In Depth

What is ‘birth tourism’ and why is the US trying to stamp out the practice?

State Department gives visa officers new powers to block pregnant women from entering the country

The Donald Trump administration has unveiled new rules designed to deter pregnant women from travelling to the US to give birth.

Pregnant women applying for a US visitor visa may now have to prove they have an identifiable reason for going there other than having their baby on US soil - which is not “a legitimate activity for pleasure or of a recreational nature”, according to a State Department spokesperson. 

So what triggered the crackdown on so-called “birth tourism” and why is it so controversial?

What is birth tourism?

Birth tourism is the practice of travelling to another country for the purpose of giving birth there, usually to obtain citizenship for the child, using birthright citizenship laws.

As far back as the early 1980s, The New York Times was reporting on Mexican mothers travelling to the US in an attempt to secure American citizenship and a chance of a better life for their children. 

Demand for help in gaining access to the US is increasingly being fed by illegal “maternity tourism” operations. In 2015, federal authorities in southern California conducted widespread searches as part of an investigation into businesses suspected of charging women up to $60,000 to pave the way for them to give birth in the country.

And a Chinese woman last year pleaded guilty in the US to federal charges of running a birth tourism scheme for Chinese nationals who paid a total of more than $3m (£2.3m) in wire transfers. 

Just how how great is the problem?

No official data is available for how many birth tourism babies are born in the US. The State Department has said only that “thousands of children” are born in the county each year to people who are either visiting or conducting business on non-immigrant visas.

However, various groups have offered estimates. According to the BBC, latest figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that around 10,000 babies were born to foreign residents in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Center for Immigration Studies, which campaigns for tight immigration laws, estimates that about 33,000 children were born to women on temporary tourist visas in the year from mid 2016. 

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Why is the US cracking down?

The White House says birth tourism is putting additional pressure on hospital resources. In a statement this week, press secretary Stephanie Grisham said the new ban would “defend American taxpayers from having their hard-earned dollars siphoned away to finance the direct and downstream costs” associated with such cases.

The State Department also claims that some of the countries linked to birth tourism “have very sensitive relationships with the United States” and might use the practice “for purposes that would threaten the security” of the nation. The department did not clarify the nature of the potential threat or which countries might be involved.

The renewed opposition to birth tourism may also be linked to the upcoming presidential election.

The NPR news site reports that Trump “has been a frequent critic of birthright citizenship”. The 2015 reports of birth tourism operations in California prompted the then White House hopeful to call for eliminating birthright citizenship entirely.

Trump also “revived the discussion just before the 2018 midterm elections - and his administration is taking it up again now, ahead of the 2020 presidential vote”, the site notes.

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