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US citizenship - Baby, what a deal

A small but growing number of Chinese women are giving birth in the US so their babies can become US citizens, sometimes called "anchor babies," who get benefits and can eventually help families immigrate. Yao Minji reports.

Lucy Zhang, 29 years old and three months pregnant, has been struggling over whether she should "endure a lonely and boring three months" in the United States in order to give her first baby American citizenship.

She doesn't have much time left, as her consulting agent specializing in such visits says she needs to get a visa and enter the US before the pregnancy becomes too apparent - preferably when she's around six months along.

Like hundreds of others who have followed the same path, Liu will not disclose her pregnancy in the visa interview and when she goes through immigration after landing.

The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution provides citizenship to anyone born in the US, but this has become controversial with the large influx of illegal or undocumented immigrants, and some US lawmakers are clamoring for a change in the 14th Amendment that covers citizenship.

A lot of media attention has turned the spotlight on the birthing practice, which is tiny but lucrative.

Legal Chinese visitors almost always go back with their babies to China but want their children to return later to benefit from Western schooling and live in an advanced country with better medical care and social security and a safer environment than China's. When they come of age, these Chinese Americans can make it easier to bring some family members to the States.

Shanghai Daily has assembled a picture of Chinese efforts to secure in the West what some call "anchor babies."

Women like Zhang are usually 25 to 35 years old and relatively well off, many are quite rich. A lot have overseas experience including study and extensive travel; relatives and friends may live abroad.

For example, Zhang's father is in the cement business and her husband in clothing. She speaks a little English and has traveled widely in Asia and Europe. She visited the States twice last year to check on various "care centers" that assist pregnant Chinese women planning to give birth in America. There are similar places in Canada.

These centers, opened by Chinese from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, are mostly in Los Angeles and New York. They are not medical facilities but rather like hotels.

Staff drive the pregnant women for their check-ups to nearby hospitals, take them sightseeing and shopping and provide assistance when they apply for citizenship for their newborns. They also care for the mothers during the traditional one-month of indoor care and special nutrition.

For the period, known as zuo yuezi (or sitting the month), they remain strictly indoors and never venture out, because according to traditional Chinese medicine, they are said to be especially vulnerable to ailments.

The average price for the package is 100,000 yuan (US$14,844), but transport, visa and all delivery costs in hospital are paid by the mothers. Most people set aside at least another 100,000 to ensure a comfortable stay and take care of emergencies.

This is not a new business. Many pregnant women from Taiwan and Hong Kong have been doing the same thing for more than 10 years. Most of the centers in America and the consulting agencies in this gray area are also operated by Taiwanese and people from Hong Kong. South Koreans have similar services and facilities.

For Chinese mainlanders, the major difficulty is the visa. Although no laws or regulations bar pregnant women from US entry, if they disclosed their condition, their applications would almost certainly be rejected or they would be shut out by immigration after arrival.

Thus, a non-refundable deposit of 4,000 to 10,000 yuan is paid before visa application process begins.

"It is quite easy if you already have visa stamps from developed countries like the UK on your passport," says Zhang's agent.

Piao Guangxing, a sociologist at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, has studied the similar issue of South Koreans giving birth in the US.

"This only accounts for a very tiny amount of population in China, far from being a trend," he recently told a Chinese media outlet.

"It probably will last for a while though, since we do have a lot to improve in China, such as the ability to compete globally in fields like education, security, environment, financial protection, etc," he said.

Piao supports ordinary Chinese in deciding to give birth in Western countries, but not celebrities or politicians who have accumulated their wealth in China. "Overseas Chinese, in the long term, bring more benefits than negative impacts for the country," he says.

Mark Wang, a consultant in this business in Beijing, agrees.

Wang's agency is typical. It's small, with just Wang and two other staff members, and it's tucked away in a small office in a downtown commercial center. The sign on the door says simply, "consulting agency."

The company started in 2008 and had only two customers that year. In 2009, it successfully sent more than 15 pregnant women to the US and Canada where their babies received citizenship.

"After the financial crisis, it's gotten much easier, although it's still difficult, for Chinese mainlanders to go overseas in general, including to the United States," he says. "This had seemed almost impossible, even for rich people. US visas are one of the few that you can't guarantee."

Wang says his clients include many rich businessmen, celebrities, lawyers, doctors, professors and other professionals. More than half of them are from Beijing and nearby areas, especially cash-rich Shandong Province. The rest come from Shanghai and Guangzhou.

"Our clients are attracted by all the various benefits for Americans or Canadians ... and this also provides a much easier way for other family members to become citizens," Wang says.

Many of his clients also opted for overseas childbirth to circumvent China's "single-child" policy (which is easing) and have a second baby. Hong Kong is currently the biggest destination for Chinese moms, especially those giving birth to a second or even third child.

Its birth rate hit a record in the past 12 months, with nearly half of the babies born to mainland mothers, as statisticians show.

Lucy Zhang's first option was also Hong Kong, before she learned that the cost was about the same, making the US more attractive.

Wang is worried about the future of his fledgling business, since quite a bit of attention has been focused on the developing gray field, due to considerable recent media coverage both in China and the US.

Zhang's agent also told her to hurry for the same reason.

The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution states: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States are subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

Many people eying potential US citizenship for their babies - and their "consultants" - worry that authorities on both sides will try to curb or stop the practice.

Concludes Wang: "After all, although everyone says it's legal, it's still not what you can talk about in the bright daylight."


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