Last March, federal agents from the FBI, IRS and Homeland Security Investigations ripped through dozens of apartments and several homes in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties, targeting locations they believed to be so-called "birthing houses"–essentially, dorms for birth-tourism agencies that offer vacation-like packages for pregnant couples in China seeking to give birth on American soil.
In an apartment building just across the street from John Wayne Airport, agents found dozens of women and babies and a handful of mostly Mandarin-speaking cooks and nurses. The investigators seized boxes upon boxes worth of documents, notebooks and computers.
The Chinese birth-tourism industry in Southern California, which has operated for years more or less undisturbed, was blown up.
But how does it work? How do these women get from China to Southern California–and why? Well, it's just like how you'd buy a vacation package.
Plentiful ads in Chinese newspapers and on Chinese websites extol the benefits of United States citizenship, from easier access to American universities and government jobs to the travel privileges associated with an American passport. These ads are placed by companies that offer birthing packages to wealthy Chinese. Often (as was the case with You Win USA Vacation Resort, an OC-based firm raided in March), the companies are run by recent immigrants to the United States with staff or business partners in China.
The packages include everything from room and board to pre- and post-natal care, holiday excursions, and help navigating the United States bureaucracy.
As part of its investigation, Homeland Security sent undercover agents to patronize You Win USA Vacation Resort. According to an unsealed affidavit, Chao "Edwin" Chen told an undercover agent that the company would help a family member apply for a visa while giving the agent a tour of one of You Win's rented apartments at the Carlyle, a luxury apartment complex in Irvine whose amenities include poolside flat-screen TVs, outdoor fireplaces and a concierge service.
"In China, I have the visa. . . . I have employees who handle visas–everything is there," Chen allegedly told an agent. "I will tell my colleagues in China to call her. They will tell her to send an email to him and what [documents] she needs to prepare. . . . After she has all of them ready, they will help her make an appointment to go to the United States Embassy."
When asked if Chen's employees would help prepare someone for the interview, Chen replied, "They'll prep her on how to . . . for example, how to answer the questions," according to the affidavit.
While it is not illegal for people to travel to the United States to give birth, difficulty in acquiring visas leads birth-tourism companies to have their clients apply for tourist visas and to keep up appearances of being a tourist. When a pregnant woman purchases a birthing package in China, she will often be trained online or in person by an employee of the birthing company on how to complete the visa process, from what documentation is needed to what might be asked and even what a person should wear.
As part of the investigation, You Win's employees coached an undercover Customs and Border Patrol agent on how to craft a perfect backstory, advising the agent to come up with a false employment history and apply for a visa jointly with someone who has a strong travel history. "The trainer stated that [Undercover Agent 2]'s husband must have friends and those friends must have companies: 'Find out if any of his friends own companies. As long as he owns a company, it doesn't matter how big the company is. So he can get you . . . proof of income,'" the affidavit reads.
The company also advised the agent to first fly into Hawaii and to purchase a tour package before heading to Los Angeles due to the perceived difficulty of passing through customs at LAX. Once in Southern California, the pregnant women stay in apartments rented by the birth-tourism companies. Their visit lasts approximately three months, during which time they are shuttled to restaurants, shopping malls, and landmarks such as Disneyland and Sea World.
The women will eventually give birth at an Orange County hospital, often skipping out on all or a majority of the bill. In February 2014, a Chinese couple gave birth at Fountain Valley Hospital. Of the $28,845 bill, they paid $4,080 before leaving the country, despite a bank account balance in excess of $200,000. Since 2013, approximately 400 children have been born at Fountain Valley Hospital with addresses belonging to apartments rented by You Win, according to the affidavit.
After the baby is born, the family spends an additional month in California, while the birth-tourism companies apply for Social Security cards and passports for the newborns. Those documents in hand, the happy family heads back to China (though the child may return to attend American boarding schools once he or she is old enough).
In addition to the extra stress on the medical system from more patients, birth tourism raises rents in the areas where it is active. A man who wished to remain anonymous reported that his rent at a luxury apartment complex, which also hosts many pregnant Chinese women, jumped nearly 15 percent between leases.
"I've lived here for four years, and I didn't start seeing [the women] until two and a half years ago. Several different groups of them would walk around the lake in the morning and evening," the man said. "My rent went up $300. The leasing office said they were at capacity, and the rates were based on that."
Another apartment complex in Irvine, which also hosts a large number of pregnant Chinese women, has had rent increases of approximately 10 percent over the past year.
Charges have yet to be filed following the raids, but 29 of the recent mothers and fathers were declared material witnesses of the federal government, requiring they stay in the United States during the investigation.
However, by early May, 10 of the 29 material witnesses had flown from the country, in addition to the wife of one of the witnesses. In response, the federal government filed warrants against all 11, charging them with lying on their visa applications, obstructing justice and being in contempt of court.
Further investigation revealed that two of the witnesses had received aid from their then lawyer to leave the country, according to a separate complaint filed earlier this month. Ken Z. Liang, an attorney based out of Irvine, had represented four people during the investigation. A judge removed him as lawyer after two of his clients had left the country.
"Material witness Yi and her husband paid $6,000 to Liang. In exchange, Liang acquired the plane tickets, and then accompanied them to the airport for their departure flight to China," the complaint reads. Investigators failed to stop the airplanes the women were on in time; their husbands had purchased them last-minute tickets through travel agencies.
One of Liang's remaining former clients, referred to as D.L. in the complaint filed by Homeland Security, agreed to cooperate with the federal government and placed a call to Liang while investigators listened in. She offered to pay Liang $6,000 to help her leave the country, which he accepted, according to the complaint.
Liang advised D.L. to delete the text messages on her phone and to contact him using a prepaid cellphone. During an in-person meeting, Liang told D.L. that if she paid him an additional $1,500 to $3,000, he would be able to get her onto an airplane "without any travel documents," according to the complaint. Homeland Security arrested Liang as he prepared to take D.L. to meet his conspirators. During an interview, he told investigators that he did not actually have any connections and talked up a plan so he could take money from D.L.
Liang remains in jail without opportunity for bail. Last week, a federal judge determined that because of his fluency in Mandarin, extensive travel history and claims made to D.L., he is a flight risk.
While the only people so far charged with crimes have been Liang and the 10 witnesses who have fled the country, the raids may have already successfully reduced birth tourism in Southern California. Earlier this month, a Chinese consultant who organizes birth-tourism trips told the Chinese edition of The New York Times that business has already dropped 30 percent.