In September, 41-year-old Dongyuan Li pleaded guilty to two federal criminal charges stemming from the “birth tourism” business she ran for two years out of Irvine, California, and China.
Birth tourism operators like Li charge tens of thousands of dollars to pregnant foreigners, particularly in China, for travel packages to the U.S., which under the 14th Amendment guarantees birthright citizenship to anyone born on American soil. While visiting the U.S. and giving birth is not illegal, misleading federal officials on visa applications is against the law.
The business, You Win USA Vacation Services Corp., specialized in helping pregnant Chinese government officials, wealthy citizens, and foreign nationals bypass U.S. immigration laws and enter the U.S. to give birth to children that automatically gained American citizenship. Li charged customers between $40,000 and $80,000 for her services, raking in over $3 million in wire transfers from China from 2013 to 2015.
A January 2019 federal grand jury indictment against Li alleged that her business advertised that it had aided more than 500 Chinese birth tourism clients who sought U.S. birthright citizenship for their babies. Li’s website made statements like, “being American was the “most attractive nationality,” and it would ensure “priority for jobs in US government.”
According to the indictment and Li’s plea agreement:
- You Win USA used 20 apartments throughout Irvine to carry out her scheme. In October 2013, Li paid $30,965 to rent the apartments, and the following month, she made another $30,321 payment for those same apartments.
- You Win coached customers to make false statements on their visa applications and to U.S. immigration officials, including to claim that they planned to stay in the U.S. for just two weeks when in reality, they intended to stay in the country for up to three months to give birth. Li also schooled her clients regarding how to trick U.S. Customs at ports of entries by hiding their pregnancies.
- Li’s customers were able to bypass U.S. immigration controls by booking only two flights – the first from China to Hawaii and the second leg from Hawaii to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) because she believed it was easier to get past U.S. Customs through Hawaii.
Under her plea agreement, Li will surrender more than $850,000; a Murrieta, Calif., home valued at over $500,000; and several Mercedes-Benz vehicles. At a December 16 sentencing hearing, she faced a statutory maximum of 15 years in federal prison but instead was given a 10-month prison term and released that same day for time served (she had been imprisoned since her January 31, 2019, arrest). Li’s sentence was the first prison term won against a birth tourism company in Irvine, and federal prosecutors indicated they plan to begin deportation proceedings against her immediately.
Li appears to be far from the only individual to profit from the birth tourism business in California. The JR Motel in Orange has been in operation since 2015 as a “maternity hotel” for Chinese females who want to have their babies in California. The JR Motel does not function as a typical motel, has no hotel sign, doesn’t accept reservations, pays no city hotel taxes, and is not listed online in English. Nearly five years ago, federal agents raided more than 20 residences throughout Southern California in an attempt to crack down on the practice of maternity tourism, but made no arrests. Many birth tourism operations are also believed to exist in South Florida, because of the climate and the proximity to coastal borders.
President Donald Trump is looking to end birthright citizenship through executive order amid pushback, and is also targeting the practice with his administration’s new birth tourism rule, which took effect on January 31. Under the policy, embassies will deny visas to people who are suspected of coming to the U.S. to give birth. Consular officials will be required to assume that if someone seeking a tourist visa is likely to give birth in the U.S., they are “seeking a visa for the primary purpose of obtaining U.S. citizenship for the child.” These travelers will be asked for documentation to prove that this is not the case.
The policy is said to have an exception for pregnant people who travel to the U.S. to give birth due to concerns about infant and maternal mortality in their home countries. However, opponents fear that the exception won’t be honored, and pregnant women in severe need of medical care will be turned away. Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, told Vox that with this policy, the Trump administration is “extending an agenda of white supremacy to U.S.-bound travelers.”