Pregnant and Bound for America: Why Chinese Moms Want to Give Birth on U.S. Soil

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This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global—news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Economic Observer.

When Liu Li boarded a plane for the United States, she had a little bit of makeup on, was wearing a loose dress, and had her hair up. She tried to hold her handbag in front of her belly in a natural way, just as the middleman had taught her. She was trying to look as calm as any wealthy Chinese lady would look when travelling abroad. But Liu Li couldn't help feeling terribly nervous: she was six months pregnant when she left for the United States, where she wanted to give birth to an American citizen.

Liu Li knew that going through customs would be a lot easier than obtaining a U.S. visa. In order to obtain the tourist visa that enabled her to go to America for the delivery, she had to carefully choose her clothes, and spend a lot of time practicing her walking and interview techniques. She memorized a host of details about her hotel booking and about famous sight-seeing spots so as to convince the Embassy officer that she was just another Chinese woman going shopping in the States.

The temptation of a 'born in the USA' child

Giving birth to a child abroad is not a privilege reserved to the stars and the very wealthy. An increasing number of expectant middle-class parents also fancy giving their children passports that they can feel proud of. "The return on investment is higher than robbing a bank," the consultancy agent tells women such as Liu. When Chinese children are born in America, they automatically become U.S. citizens. Once they reach 21, their parents will be able to apply for green cards and emigrate.

Those who would prefer a closer destination can go to Hong Kong, whose passport gives access to more than 120 countries without the need of a visa. Advantages include the fact that children will receive bilingual education (which will give them a foothold in the international world), and the fact that they will also enjoy the preferential policies for going to Chinese universities.

After consulting quite a few agencies for expectant mothers, Liu Li chose a reputable one. Airplane tickets, fees for labor, pre- and post-delivery care cost her roughly 20,000. Since most airlines refuse to accept women passengers who are more than 32 weeks pregnant, Liu Li set off for America when she was six months pregnant and then checked into a Chinese birthing center in California.

After her arrival, Liu Li realized that the area was full of facilities set up for Chinese women like herself. On the limited occasions when Liu Li goes to the Punete Hill Mall near her birthing center — the facility limits walks outside its premises to three per week, each time for about three hours — Liu Li bumps into lots of pregnant Chinese women. Birthing centers such as Liu Li's, which are mostly situated in America's beautiful west coastal areas, operate without a business license, and try to be as discreet as possible. In April, a number of illegally converted maternity centers in Los Angeles were discovered and shut down, which makes Liu Li very nervous.

Incompatible nationalities

Going to the United States to give birth and taking a foreign born child back to China usually proves relatively easy. The difficult part starts only later, as Song Jingwen is starting to understand. Because her son has a U.S. passport, the law does not allow him to be registered in his mother's local area, which means that he will not be automatically admitted to Chinese schools. Song will have to register him as a foreigner, and pay an extra fee. His access to education and health care also faces a lot of constraints.

"Some parents obtain fake birth certificates for their children, or cheat the Chinese Embassy to get them Chinese passports. But then they can't get visas or go abroad," Song explains. She is still hesitating on what to do next. If Song gets her son a fake hukou (the Chinese registration system), which would make it easier for him to go to a local school, she fears that all the efforts she has made up to now could be in vain.

A few years ago, Zhao Yong easily obtained a Shanghai hukou for his American born child. "Every time we want to go to the States, we have to get the Hongkong-Macao permit to go though Chinese customs, go to Hong Kong, then fly to the United States and enter the country with the American passport," Zhao Yong says. "The trip is a little bit complicated, but if we fly directly from Shanghai to the States, we won't be able to hide the truth."

Under Chinese law, double nationality is prohibited. According to the American Embassy, once a child has obtained a Chinese hukou, he is considered to have given up his American nationality. The United States is not the only country with strict regulations. A child born in Hong Kong doesn't get the Hong Kong resident identity card right away, but has to go back to Hong Kong regularly — every year or two until he is 18 — in order to register as a "returned resident," and keep his nationality.

The so-called 'citizen's welfare'

According to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. constitution (ratified in 1868), anyone born in United States automatically becomes an American citizen and obtains access to public education, university loans, voting, and so on... Even so, if one does not work in America or pay taxes after the age of 15, one can only enjoy very limited access to U.S. welfare benefits. "The system doesn't totally exclude people who don't pay taxes here, but those who do not pay as much tax as Americans do cannot expect the same benefits. But each state has different regulations," says Mr. Yang, a Chinese born man who works in New Jersey and has a green card.

"Giving birth to a child in the States is a wonderful dream, but a very costly one too," Song Jingwen concludes. "People who choose to go down this path must know that they will not be paying only for birthing and post birthing care, but they will also be paying a lot more for the whole life."

(All names used in this article are pseudonyms)

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