Issues

Sen. Blackburn Takes Aim At ‘Birth Tourism’

Bill would block foreign tycoons from obtaining U.S. citizenship through childbirth

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Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) introduced a new bill to outlaw birth tourism, a practice popular among wealthy foreigners who obtain American citizenship for their children by giving birth on U.S. soil while on vacation.

For decades, many wealthy Chinese and Russian parents have visited the United States on tourist visas to give birth in American hospitals. In January, the Trump administration issued new rules that prohibit U.S. embassies from giving visas to suspected birth tourists. Blackburn's legislation intends to codify the administration's policy into law, banning any non-immigrant foreigner from entering the United States "for the primary purpose of obtaining United States citizenship for a child."

Prior to the Trump administration's decree in January, no laws or regulations explicitly banned birth tourism in the United States. The lack of regulation spawned a cottage industry of highly profitable birth tourism agencies, which charged as much as $100,000 to foreign mothers for their services. The agencies offered a variety of services to expecting mothers—some of them outright illegal—that ranged from providing comfortable accommodations to coaching parents on how to commit visa fraud by lying about the reason for their stay.

"Our nation’s citizenship is not for sale to those who pay to come here and give birth," Blackburn said in a statement. "Citizenship is for those who love our great country and want to contribute to and preserve freedom—not those parachuting in to obtain a second citizenship so they may come back whenever they please."

Immigration advocates often argue that the 14th Amendment enshrines birthright citizenship in the U.S. Constitution, as the amendment confers citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof." While the current legal consensus largely accepts this interpretation, some legal scholars have argued that birthright citizenship is a "fundamental misunderstanding of the 14th Amendment," as foreigners are subject to the laws of their home country rather than "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States.

"The fact that a tourist or illegal alien is subject to our laws and our courts if they violate our laws does not place them within the political ‘jurisdiction' of the United States as that phrase was defined by the framers of the 14th Amendment," wrote Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department official and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The bill is the latest in Republican efforts to exempt the children of foreign tourists from birthright citizenship. In 2015, then-senator David Vitter (R., La.) introduced a law that would have limited birthright citizenship to the children of U.S. citizens, green card holders, and immigrants serving in the U.S. military. Blackburn's latest effort is more targeted in its goal, specifically focusing on banning the birth tourism industry. Blackburn's law, however, would not apply to foreign mothers traveling to the United States "seeking legitimate medical treatment relating to childbirth."

The true scale of the birth tourism industry in the United States remains unclear, but one analysis by the right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies concluded that between 20,000 and 26,000 birth tourists visit the United States every year. The maternity hotels appear to be concentrated in a few cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, which respectively have a large Chinese-American and Russian-American population.

While many maternity hotels are technically legal, the federal government has also started to crack down on birth tourism agencies, arresting their operators for immigration fraud, tax fraud, and marriage fraud. Most recently, a California court sentenced a Chinese national to 37 months in prison on June 30 for operating a birth tourism agency that advertised a "100-person team" to help expecting foreign mothers. The defendant had already left for China.

Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler (R.), a cosponsor for the bill, said that the bill can help put and end to the decades-long abuse of the U.S. immigration system by birth tourists.

"For decades, America has felt the repercussions of a failed, outdated immigration system that has rewarded those who abuse our nation’s compassion," she said. "The practice of foreign nationals traveling to the United States to secure automatic and permanent citizenship for their children by giving birth on American soil must end."