As feds make cases for visa fraud, the industry chugs along
Dongyuan Li already had a child, born in China, but she wanted her next baby to be an American citizen.
So about six years ago she traveled to the United States through a tour package that arranged for her housing, meals and hospital stay. She delivered twins. And she was so impressed with the business model that she stayed on to make money off it, teaming up with the owner to turn “You Win USA Vacation Resort” into a thriving player in the growing industry known as birth tourism.
On Tuesday, Sept. 17, Li plead guilty to federal criminal charges, becoming the first birth tourism operator to face possible prison time for crimes related to the controversial industry. But while her company has gone away, along with two others the feds busted in 2015, the industry itself has not.
Companies, often advertising in China or on Chinese-language web sites, continue to recruit well-to-do pregnant clients from outside the country, with promises that giving birth in the United States means citizenship for their babies and that American citizenship comes with tons of benefits, including free public education and potential access to the country’s universities, medical care and, down the road, Social Security.
And local residents have noticed. People in some Southern California neighborhoods see the vans that take groups of pregnant women to the mall. They hear and smell the carts topped with meals that roll down hallways to deliver food from condo to condo. They notice pregnant tenants staying only a few weeks to a few months, only to be replaced over time by a new cycle of pregnant tenants.
“My agents are still receiving complaints all the time that this continues in Orange County, L.A. County and to a lesser extent, the Inland Empire,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Pell said in a phone interview.
Still, the business itself is not illegal – not as long as the visitors don’t lie to federal officials or commit fraud.
“As long as U.S. birthright citizenship is a right, it’s not illegal,” Pell said. “The State Department takes the position it will issue a visa to give birth. You just have to be truthful about it. That then generates other questions: ‘Where are you going to stay? How are you going to pay for it?’
“This is not targeting people who are coming here to give birth,” Pell added, referring to the legal crackdown. “It’s about people who come here after lying on their visa application, and not having the financial wherewithal to pay for the hospital bill.”
Meanwhile, birthright citizenship – or the right of instant citizenship afforded to any baby born on American soil or to American parents on foreign soil – continues to come under scrutiny.
President Donald Trump, among others, has called the right, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, “ridiculous” and has said he’d like to abolish it, possibly by executive order. Many constitutional scholars, however, note that the bar to change the constitution is high and an executive order won’t cut it.
In the early morning hours of March 3, 2015, about 200 federal agents raided some 35 condos, apartments and homes across three counties – Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino. They seized records and interviewed women who arrived on tourist visas but stayed to deliver babies. It was, and remains, the biggest federal criminal probe into the birth tourism industry.
This past January, the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled indictments against 19 people, including tour operators and their clients. Most of those defendants, however, had already fled the country. Li, one of the operators of the “You Win” agency, lived in Irvine and was arrested. So were Michael Wei Yueh Liu, of Rancho Cucamonga, and his wife, Jing Dong, who operated a San Bernardino-based company called “USA Happy Baby Inc.” Liu and Dong face trial in February.
Meanwhile, former Irvine resident Wen Rui Deng, who ran “Star Baby Care” fled prior to his indictment. His agency is described by government officials as “the largest birth tourism scheme in the U.S.”
The companies coached pregnant women on what to do and what to say to get through U.S. Customs without admitting the true intent of their travels. Women were advised to wear lose clothing, for example, and to travel through ports of entry where they would get less scrutiny – say Hawaii versus Los Angeles.
Once in the U.S. – and Southern California is a favorite destination – the women lived in houses, apartments and condos, sometimes called “maternity hotels,” where all their needs were fulfilled. The tour packages came with a hefty price tag, typically from $40,000 to $100,000, and some included day trips to South Coast Plaza, Beverly Hills and Disneyland.
The 2015 raids targeted multiple dwellings in Rancho Cucamonga, Rowland Heights and Walnut, as well as apartments and homes in Irvine and Mission Viejo.
One of the largest targets was the Carlyle Apartments in Irvine, where the “You Win USA” agency housed women, some of them with their mothers, husbands and older children.
Li’s “You Win USA” website described the U.S. as “the most attractive nationality” and claimed to have served more than 500 birth tourism customers in about eight years.
Li had lived in Irvine with her four children: a teenager who was going to high school and was born in China, and three young children born in the U.S. During a court hearing in March, her twins were listed as five years old and a baby son was 21 months old. Li’s elderly mother also lived with them.
Li has remained in jail since her arrest, and her attorneys’ requests to release her on bond was denied because she was cited a flight risk.
On Tuesday, Sept. 17, Li plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and one count of visa fraud. As part of her plea agreement, she agreed to forfeit more than $850,000, a residence in Murrieta worth more than $500,000 and several Mercedes-Benz cars. She is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 16 and faces a maximum of 15 years in federal prison.
Meanwhile, her husband, Qiang Yan, was indicted last December on three counts of visa fraud for filing an application for an “O” visa – granted to those with “extraordinary ability” – because he falsely claimed that he had co-authored two books, which didn’t exist, officials said. During an interview with agents, conducted as his Irvine home was being searched, he told officials that his investment in the birth tourism business was “chump change” because he had more than $10 million in bank accounts in China, according to court documents.
Yan fled the country and did not return for the birth of his youngest son.
At the time of Li’s arrest, her twins were in China, and her Chinese-born daughter and infant son remained in the U.S. It’s unclear where her children live now.
Li’s attorneys did not return requests for comment. In court documents, Los Angeles attorney David Carroll called Li’s partner, Chao Chen, “the ringleader of the supposed birthing-house scheme that our client allegedly participated in.”
Chen pleaded guilty to visa fraud, marriage fraud and tax fraudbut left the country before he could be sentenced. Last December, he was charged with contempt of court for fleeing the U.S. while his sentencing was pending.
The only other case related to the 2015 raids to end in criminal charges involved Ken Z. Liang, a former attorney who lived in Irvine. Liang, who pleaded not guilty, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for helping witnesses flee to China and was disbarred.
The cases against the tour operators and some of their clients go beyond tricking the government, said Pell, of the U.S. Attorney’s Santa Ana branch office.
“Some were defrauding the apartment owners and hospitals,” he said.
Pell said he’s hopeful the raids and subsequent criminal prosecutions will send a message that the government takes such cases seriously.
Because it’s difficult to monitor the industry, there’s “no way of knowing how this case might have affected the prevalence of birth tourism,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels.
“I suspect it has not subsided, and that the effect is only to make them more careful and less brazen,” she said Friday.
“That doesn’t mean the investigation was pointless. On the contrary, it was a good thing to do to bring them to justice and to raise awareness of the problem. Now, we need a more a sustained effort to crack down on these rings,” she said.
Leo Chavez, a UC Irvine professor who specializes on migration issues, said cases of potential fraud should be investigated and the guilty punished, but that shouldn’t lead to a move against birthright citizenship, which grants automatic U.S. citizenship.
“There may be a few who take advantage of it but that’s a small proportion. We shouldn’t lose sight that birthright citizenship makes us a great nation,” said Chavez, whose most recent book is “Anchor Babies and the Challenge of Birthright Citizenship.”
Meanwhile, when asked if any other raids are in the works, prosecutor Pell declined comment.