Authorities have closed three upscale townhouses that were operating as a maternity center for Chinese mothers paying thousands of dollars to give birth in the United States so the children would automatically gain citizenship.
Police and city inspectors found seven newborns and two mothers when they closed the homes for building code violations on March 8 in San Gabriel, a suburb east of Los Angeles that is home to a large Asian population.
The women, who were Chinese and Taiwanese nationals and spoke little English, told officials their families had paid to send them to the United States to give birth, said city code compliance officer Clayton Anderson. He did not know how much was paid.
The women stayed at the center before and after giving birth at local hospitals, Anderson said.
The three homes, part of a five-unit condo development on a quiet residential street, had adjoining inside walls removed and had rooms divided so mothers each had separate spaces, Anderson said.
The babies were kept in clear plastic bassinets in a kitchen converted into a nursery.
"There was a woman there who said she was a nurse but she kind of scrambled away when we got there," Anderson said.
The women and babies were taken to another location after the homes were deemed unsafe for occupancy because structural walls had been breached.
U.S. law automatically entitles children born on U.S. soil to citizenship, and it is not illegal for pregnant women to visit the U.S. to give birth.
Women from other countries have long traveled to the U.S. legally on tourist or student visas and given birth, but this case is unusual in that it appears to involve an organized business, experts said.
"The reports up to now have been about travel agencies abroad that specialized in this, but they send one person at a time here," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies. "What this could suggest is ... they're taking it to the next step. Whoever is organizing this type of operation is buying or leasing a home to become a clearing house. That's a serious problem."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement would only investigate if the case involved fraudulently obtained visas, agency spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.
Republican lawmakers have targeted limiting automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. and earlier this year said they hoped to trigger a Supreme Court review of the Constitution's 14th Amendment or force Congress to take action with legislation they've drafted on the issue.
Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King sponsored a bill that would limit automatic citizenship to people with at least one parent who is a citizen, a legal permanent resident or served in the military, but there has been little movement on the legislation since it was introduced.
Some states, too, have tried to take steps to limit birthright citizenship. Last week, Arizona's state Senate rejected illegal immigration bills that included measures intended to produce a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on who is entitled to U.S. citizenship at birth under the 14th Amendment.
But Rep. Judy Chu, D-El Monte, said traveling to this country to give birth is not a common practice and defended automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S.
"The 14th Amendment is fundamental to the U.S. and too important to change because of the practice of a few," she said "It would be a severe disservice to our nation if millions of immigrants are painted with the same brush."
Chapman University law professor Maria Cianciarulo, who specializes in immigration, said she's never heard of a maternity house, noting that birthing tourism is a tiny fraction of the flow of immigrants and tourists into the United States.
Workers at the San Gabriel house were busy Thursday restoring it to its original state as ordered by the city.
Property manager Dwight Chang was fined $800 for construction without a permit and operating a business in a residential zone. He told city officials that he had rented the townhomes to a woman. A phone message left at Chang's business, Ta Way Development in Arcadia, was not immediately returned.
The city investigation, which included police and child protective services, was prompted by neighbors' complaints of noise at night and a lot of activity at the house at all hours, said Jennifer Davis, community development director.
Neighbor William Padgett, who has lived on the street for 22 years, said he often saw groups of women in the advanced stages of pregnancy taking walks in the neighborhood and a lot of cars in the middle of the night.
"I knew something from the get-go was going on," he said. "There was a lot of coming and going."
Mayor David Gutierrez said he understood why some foreign citizens would wish to have their children in the U.S.
"They should certainly be commended for looking at the future welfare of their children but we need to be very careful that as a result it doesn't impact services and quality of life that we provide for U.S. residents," he said.
Associated Press writers Bob Jablon and Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
© 2011 The Associated Press.