Saipan, back door into US citizenship for Asian babies?
CNMI wants rules tightened up
By Haidee V. Eugenio
Pregnant Asian ‘tourists’ mostly from China and Korea have been choosing Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) as a good destination to give birth if they want automatic U.S. citizenship for their children.
The CNMI government has asked the United States for stricter border control to prevent the entry of tourists in advanced stages of pregnancy, but any enforcement success remains to be seen.
Babies born in the CNMI, as in other U.S. states and territories, are automatically U.S. citizens regardless of the nationality of their parents.
It is way cheaper to fly to CNMI’s capital island of Saipan in the Western Pacific than to the U.S. mainland. Saipan, compared to the U.S. mainland, is much closer to Asia.
Moreover, the fees being charged by private individuals or companies catering to “birth tourism” on Saipan have become a lot more attractive for mainland Chinese and South Koreans because these charges are cheaper than giving birth in Hong Kong or the U.S. mainland nowadays.
For at least US$10,000, for example, a pregnant Asian tourist can already book a ticket to Saipan, rent an apartment, pay for a U.S. passport for her child, hire an escort or translator, a caretaker or someone who can drive her around including to the grocery store or to the hospital for pre-natal checkups and to give birth. This amount still excludes hospital fees that could also rack up to over US$10,000.
A Chinese businessman giving translation services for pregnant tourists for an average hourly fee of US$30 said many of his clients from mainland China come to CNMI to get around the Chinese government’s “one child policy.”
He said many pregnant Chinese are in the CNMI to give birth to their “second” child.
Because children born in the CNMI are U.S. citizens, the birth tourists won’t have two Chinese children when they go back to their country and they are thus not violating the one-child policy. Other parents want their children to be able to leave China for the United States when they grow up—to study, work and live. These children can then bring their parents to the U.S. with them.
Many of the legal foreign workers who have been in the CNMI for years and decades have expressed frustration that while they could not be granted improved immigration status such as pathways to U.S. citizenship, tourists’ children could automatically become U.S. citizens.
On the upswing
Birth tourism is believed to be more pronounced in the CNMI since 2009 when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted a U.S. visa waiver for Chinese and Russian tourists visiting the islands.
Under the visa waiver program, tourists from China and Russia can stay in the CNMI for a maximum of 45 days without securing a U.S. visa.
The CNMI’s borders are now controlled by the U.S. federal government, particularly the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
With birth rate among Asian tourists surging, CNMI Governor Eloy S. Inos and the CNMI’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) asked DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in April to keep a tighter watch over this.
Women in advanced stage of pregnancy are not supposed to be allowed to board a plane or step foot on the CNMI. Still, many Asian tourists still manage to travel to the CNMI and give birth to their U.S. citizen son or daughter within weeks or a few months.
“We would certainly urge you to encourage Customs and Border Protection agents to deny entry to anyone suspected of attempting to come into the Northern Marianas for this purpose,” the CNMI governor and delegate told the DHS secretary in a joint letter.
Chinese tourist arrivals into the CNMI are expected to grow by 29 percent and there’s no telling yet how many of them are birth tourists.
CNMI’s former governor, Benigno R. Fitial, repeatedly called on the U.S. government to address the matter.
He said there’s been an increase in the number of illegal aliens mainly because of Asian pregnant women who entered the CNMI to give birth to U.S. citizens and have remained on the islands long after their tourist visas have expired.
CNMI Representative Tony Sablan, a former immigration director, said while birth tourism is nothing new, he believes the number of cases was “minimal” when the CNMI was in control of its own immigration.
Sablan said back then, these overstaying non-residents would have been removed from the CNMI right away. He said many of them overstayed mainly because they were still waiting for their child’s birth certificate.
A Chinese businesswoman on Saipan said only rich Chinese women or couple could afford giving birth in the CNMI because, among other things, they wouldn’t be able to get their child’s U.S. passport “without first settling all their hospital bills.”
She pointed to the economic contributions brought by birth tourism—from having paid hospital bills, apartment rentals, car rentals, employment for escorts/translators, food and retail sales, and the like.
Saipan’s parks, beach pathways and apartment areas have become a parade ground for pregnant Asian tourists on certain days and time of day for their regular walk and exercise.
Many of them rent medium to high-priced apartments for a month or two, while waiting to give birth at the only hospital in the CNMI—the Commonwealth Health Center.
At one point, at least three websites were marketing the CNMI among Chinese and Korean women as a good destination to give birth to automatic U.S. citizen children. But media attention and government crackdown have brought these English websites to oblivion, although it won’t be surprising if Chinese and Korean language websites luring birth tourism in the CNMI still exist.
These former websites showed pictures of the CNMI’s only hospital where clients from China or Korea are supposed to give birth. One of the websites said normal delivery could cost about US$11,000 on Saipan.
In March, the U.S. District Court for the CNMI imposed a nine-month prison term against a man tagged by federal agents as behind a scheme to encourage Chinese nationals to come to Saipan to give birth to U.S. citizen children.
The Taiwanese national, Kuanyi Chen, is believed to be so far the only one charged related to birth tourism in the CNMI in recent history. He was arrested on August 25, 2012.
The indictment charged the man with five counts of encouraging illegal entry of aliens for financial gain, five counts of harboring aliens for financial gain and five counts of illegal transportation of aliens for financial gain. He pleaded guilty to one count of harboring aliens for financial gain as part of a plea deal. The remaining charges were dropped.
It is not known, however, whether others would also be arrested, charged and convicted given that thousands of Asian tourists come to the CNMI only to give birth and avail of the “birth packages” offered by individuals and businesses.
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