This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
Not all citizenships are created equal. Benefits like more “powerful” passports and better healthcare have pushed mothers in developing countries to give birth in places like Canada and the United States where children born on their soil are almost instantly granted citizenship. This is becoming a massive trend among the mainland Chinese, so much so that there is now a controversial industry dedicated to it.
On Sept. 18, a Chinese woman in California pleaded guilty to working with 500 pregnant women—most of Chinese origin—to help them give birth in the U.S.
Dongyuan Li, 41, charged the women $40,000 to $80,000 in exchange for her services. She would allegedly help them travel to the U.S. and stay there until they give birth. Li operated under a company called You Win USA Vacations Services Corp. The BBC reported that You Win’s website ensured an American nationality is the “most attractive” to have and that it would supply customers with “priority for jobs in U.S. government.”
The U.S. government grants unconditional birthright citizenship and allows for dual citizenship.
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Santa Ana, California, Li resides in the city of Irvine. There, she allegedly used 20 apartments, between 2013 and 2015, to house her clients until they gave birth. In two years, she received $3 million in international wire transfers from China.
“Some You Win customers coached by the company made false statements on their visa applications and to U.S. immigration officials, Li’s plea agreement states,” reads the press release.
Li’s process included advising mothers on passing the interview at the U.S. consulate in China, particularly by claiming they would only stay in the country for two weeks. Prosecutors stated that “in reality, they planned to stay for up to three months to give birth.”
The South China Morning Post reported that Li would have her customers book two flights—one from China to Hawaii, where they would list the Trump International Hotel in Honolulu as their final destination, and another from Hawaii to Los Angeles.
The suspect pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges; one count of conspiracy to commit immigration fraud and one count of visa fraud.
Li faces a maximum of 15 years in federal prison for this case. She is due to be sentenced in December. In accordance with her plea deal, Li has to forfeit $850,000, a home worth over $500,000 and more than one Mercedes-Benz vehicle.
Known as “birth tourism” companies like Li's have been operating for years. Birth tourism is the practice of traveling to another country solely to give birth and attain a certain citizenship for a child. It is attractive to mothers who desire better citizenship for their children. Places like the United States and Canada are desirable because of job opportunities and better quality of life.
The trend has gotten so big that it is now a major issue in the lead up to the Canadian elections in October. Conservative parties vow to put end to it, believing that it undermines Canadian citizenship.
In the U.S., President Trump and his administration have suggested the idea of revoking birthright citizenship.
“We’re looking at that very seriously, birthright citizenship, where you have a baby on our land, you walk over the border, have a baby–congratulations, the baby is now a U.S. citizen,” Trump said to reporters at the White House in August. “It’s frankly ridiculous.”
However, this was criticised by Trump’s critics who say his proposal is simply a part of his anti-immigrant rhetoric.