At least a handful of pregnant Russian women board every flight from Moscow to Miami, according to Miami real estate agent Alexander Kronfeld. Kronfeld knows this because his realty company helps the expecting Eastern Europeans find three-to-five month leases in South Florida so they can give birth in warm weather.
Expecting mothers from Russia and other former Soviet-bloc countries are crowding the shores of North Miami and Sunny Isles Beach – also known as the "Russian Riviera" – and hiring bilingual companies, like Status-Med and BabyMiami, to find them short-term leases and high-quality medical care before they jet back to Putin's paradise.
The Russian embassy in the United States reportedly doesn't have an exact number of women who do this. Some women travel to New York or Los Angeles, where similar communities exist, but most head south to enjoy Florida's palm trees, sleek cars, and cosmopolitan beaches.
"When I visited Miami a year ago, I met all these happy, pregnant Russian women", Lillia, a 36-year-old Kazakhstani woman, told me in a condo lobby. When Lillia became pregnant this year, she returned to Miami, with her husband and two daughters, and found an agency that will help her give birth to her new son in the United States. She arrived just four days before we talked, and in three months she'll return home flat-stomached and holding her newborn dual citizen.
"I just want my son to have more opportunities in the future", she said.
Yulia Voronovich cradling her daughter Daria. She said she decided not to use a birth-tourism agency because she believes they charge too much. Photo by the author
Kronfeld says Russian women choose to give birth in the United States for several reasons besides Florida's superior health care. Their children automatically become US citizens, which allows them to avoid Russian military service and, when they turn 21, file a motion for reunification to get their parents green cards. Plus, the mothers go into labor in a city whose temperature isn't minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
The cost of birth tourism limits the practice to wealthy Russians, but the growing demand has allowed business owners to offer more variations on the service packages. At Status-Med, prices range from a few thousand dollars to $50,000 (€40,000), depending on the new mother's English proficiency and the level of treatment she seeks.
"I have an agent who helps me with whatever I need", Lillia said.
"They want a Rolls-Royce to bring them to the doctor every day", Kronfeld told me. "They want the private driver to take them shopping".
Calling these agencies led me to answering machines and disconnected numbers. Maybe they're just busy, I thought, so I drove to their offices. When I arrived at the addresses listed online, I found clustered strip malls absent of any Russian medical consultants or birth services.
Eventually, I located one agency's physical office, unmarked, on the tenth floor of a large business building. Miami-Mama's young secretary greeted me and asked if I needed prenatal help. I told her I was writing a story for a magazine about birth tourism. Her response was quiet but curt: "We don't comment". Status-Med and MomsNBabes, another agency, also declined to answer my questions.
Russians have logical reasons to question Americans' motives, considering many conservatives have criticised birth tourism.
"Never paid a single dollar of tax in the United States or worked a day here? We will confer citizenship on your child nevertheless", conservative commentator A. J. Delgado wrote for the National Review in May. Delgado believes the mothers abuse the 14th Amendment, which enables the dual citizenships of these babies based on jus soli rights – to be a US citizen, the only requirement is that you be born on our soil.
The arrangement wasn't financially beneficial for 28-year-old Yulia Voronovich, who said she paid almost $3,000 ($1900) for medical services here. In Russia the birth would have been free, but Voronovich said she prefers Western medical conditions.
"In Russia, they keep you; they ask a thousand questions", she said. "Here, if you're healthy, you're healthy. They let you go".
Miami's residents disagree on the motives behind the booming industry. As I ate pickled watermelon and Russian "salads" (a.k.a. vegetables soaked in vinegar) at the Matryoshka Deli in Sunny Isles, I asked locals what they thought about birth tourism.
"It's a big fuckin' business", said the silver-haired man across from me as he sipped his midday beer. The Russian man sitting next to me had a different explanation: "They see palms. In Russia, we don't have palms", he said.
But in a way, Florida's climate does legitimise the mothers' trips. Miami remains warm, if not hot, year-round, and expecting women can live in luxurious condominiums overlooking the ocean and swim in fancy hotel pools.
I'd do it too if I had the money.