The so-called "birthing houses" that federal agents searched throughout Southern California yesterday are part of what some say is a growing phenomenon.
Authorities searched apartment complexes in Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties Tuesday, where suspected "maternity tourism" operators housed women from China who were intent on delivering their babies in the United States, for a hefty fee.
In the San Gabriel Valley, cops say these operations have become relatively commonplace.
"People within the city...will call and say they have been noticing a growing number of pregnant women walking around our neighborhood, and they seem to be coming and going out of this particular residence," said Lt. Roy Nakamura with the Arcadia Police Department.
For about three years, the department has charged a detective with investigating these reports. Nakamura says that since then, cops in Arcadia alone have uncovered about a dozen small-scale operations in rental homes, housing five or six women, often Chinese nationals.
"We've had a good number of these reports, and we've shut down quite a bit of operations with this position that we've created here," Nakamura said.
In 2011, about 10 newborns and a dozen Chinese nationals were found in a townhouse in nearby San Gabriel that had been illegally converted into a maternity ward.
Operations like these have become a growing trend in the last decade or so, especially in Southern California, said Bill Ong Hing, who teaches immigration law at the University of San Francisco.
“I do think that the fact that you are seeing reports of this more and more," Hing said, "is an indication that there is a business going on, and that someone is making money off this.”
The promise of U.S. citizenship for clients' children is the obvious draw, he said.
Authorities in Tuesday's raid said clients were being charged up to $50,000, and that the suspected birthing houses were advertising their services abroad, according to the Associated Press.
In this latest case, authorities are looking into possible visa fraud, with women being coached to lie about their plans when applying for their tourist visas. But in most cases, there's nothing technically illegal being done, Nakamura said.
"There is no special law that prevents someone from giving birth in our country," he said.
There isn't. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that children born on U.S. soil are automatically United States citizens. Some conservative lawmakers have pushed to change this rule in recent years, but those efforts fell flat.
Female travelers' due dates are considered when they are admitted to the United States, but it's up to the admitting officer. From the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website:
When determining if you will be allowed to enter the U.S., CBP Officers take into consideration the date your child is due for delivery and the length of time you intend to stay in the U.S. In addition, they want evidence that you have sufficient medical insurance to cover any medical necessities while you are in the U.S. and that you intend to return home.
Nakamura said that in the cases his department has discovered, there's little more cops have been able to do other than notify immigration authorities - and property owners. The small operations they've found are typically housed in rentals.
"Once we bring it to the attention of the property owners, they usually terminate the lease, and the operation stops," he said.
Nakamura said that after a wave of busts, his agency has seen fewer birthing house cases lately - in Arcadia, at least, where word has mostly likely gotten around.