Another Form of Immigrant Exploitation: Birth Tourism

The idea of ‘birth tourism’ has long been dangled as a spectre of fear and terror by the right, which wants us to think that unwanted hordes are flooding into the US to give birth here in order to offer their children US citizenship. While it’s true that children born on US soil receive US citizenship, and that to some extent people have planned travel around that fact in some cases, to characterise it as some sort of social epidemic is a bit much — and a bit racist, given that the focus tends to be on Latin American immigrant parents as though they personally are responsible for the downfall of society.

Yet, birth tourism is alive and real, and the victim of exploitation is not the precious lily-white sanctity of the United States, but the immigrant parents themselves. In the Bay Area, a number of ‘birthing homes’ have sprung up to accommodate wealthy Chinese mothers who travel to the United States to give birth. It can cost up to $60,000 in combined fees to cover room and board, hospital visits, tourist visas, and the other costs of relocating to the US during the third trimester, all in order to bring a child home with a US passport.

Such businesses were common in Southern California and have started spreading up the state, as many people see them as a profitable model. Often, they involve the conversion of private homes, which raises uncomfortable questions about health and safety for residents, in addition to unsettling and angering neighbours who didn’t sign up for a boarding house in their community. They’re turning a hefty profit on their residents, but is it fair? Some might say it’s all part of the entrepreneurial spirit of the US, but I see it as more exploitative and gross than that.

High fees like these are comparable to those charged to smuggle people across the border, highlighting the fact that people are willing to pay a lot of money to get into the United States, which is something we already know. In this case, paying the fees ends in legal US citizenship by birthright, which can make them a tempting proposition, but it puts extreme pressure on Chinese women to consider birth tourism even if they can’t afford it, in order to keep up with their compatriots. It’s also liable to put a strain on US-China relations as the conservative element in the United States will be unhappy about it.

It’s also just troubling to move people around like a human cargo, and to charge them exorbitant fees for facilitating birth tourism. There’s nothing wrong with being born in the US and having a US citizenship, and later deciding to return to the US and establish a life here: you have a right to do so just like everyone else, and you will be paying taxes and participating in society just like everyone else. There is something wrong with a commercial web that ensnares women and forces them to spend their final trimesters in cramped boarding houses as they wait to attempt to birth a better opportunity for their children.

It also makes me worry about the future for immigration controls into the US. Will US airports be instructed to turn back obviously pregnant women or those in their third trimester, with supporters arguing that this discrimination is necessary to prevent birth tourism? Will we refuse to grant visas to pregnant women? Will Congress attempt to fundamentally change the way citizenship is granted in the US to take birthright citizenship away, thus limiting options and creating even more of an exclusive insiders club within the United States, a country that everyone wants to get in to, and few people seem to qualify for.

The United States has a long history of discriminating against immigrants on variously highly dubious grounds, and pregnancy seems like an easy way to profile people. Pregnant people shouldn’t be harassed or made to feel unwelcome upon entering the US, whether they are returning citizens, visitors, or, yes, people who are coming here with the intent of delivering here. This sets up a very dangerous precedent that we should be uncomfortable with if we’re concerned about our collective future — and yet, I see birth tourism framed in a primarily negative, hostile way.

Instead of abusing women who pursue this option, we should be asking why it’s so appealing, and how it sets up avenues for the possibility of extreme exploitation. I’m troubled by birth tourism not because I think we should be finding new and creative ways to deny citizenship, but because I worry that this is yet another new and creative way to exploit people who so desperately want to pursue the American Dream they’ve been sold in the media and in pop culture. The America that is here waiting for them is not the world of imagination, not even a little bit.

Image: Apple I, Eden Chalumeau, Flickr.