An Obama-era policy has turned a U.S. territory in the Pacific into a hot spot for “birth tourism,” as Chinese women flock to the islands to deliver babies who automatically become American citizens — and two Republican congressmen this week asked the Homeland Security Department to shut down the pipeline.
Under the 2009 policy, Chinese can visit the commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands without a visa. That means they don’t have to go through a State Department screening over their reasons, which they would have to do if they want to visit one of the 50 states.
But because the commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is an American territory, U.S. policy granting automatic citizenship to anyone born there applies, creating what Reps. Thomas P. Tiffany and Glenn Grothman, both Wisconsin Republicans, say is a birthing “loophole.”
Foreigners quickly took notice. After the 2009 change, the number of babies delivered by foreign women in the Northern Mariana Islands each year rose from fewer than 10 to nearly 600 in 2018.
The Saipan Tribune reported that during one period in 2015 and 2016, 95% of those births were to parents of Chinese descent. The others were Korean, Filipino, Japanese and Russian.
It’s not clear how many of the parents were longtime residents and how many were “birth tourists.”
Whatever the final numbers, the two Republican lawmakers called the parole policy “extremely imprudent.”
“The CNMI Chinese parole program is a dangerous loophole in America’s immigration system that has been allowed to remain wide open for far too long, and it should be closed,” they wrote. They asked acting Secretary Chad Wolf to “immediately end” the program.
Homeland Security referred questions about Mr. Wolf’s plans to Customs and Border Protection, which didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
Bob Schwalbach, chief of staff for Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, the Northern Mariana Islands’ representative in Congress, defended the arrangement.
He said the territory’s economy is based largely on tourism and, before the pandemic, half of those visitors were Chinese.
“The Trump administration has recognized the economic importance of permitting Chinese tourists to the enter the Marianas under parole and over the last four years kept the program in place,” he told The Washington Times.
He added: “Congressman Sablan made the case for Chinese tourism when the Obama administration first set up the parole program in 2009. And Congressman Sablan will be working with the Biden administration to ensure — once the pandemic is behind us and tourism can safely resume — that Chinese tourists may continue to enter the Marianas easily.”
The commonwealth operates as a U.S. territory, and federal immigration laws began to apply there as of 2008.
Homeland Security took over immigration and border operations a year later. Janet Napolitano, the department’s secretary at the time, implemented the parole policy allowing Russians and Chinese to enter the territory for up to 45 days for pleasure or business without needing to be screened for a visa.
Russia’s involvement was ended last year by acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
Parole was maintained for China, though CBP cut the maximum visit to two weeks.
Foreigners delivering in the Northern Mariana Islands has become so common that some airlines prevent women in late stages of pregnancy from traveling.
Hong Kong Express Airways was reportedly forcing some women to undergo pregnancy tests before boarding flights. The airline apologized earlier this year for the policy.
Parole is a part of U.S. immigration policy that allows a foreign national to enter without being granted official admission, such as on a visa.
It is supposed to be used on a case-by-case basis for humanitarian reasons or for the public benefit.
The policy has often been stretched well beyond those constraints. In the 1990s, it was used to admit thousands of Cubans, and the Obama administration used it to admit entrepreneurs, Central American children and other broad categories of people.
Some lawmakers have argued that each of those is legally suspect.
The territory has traditionally pushed for expanded access from those other countries because tourism is a key source of revenue.
Homeland Security, in removing Russia from of the program last year, said most of those visitors should be able to obtain visas. But the department said the security risks of visa-free travel were too great, whatever the economic benefits to the territory.
Mr. Tiffany and Mr. Grothman said Mr. Wolf should apply that same reasoning to Chinese visitors.
“U.S. states and territories should not be operating parallel immigration systems through administrative fiat, and Chinese nationals should be required to meet the same standards to visit the CNMI that they must meet to visit any other part of the United States,” the Republicans said.
Federal prosecutors in 2018 won a conviction against a man who they say ran a birth tourism scam in the Northern Mariana Islands, charging at least $15,000 to Chinese women for transportation to and from the territory, housing and round-the-clock care, and help in filling out the forms to obtain proof of citizenship for the babies they delivered.
A doctor ratted out the man’s operation.
At least one of his “clients” died during delivery, according to local news reports.
Birth tourism extends well beyond the Northern Mariana Islands.
In New York, prosecutors this week unsealed charges against six people accused of running a scam to help pregnant Turkish women enter the country under false pretenses, deliver babies and then bill the government under Medicaid.
The scammers charged about $7,500 per woman and had 117 clients who gave birth to 119 children from January 2017 to September 2020, according to the court charges.
In California, federal prosecutors are pursuing cases against multiple birth tourism operators that catered to Chinese clients.
They said thousands of women paid up to $80,000 apiece to get help with planning their visits, concealing their pregnancies from U.S. authorities and obtaining living space and appointments with American doctors.