There's panic once again in British Columbia over a rise in "birth tourism" in the province, as locals accuse Chinese mothers of delivering their babies on Canadian soil in order to get citizenship.
The issue routinely makes news in the western province every few months, and now a new petition, filed in Parliament, is calling on the Canadian government to stop granting citizenship to so-called "anchor babies" unless one of their parents holds Canadian citizenship.
But as more foreigners continue to flock to British Columbia to settle or invest in real estate — to the point where the government has imposed a new tax for homebuyers without Canadian citizenship — there has been increasing media coverage over whether some are taking advantage of the system so that their children can benefit from social programs.
The number of Chinese residents in Vancouver has grown to more than 18 percent over the last 20 years. With that increase came an influx of wealthy Chinese investors — which, in turn, came with endless speculation in the press about their motives and intentions.
However, immigration and citizenship experts say the issue of birth tourism is way overblown, and that it would do more harm than good to overhaul the way people become Canadians.
"Eliminating citizenship by birth on Canadian soil would be a hysterical response to a handful of cases that, in statistical terms, amount to a rounding error," reads a 2014 press release from the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), which has repeatedly tried to quash the notion that Canada's citizenship laws are being taken advantage of by throngs of non-Canadians.
The problem of birth tourism across Canada is negligible at best, Josh Paterson, the executive director of BCCLA told VICE News by phone.
"The fact that someone giving birth here is a foreign national does not mean it's birth tourism. And there's very little evidence to show this is a problem requiring action," said Paterson. "Changing our laws would be far-reaching and far costlier than whatever costs are being incurred by people without citizenship having babies."
On Wednesday, the Vancouver Sun published a story about internal government documents that reveal investigators with the BC health ministry are aware of 26 private residences in the province where foreign pregnant women can stay before and after giving birth. According to the documents, these so-called "baby houses" offer hospitality services to women with temporary and permanent residency status.
The report also pointed to Chinese brokerage firms and databases that promote birth tourism in BC to Chinese nationals, including one agent in Shenzhen who hosts a website listing hospitals in the province with Mandarin-speaking doctors on site.
Postmedia reported earlier this year that 295 of the 1,938 babies born at the hospital in Richmond over the last year were born to Chinese mothers, a number that has increased significantly since 2011, although it's unclear how much it's gone up. Health authorities in Canada do not typically record the nationalities of patients. According to a news release from Citizenship and Immigration Canada in 2014, there were fewer than 500 reported cases of a child being born in Canada to parents who were neither a citizen or permanent resident.
In June, a woman from Richmond, about 30 minutes outside Vancouver, started an online parliamentary petition calling for the government to ban birth tourism. It's been endorsed by Richmond's Conservative member of parliament Alice Wong, and has 5,800 signatures so far. Canada and the US are the only countries in the G7 that automatically grant citizenship to children born there, regardless of the immigration status of their parents.
"The practice of 'Birth Tourism' can be very costly to taxpayers since it is used to ensure that after the child reaches 18 years of age Canada's education system can be used at a publicly subsidised cost … thus taking advantage of Canada's public health system and social security programmes," states the petition, authored by Kerry Starchuk, who's also been railing against Chinese-only signs in the area.
Starchuk says she lives next to one of these so-called birthing houses, and often sees pregnant Chinese women walking around her neighborhood. The city of Richmond is home to many Chinese newcomers.
"I want neighbors, I don't want people that are coming and going that have no connection here," Starchuk told the Vancouver Sun earlier this month. "I don't have a problem with a baby, but I have a problem with the long term consequences.
"If you're coming here to have a baby and the baby is going to be here to use a lot of services, and there's no commitment until the kid gets older, then there is more take than there is give," she added.
But Paterson explained that that having a Canadian-born child does not guarantee that the child's parents will have the right to stay in Canada or access social services here.
"If you have a situation where citizenship is not automatic by birth, you're going to run into situations, more to marginalized Canadians, where children wind up not having citizenship and finding out when they're adults that because of the status of their parents, that they wind up not having the citizenship of the country they've grown up in," he said.
Previous governments have tried and failed to stem birth tourism in Canada. Previous Conservative immigration ministers Chris Alexander and Jason Kenney tried to ban the practice, but faced opposition from provinces that said the problem was not big enough to warrant an overhaul of the immigration regime.
Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland echoed Paterson in an interview, saying that any measure to curb the small number of birth tourists would cost billions of dollars, and require the creation of an invasive database, the equivalent of a gun registry, that would register the immigration status of the parents of every child born here.
"All of this to try to reduce a couple hundred or a few hundred citizenship births," Kurland said. "Until I see evidence of what the problems are, I don't get it."
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne