevy rental car.
They spent 10 enchanted days in Hawaii, remarking the whole time how civilized everything was compared to Sanya. “They’re at the same latitude, but Hawaiians are nicer,” Peter says. “Here, they don’t inflate the bill and threaten to beat you if you object.”
The honeymoon ended during the descent to the Los Angeles International Airport. It was past midnight, and the city below was dark. It seemed empty compared to the blaring lights of Shanghai or Beijing. “Is this really America’s second largest city?” Peter thought. “The downtown is just a speck.” A man from Meizhao, their birth tourism company, met them at arrivals. They pulled up to Pheasant Ridge Luxury Apartment Homes (or “Peacock Park,” as it’s called in Chinese), the complex where their hotel was based, around 2 a.m. Entering their unit, Ellie couldn’t suppress her displeasure. The white carpet was mottled, the light fixtures dim, and the dining table covered with stains.
The hours they had spent looking at photos of the complex’s “upscale amenities” — the four tennis courts, the hot tub and pools, the fitness center, the pale-stucco buildings with shaded balconies — suddenly felt like a waste. “I wouldn’t have been so disappointed” Ellie says, “if I hadn’t had such high expectations.”
I met Peter and Ellie a few weeks later at their Pheasant Ridge apartment. The surrounding town of Rowland Heights — a census-designated place of 50,000 on the outskirts of L.A. — seemed like one endless strip mall. There were signs for ginger shops, bubble-tea cafés, Hong Kong bakeries, Tak Shing Hong Market, Kowloon Realty, Chong Hing Jewelers, Old Dongbei Restaurant. The area has a sizable Taiwanese population, which helps explain why it’s the center of Chinese birth tourism in southern California, if not the whole United States. In 2013, a Los Angeles County task force found that 22 out of 28 confirmed maternity hotels in the area were in Rowland Heights. By contrast, on TripAdvisor, the town is listed as having exactly two commercial hotels.
The Pheasant Ridge complex is on a four-lane road across from a mall. An American flag towers over the entrance and the driveway is lined with stars-and-stripes banners. Within the walled-in campus, dense clusters of interconnected, wood-sided buildings cover about 15 acres. During my visit, perhaps half a dozen maternity hotels operated there, but it was impossible to tell where one “hotel” began or ended. There were no signs, no visible markings. You might think it just happened to be a real estate development with a large proportion of pregnant Chinese tenants. On Yelp, where Pheasant Ridge has earned a paltry 1.5 stars, one reviewer seethed, “This place is not an apartment complex! It is a Chinese Maternity hotel!!!” (A Pheasant Ridge representative denied any knowledge of maternity hotels on its property.)
Peter answered the door in designer glasses and a blue polka-dot button down. Ellie hovered behind, cautious and very pregnant. The unit was a tidy two-bedroom with large windows, a broad white leather couch and a lacquered motel-style painting of poppies. The little kitchen was stocked with rice, soy sauce, spring onions and Häagen-Dazs ice cream bars. Peter fetched a Naked Juice from the fridge. “Can you believe this is 100 percent real?” He asked, flourishing a hand over the label.
In the bedroom a white four-post bed sat across from a TV that broadcast only Chinese channels, including the networks of far-flung provinces like Henan and Jiangxi. Peter complained that he wanted to watch American TV but couldn’t. “They,” he said, referring to Meizhao’s owners, “control it.”(A Meizhao representative said, “We are just like hotels. All we do is provide a service to our clients.”) The second bedroom was empty. Their former roommate, a woman from one of China’s interior provinces, had left with her baby a few days before.
Peter was thirty-eight but looked twenty-five. His face was unlined and his hair spunkily towel-dried. He had the exuberant gestures of a boy-band manager. Ellie was watchful and reserved. Her belly showed through an American Eagle sweatshirt. Plump lipped, with a bit of an underbite, she barely spoke at first. But when talk turned to her favored subjects — doctors, the dimness of American indoor lighting — she became almost joyfully opinionated.
Peter seemed in high spirits as he eagerly recounted their adventures. They’d seen the Lakers (“you can’t say you’ve been here unless you’ve seen Kobe”), gone to Venice Beach and visited UCLA (“one of the top twelve universities in the world”). In the mornings he went jogging in Peter F. Schabarum Park, snapping photos of the purple bougainvillea that tumbled over the walls. He enthused about how Americans were “high quality,” and how cars stopped for pedestrians: “That would never happen in China.” For Thanksgiving, the hotel had served turkey — “fire chicken” in Chinese — which he insisted he loved in the tone of someone straining to praise another culture’s weird food.
When Ellie spoke enthusiastically about shopping at outlets, Peter began rattling off brand names — American Eagle, Costco, Tommy Hilfiger, Cheese Factory (as he called Cheesecake Factory, despite having eaten there three times). We spoke in Chinese, but he peppered his sentences with garbled English words like nice and byoodful. A Mormon who spoke basic Chinese volunteered to come twice a week to teach English on subjects such as “Being Punctual” and “Strengthening the Youth,” but Peter’s attendance had been spotty. Ellie began retrieving things from the bedroom. She came out with a pile of baby onesies. “Look at all we got!” She said.
Peter joined her. Out came seven sets of baby clothes stitched with footballs and miniature Santa Clauses; two boxes of neon baby Nikes; two matching boxes of Peter-sized adult Nikes (“Look at the quality. These are real!”); submarine toys; a stuffed rabbit, a stuffed monkey, blankets and t-shirts in green, orange, yellow, navy and purple. They ran back and forth, eagerly laying out armfuls of purchases until they covered two couches like a stall for baby-care products in a bazaar.
When I asked how they could afford all of this, Peter tilted his head and the boyishness receded. “If I was truly rich, we wouldn’t have to be here,” he said. “If you have money it doesn’t matter if you’re born in America or China. In the future, no matter what, your life is secure. But us, we had to give up a lot to come here.”
Growing up in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, in pre-reform China, Peter was restricted to wearing three colors of clothing in standard patterns. Corporal punishment was still widespread; in third grade, he saw a friend beaten so badly by a teacher that he bled from the ears and his eyes were permanently crossed. (The teacher’s own daughter later jumped off a building and killed herself, which students saw as a kind of karmic justice.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peter, the youngest of three children, disliked school. He preferred to be outside shooting slingshots or fishing with his father.
Though offered a spot at a university in Qingdao, Peter decided to go to Beijing to work, while taking classes on the side. He shared a $45-a-month flat with his older brother, who let Peter sleep in the only bed. In their cramped quarters, Peter discovered bootleg American movies on VHS, and fell in love with the swagger of Schwarzenegger and Rambo. He also read widely. One of his favorite books was Fortress Besieged, a dark and witty Chinese novel about the struggles of a middle-class man trapped in a wretched marriage. The title derives from a French proverb, which compared marriage to a stormed fortress “where those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.”
After his mother died, Peter abandoned his studies and took a series of odd jobs. At 23, he sold off-brand shampoo door-to-door until a woman he met at a salon set him up selling life insurance policies outside malls and bus stations. He learned to be a charming salesman, but soon realized his lack of rich friends limited his potential in the field. He went into selling apple juice; then printer cartridges; then office supplies.
Starting out, he felt self-conscious about his relatively low status. “When you’re in the pit, at an all-time low, people don’t notice you at all,” he says. Everything changed when he gained some success: “Suddenly everyone wants to see you, to eat with you, to ask how you did it.” It only made him more cynical about China. “It’s all about how you look on the outside, if you have Prada or Miu Miu or Porsche,” he says. “Most Chinese are like that.”
Friends set Peter and Ellie up on a blind date in 2005. They went to a private driving school, where Peter — no longer restricted to blue, black and green outfits — sported a bright red Puma shirt and Adidas shoes. Ellie, who also worked in sales and came from a similarly rustic background in Heilongjiang, wore a jaunty fedora. When Peter saw the fiery way she slammed a car door, he was smitten. “Here was a girl who was not the kowtowing sort — she had swagger,” he says. “I like a girl with a man’s spirit.”
They dated for a few years. Peter did an online master’s program in business management and started his own real-estate development company. In 2009, they were married. Three years later, they bought a new apartment in a high-rise near a shopping center in a suburb of Beijing. But what they still lacked, like many middle-class urban Chinese, was a local ID. In China, public benefits such as education and health care are tied to one’s official place of residence; because Peter and Ellie were born outside Beijing, their children would have difficulty enrolling in the city’s public schools. More likely, they would have to spend high school hours away in the countryside, studying in the hometown Peter left years ago.
“When I go home, my classmates envy me, ‘You can stay in the city, that’s awesome.'” Peter says. “But we don’t think it’s awesome. We’ve wavered many times.”
Peter also saw time and again that people with high status and good personal connections (or guanxi) could take shortcuts to success. He saw one friend rig an open tender process to build a bridge by submitting five bids through phony companies, all with the blessing of government cronies. Another friend’s brother used high-level contacts to dispatch four police cars to comb a highway for a wallet he’d lost. Eventually, Peter grew tired of working within a corrupt system and felt called to the West: if life in Beijing seemed adventuresome, he thought, imagine what America was like?
On another visit to Pheasant Ridge, Peter introduced me to one of the managers at Meizhao, a vigorous, permed woman named Linda. She looked me up and down, and briskly began the tour, swinging her elbows as we marched the winding, shrub-lined paths. We followed her up a staircase to a second-floor model Meizhao unit with the same layout as Peter and Ellie’s, but with purple orchids, a pile of folded towels and complimentary Ultrabrite toothpaste laid out in the bathroom.
Peter asked if we could see the cafeteria, and Linda took us back downstairs to a converted ground-floor apartment where guests were coming and going with plastic take-out bags. Along one wall, steam trays held mushrooms, broccoli, sliced hot dogs and a brownish stew. A breakfast table was piled with bananas, coffee and Minute Maid orange juice. Linda lifted the lid on a tureen of fishball soup, rattling off some of the dietary do’s and don’ts for pregnant women. The daily cost for room and board was $115 per day for women during the pregnancy — twice that during the recovery period, when women are served five meals per day — and $40 a day for husbands. “We have two cooks,” Linda said. “One cooks in a northern [Chinese] style, one in a southern style. That way, everyone’s happy.”
Back outside, she gestured at an apartment where they did laundry. Up a narrow staircase, she opened the door to another converted unit, a dark, quiet room with an air purifier in one corner. This was the nursery. Nineteen bassinets stood in neat rows, each numbered in pink and blue. By a giant painting of a little blonde girl, a nurse checked off something on a clipboard. “Please don’t take photos,” Linda whispered, leaning in. “Some of our guests would rather not have it known in China that they’re here.”
In February 2013, the County of Los Angeles opened an investigation into maternity hotels after receiving a deluge of public complaints. The multi-agency team — which included the departments of public health, children and family services, public works and the fire department — received complaints of 97 locations in the county allegedly being used as maternity hotels and ultimately shut down 18 of them for zoning violations. At Pheasant Ridge, the task force found large-scale kitchens, laundry rooms and nurseries on the grounds, but when officials returned for a subsequent inspection the facilities had disappeared. (Of course, during my visit over a year later, all of these facilities were were up and running again.) Ultimately, no new ordinance targeting maternity hotels was passed in the area. The task force decided that “complaints beyond the scope of local zoning powers” would be referred to state and federal agencies.
Since then, local residents have provided a steady supply of complaints. Rossana Pilar Mitchell, a family lawyer in Chino Hills (the next town over from Rowland Heights) has led a grassroots campaign against maternity hotels. She first became aware of birth tourism in 2012, after an overstressed septic tank overflowed in a Chino Hills development. Sewage poured out onto neighbors’ lawns. As many as 30 pregnant Chinese women were housed in the hilltop single-family home. Soon after, Mitchell founded Not In Chino Hills, which sends tips to authorities and organizes protests outside suspected hotels.
“I feel offended by it,” Mitchell said, slapping the table with a diamond-encrusted hand. We’d met in her law offices in a faux Spanish-colonial strip mall. Mitchell and her family immigrated to the U.S. from Peru in 1971. Her father, an accountant, had come to the U.S. several years earlier, saving money and earning a green card before bringing his wife and eight children to Rowland Heights. Mitchell proudly noted that she and her siblings became doctors and lawyers. “My father knew poverty,” she said. “We all became citizens, a family of 10, but we did it the right way. You have to feel compassion for illegal immigrants. They come here and work so hard, and want to become American.”
Rossana Pilar Mitchell. Theonepointeight
Mitchell radiates the cheerful moral clarity of the school-board president she once was. “Coming here and buying a passport,” she said at one point, “that’s not what the American dream is all about.” She agreed to show me the site of a rumored hotel, and I followed her law practice’s pink van up into the hills. We pulled up to a stucco house. A white-haired man in his seventies named Bob Armitage met us in the driveway.
Armitage pointed to a house down the hill that had four cars parked outside it. “That’s where they are,” he said. “I call it the Hong Kong Hilton.” Armitage, a retired police officer, stepped off his lawn, which commanded a stunning view of the San Gabriel Mountains, and guided us across the street for a better view of the Hong Kong Hilton. On the way, he directed his complaints to Mitchell. “They’re not paying taxes, I’m sure of that,” he said. “I’ve been here eighteen years. I saw the situation start in Hacienda Heights and now this. You see pregnant women all day long.”
An Audi SUV came down the road and stopped beside us. The driver, a bald Hispanic man in his forties, introduced himself to me as Richard. He pointed down the hill. “Last week I saw six cars there, one was up on the lawn,” Richard said. “That’s what’s happening in Chino Hills.” He said the influx was driving families away. “I don’t imagine I’ll live here another ten years before I have to get out.”
Even as anger builds in communities frequented by birth tourists, it’s long been unclear what the government can do about it. After all, birth tourists, arriving on legal visas, aren’t breaking any laws while in the country. But as the issue has gained media coverage, federal agents have turned to a few tools at their disposal. Lying during an interview at the embassy — visa fraud — is a federal crime, as is tax fraud. Many maternity hotels coach their clients on what to say to U.S. consular officials, and, according to law enforcement, it appears few pay taxes.
In 2014, agents from DHS, the Internal Revenue Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement began a joint investigation into maternity hotels east of L.A. The Rowland Heights investigation, overseen by Special Agent Jared Harada, focused on one particular complex: Pheasant Ridge. The specific hotel in his crosshairs, though, was not Meizhao, but Starbabycare, on the opposite side of the campus from Peter and Ellie.
Beginning in July 2014, Harada sent an undercover informant — a Mandarin speaker who’d been caught shoplifting — to Pheasant Ridge posing as the cousin of a pregnant woman from a city in northeastern China. Over the next several months, the informant wore a wire to meetings at Pheasant Ridge and spent $1,600 for a deposit on the top-of-the-line “One Dragon Service,” which included airport pickup, hotel stay, nursing care and booking fees. Meanwhile, a Mandarin-speaking agent made monitored phone calls to the hotel pretending to be the pregnant woman in China, who was characterized as the stay-at-home wife of an appliance repairman.
Agent Harada even took a turn playing a pregnant woman on email, and sent queries in Chinese from at least two phony accounts: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. At one point he claimed, with deep pathos, that his — that is, the non-existent pregnant woman’s — husband had lost his job. He enlisted another agent to help him read online forums of prospective birth mothers, and watched Starbabycare YouTube videos, including one in which the host boasted of its “five-star golf villa birthing house.”
From July to February, over the entire time Peter and Ellie were at Pheasant Ridge, Harada and his team conducted periodic surveillance from the parking lot. They were particularly focused on a parking spot associated with the operators of Starbabycare hotel roughly 100 yards from Peter and Ellie’s room. Agents ran the plates on other parked cars too, and noted units where pregnant women were observed. They performed traffic stops, asking for guests’ passports, job information and purpose in the U.S., which could subsequently be checked against State Department records of their interviews.
During one stop, a male passenger admitted he was the father of a baby on board, and handed the agent his business card from a Chinese asset management company jointly owned by the insurance giant Prudential. Another tourist had told a consular officer back in China that he was traveling to the United States to see a WWE wrestling match in Chicago. In March 2015, a judge granted DHS warrants to search three maternity hotels. It might not be enough to stop 60,000 couples, but perhaps it could send a message.
After the tour of Pheasant Ridge, I met Peter, Ellie, and some of their new maternity hotel friends for lunch at Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot. Old Cheng, a portly man with the air of a disgruntled toad, silently extended a hand. He worked for a manufacturer of dialysis devices. His blushing, apple-cheeked wife, Little Jiang, was six-months pregnant and tittering like a kid at the grownup table. At the far end was a graceful, soft-spoken woman named Zhou, whose husband was back in China. As the piles of raw thin-sliced beef, tofu and iced shrimp came out, Little Jiang asked whether Americans celebrate birthdays. Her husband answered sharply before I could say anything. “Of course they do!” Old Cheng said. “At the supermarket I saw they sell cards for people aged two to sixty five.”
After lunch, we returned to Old Cheng’s unit. We sat on the couches and torpor descended; if this was life at a maternity hotel, it felt something like an off-season cruise. Conversation drifted to race (“I instinctively fear black people,” Little Jiang said) and the difference between beggars in the U.S. and China (“At least in China they kneel on the ground,” she said. “Here they act very entitled”).
In a corner on a plump white leather loveseat, Peter produced a manila folder with price sheets in Chinese that listed the costs for natural births ($2,500) and C-sections ($5,200). He and Ellie were debating between Garfield Medical Center, seemingly the most popular choice at Pheasant Ridge, and Monterey Park Medical Center, which Ellie said was warmer inside. Old Cheng was quizzing me on the functions of American dialysis-related apps that he’d downloaded onto a Surface tablet. Peter saw my discomfort and dashed off to the kitchen, returning with two beers. “Have you tried this?” he asked, gleefully snapping off the tops of two Bud Lights. “It’s my new favorite.”
The next morning, Ellie had her first doctor’s visit. The hotel had given them a list of recommended OBGYNs, and after much debate they had chosen Dr. Jiunn-Bor Jason Hwang, a Taiwanese-American popular with Chinese mothers. “Have you heard of him?” Ellie asked. “He’s very famous.” Peter scurried about in a lime-green camo jacket, alternately obeying Ellie’s demands and offering me bites of his leftover fried eggs, chili sauce and cured sausage. They had to hurry: on weekdays Dr. Hwang’s office saw patients first come, first served.
They were carpooling with Zhou, Old Cheng and Little Jiang, and Peter left to go knock on their door. A second later the phone rang. “Come back now,” Ellie cried. “They called!” Ellie drove off in Zhou’s Jeep, while Peter rode with me. He slid into his seat holding a silver backpack. It was a drizzly day and L.A.’s morning gridlock was especially sluggish. As we pulled into the carpool lane Peter waved a feverish hand at the wall of vehicles out his window. “Why is everyone alone in their cars?”
The group from Pheasant Ridge was nearly the first to arrive at the doctor’s office. The women took seats while the men stood, studying the numerous Christmas and thank-you cards taped to one wall. A swarm of photos showed Dr. Hwang cradling babies in the same pose over the years — his youthful smile slowly becoming a stoic grimace. Christmas holly hung over a reception window framed by a Chinese scroll. Signs on the wall warned that credit cards would not be accepted.
Ellie’s Chinese name was called. She stepped forward wearing a black sweatshirt, gray tights and a leopard-print pea coat, looking like a starlet in disguise. Peter unzipped the backpack and counted out stacks of twenties.
“Do you have $3,000 cash?” the receptionist asked.
“I have $2,000 now,” Peter said. “Is that OK?”
The receptionist put the stack through the bill counter with a whir. A dozen pregnant Chinese women sat in the windowless waiting room. I heard someone ask about me, “Who’s the foreigner?”
An hour and a half later, Ellie was called into the examination room. Dr. Hwang had her lie back on the table. He asked if she knew the sex of the child.
“Yes,” said Ellie, who had hoped their second child would be a girl. “Is it still a boy?”
“It’s still a boy.”
Ellie frowned in good-humored disappointment. Dr. Hwang rubbed sensors over her belly, and, pointing to the ultrasound, said. “This is the head, these are the testicles, this is the amniotic fluid.”
Afterward, Ellie was irritated. In Beijing, she said, “they give you lots of time. The rooms are big, with high ceilings, and they heat up the gel before putting it on you.” I asked what else they missed about China. They both named a pickled vegetable, suan cai. When we got to the apartment, Ellie added, “It’s so lonely in America. All there is to do is shop.”
For critics of birth tourism, the problem tends to be as much emotional or philosophical as it is legal. It seems viscerally unfair that foreigners with money can swoop in, give birth and go home with a U.S. passport that allows their child to attend American public schools. Moreover, when children who are citizens turn 21, they can sponsor their parents and immediate relatives to become citizens as well, making birth tourism a means of immigration for entire families. While the numbers are still tiny compared to illegal immigration, the idea that American citizenship has become a prestige commodity for the global elite can generate understandable offense.
Under the 14th Amendment, every person born in the US — except the children of foreign diplomats — is a citizen. Though the amendment was originally meant to bestow citizenship to former slaves, the 1898 Supreme Court case of Wong Kim Ark, an American-born son of Chinese nationals denied citizenship due to a ban on Chinese immigration at the time, extended birthright citizenship to everyone. According to employees at the Beijing embassy, new consular officials are shown a slide at training that asks, “Is it illegal to come to the US to give birth?” Next slide: “No.”
Birth tourists who lie in a visa interview could be charged with fraud, but, in practice, the most likely penalty is being denied a visa on future applications. (Nine out of 10 Chinese applicants for tourist visas succeed, with some 1.4 million granted last year). Gary Chodorow, an immigration lawyer in Beijing, who has represented Chinese clients barred from the US for allegedly lying in their visa interviews, bemoans the government’s scattershot effort to deter birth tourists. “Realistically, they’re not likely to be punishable,” he says. “Prosecution of a few people is not going to solve this.”
Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank for tighter immigration laws, argues birth tourism sullies the “reciprocity in citizenship.” As a worst-case scenario, he offers, it could lead to his son being sent to fight in a military operation overseas to save a passport holder with tenuous ties to the U.S. “The problem here is that citizenship is a social contract among citizens,” he says. “When you’re not socialized as an American, you don’t know the Fourth of July, you’re not watching American TV, you’re not contributing to society. At least kids born to illegal aliens are socialized as citizens. Illegal immigration in this way may be less problematic than birth tourism, even though it’s much bigger.”
On the other hand, Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law scholar at UCLA, believes birth tourism could serve as a kind of screening process. If America wants immigrants with money, foresight and skills, he reasons, we could do worse than getting the kids of parents willing to spend thousands of dollars on improving their children’s chances to get a top-notch education. “It’s valorizing all the things Congress is looking for,” Motomura says. “In a roundabout way, admittedly.” A student with a US passport raised in Taiwan thrived in his class at UCLA — and he’s heard about many similar students who seem committed to a future in America. “We may be skeptical that these Chinese kids will become Americans,” he says, “but my sense is that the ones who have come back here, they’re going to be a part of American society.”
Unless you’re very rich in China, it’s extremely difficult — sometimes impossible — to get the things most Americans take for granted. While the U.S. middle class envies China’s promise of growth, the Chinese middle class covets America’s potable tap water, safe food and top-tier universities. For all its strengths, China is a country in which 16,000 pig carcasses were found floating in the water supply of its richest city, and in which the capital’s air was so bad that, between 2008 and 2014, only 25 days out of 2,028 would be considered “good” by US standards. Add to that a spotty and hyper-competitive education system, and an unprecedented crackdown on lawyers who defend citizens’ rights, and you can understand why, in 2014, nearly half of wealthy Chinese surveyed intended to emigrate within half a decade.
Peter’s friend Wesley, who came to the U.S. with his wife to give birth last year, argues their cohort should be more warmly welcomed in America. The reason so many people want to come, he says, is that they are tired of the hypocrisy in China. “We’re totally different from Mexicans or Chinese from Fujian,” he says. “We’re highly educated, experienced, well-established in our fields and love the American lifestyle.”
Peter and Ellie became almost defiant when asked if they felt it unfair for people like them to effectively buy citizenship for their children. “We’ve got two kids,” Peter said. “We’re doing all we can for them. What else is there to say?”
On January 18, 2015, I received a text message from Peter: “Ben, my wife gave birth at 7:30 in the evening, a boy weighing 8.5 pounds, 20.5 inches. Mother and baby are healthy.”
When I returned to Pheasant Ridge on a warm morning in February, Peter was groggy. The once-neat apartment was piled with shoeboxes, cribs, strollers and suitcases heaped six feet high. Their new roommate, an accountant from Shanghai, went in and out of her bedroom to nurse her newborn. Trays of shrink-wrapped soup bowls and empty baby bottles cluttered the tabletops. “Baby isn’t awake yet,” Peter whispered. A soft mewling came through the bedroom door. A moment later Ellie padded out in long-sleeved leopard-print pajamas, holding their baby. “Here he is,” Peter said. “Say hi to uncle.”
Peter and Ellie with their American baby. Zachary Bako
Peter brought out the passport, presenting it with two hands like a ceremonial sword. They had hired an agent who charged $200 and drove them to the Placentia public library, on a street called All American Way, to submit the passport application. In the photo, their new American son had bed head and unfocused eyes. It would be years before he could write his name on the blank signature page.
Ellie had given birth three weeks earlier, meaning that she was still in what Chinese call the “sitting month.” In China, postnatal confinement is a serious business. It’s widely believed that failing to rest after birth will lead to poor health and chronic illness. Women are supposed to avoid breezes, wear thick socks, and abstain from sex, the Internet and washing their hair. After the birth of their first son, Xiongxiong, in Beijing, Ellie was not allowed to read books, and could only listen to TV shows that Peter was watching in the other room. In the U.S., however, she was surprisingly cavalier. A week after the C-section, she began bathing. During the day, she watched Empresses in the Palace, a soap opera about the intrigues of an ambitious concubine in the Qing emperor’s court. She and Peter soon left the apartment to go shopping.
“The most important thing,” she said of her sitting month, “is to stay warm and out of the wind.” My eyes wandered to the open balcony door a few feet from where we were sitting. She waved a hand dismissively. “Some of the rules are really inconvenient,” she said. “Anyway, it’s all old-fashioned.”
The Yangs flew back to Beijing two days later, just in time for the Lunar New Year. My wife and I visited them in their small flat in a high-rise Beijing apartment bloc. Ellie’s parents made dumplings, while the baby slept on the bed. Ellie was already talking about returning to the U.S. “Look at how expensive China is,” she said, thrusting a photo of Lindt candies at us. “A hundred yuan” — about $16 — “for a bag of chocolates. It makes me so mad!” They were planning to move into a new apartment, but Ellie insisted they not buy expensive furniture, “because we might be going back soon.”
To keep up the good feelings among his Pheasant Ridge cohort, Peter created a WeChat group called U.S. Baby Daddies, inviting 80 men from all over China — friends, acquaintances and friends of friends — who had gone to the U.S. to have a child, or were planning to. In the inaugural message, he described its purpose as “giving dads who have an American life” a place to “set up adventures.” In little time, the group swelled to more than 100 members.
China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. Peter and Ellie’s son will have to decide whether he wants to keep his Chinese or his American nationality.
In his group messages, Peter congratulated new babies by name, and shared inspirational articles such as “Why Your Friend Circle Means Everything.” Other dads polled the group: “Brothers, have your wives been producing less breast milk since coming back?” It was also a platform to commiserate. Days after returning, Zhou’s husband cursed China’s “gangster economy, gangster politics” and the ubiquitous “stink of money.”
“I know,” Peter responded. “That’s what’s throwing me back to America.”
Still, it’s far from clear how Peter, Ellie, and thousands of other Chinese couples like them will build a life between the two countries. There are only a few ways for Peter to immigrate to the U.S. before his American son can sponsor him 21 years from now. One is to get hired by a U.S. company and earn a green card — unlikely, given his lack of English skills. The other is to invest $500,000 — or about 15 times what they spent to get the passport — in a U.S. business through the EB-5 program, which grants citizenship to about 10,000 foreigners each year who create at least 10 American jobs. At any rate, Peter and Ellie’s son may not end up a U.S. citizen at all. China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. Under current regulations, when he turns eighteen, he will have to decide whether he wants to keep his Chinese or his American nationality.
Two weeks after Peter and Ellie left Rowland Heights, dozens of officers from DHS and other agencies passed through the gate of the western wing of Pheasant Ridge. The agents had warrants to search 11 units.
At one, a woman surnamed Huang answered the knocks in her pajamas, thinking it was the staff of Starbabycare coming to deliver food or inform her of a package. Her mother and three-week-old baby were asleep inside. Three uniformed men and a female Chinese translator were on the landing. Despite the translator’s assurances that Huang was not under arrest, she was terrified that they were going to deport her and take away her baby’s Social Security card.
“Did you intend to come to the U.S. to give birth?” An agent asked. He wanted to see receipts from the maternity hotel, the OBGYN and the hospital. When Huang admitted she had applied for welfare — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) — the agent grew stern. “That’s for citizens, not foreigners,” he said, according to Huang. “Who told you you could do that?”
“The maternity hotel said we could,” Huang replied.
The agents said they’d be in touch if they had any further questions and left. Despite Huang’s fears, calm quickly returned to Pheasant Ridge. In the eastern side of the complex, where Peter and Ellie stayed, life continued as usual. Birth tourists, including Old Cheng, Little Jiang and Zhou, slept soundly through the search and finished their stays in peace. They shopped online, went to Costco, took roadtrips, held barbecues and posted gloating pictures of their fresh-grilled hamburgers on WeChat. Five months after the raid, no birth tourists who stayed at Pheasant Ridge have been arrested. Ten who stayed at a different maternity hotel, however, were charged with visa fraud, but all of them had already returned to China. DHS says the investigation is ongoing.
The last time I saw Peter in Rowland Heights, we took a walk to Peter F. Schabarum Regional Park, where he often went to exercise. The grounds, hilly and covered with soft grass, were bathed in afternoon light. Peter told me that if they ever had the chance to move back, he’d want to live near a park like this so he could run with the boys. He nodded at three girls scampering nearby. “Like them,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about getting hit by cars, or getting carried off by bad people.”
I decided not to spoil the mood by pointing out that America, like everywhere, has traffic accidents and bad people — not to mention bad businessmen, bad politicians, and bad schools. Peter was full of dreams for America, thinking up new ventures — starting a car rental company, or a real-estate venture, or perhaps opening a legal, above-board maternity hotel of his own. He took pleasure in discovering bigger, more beautiful places to go, and now he was imagining a future where his children could go further by getting the education he never quite managed for himself. If a vision of a rosier future was all he got for his $35,000, perhaps it was enough.
As we left the park we tried to guess which of the pedestrians we passed were raised in China, and which in the U.S. Some walked upright, in what we took to be a Chinese style, with their elbows tucked in and at a subdued pace. Others swayed from side to side, bending deeply in a stereotypically American strut. Peter tapped me on the shoulder and began aping a swagger. “In ten years,” he said, with a big grin, “maybe this is how I’m going to walk.”