After driving 30 minutes east of downtown LA, I reached the apartment complex in Rowland Heights, California, that was rumored to contain a so-called Chinese “maternity hotel”: a place of questionable legality, where wealthy women seeking American citizenship for their children and a way around the one-child rule come to stay for a long vacation—one that happens to result in a baby about two-thirds of the way through.
With a Mandarin-speaking friend translating, I checked in at the leasing office and said I was looking for a maternity hotel service I’d read about on the internet. The receptionist, speaking Mandarin, answered in the affirmative. She directed us to a unit near the pool.
From the outside, the apartment resembled every single other unit in the complex: tan stucco, a brown door, and a balcony with clothes drying outside on a rack. A plucky young Chinese woman opened the door, wearing a knee-length, black and white polka dot dress. She introduced herself as Grace and brought us into a converted office area, with plenty of seating, a few travel brochures, and several pictures of pregnant women on the walls.
We asked Grace about the types of services her maternity hotel offered, saying in Mandarin that we were helping a family friend back in China who was looking to have a child in the U.S.
“For about $15,000 you can have our basic package, a three-month stay here, with food and some Los Angeles tours,” Grace explained. “If you want to pay more, you can get more tours and outings to better shopping and more time around the city.”
This is the going rate for the thousands of wealthy Chinese families looking to ensure a good future for their children. They pay a deposit, then jet off to Southern California on a tourist visa and give birth to American citizens, which provides them a way around the one-child policy and a pathway for their kids to have easier access to American schools. Maternity hotels guide them and shelter them throughout this long process.
The practice is known as birth tourism, and it’s not illegal—strictly speaking. It is, however, against the law to mislead customs officials into believing you’re in the United States purely as a tourist if your actual intention is to have a child on U.S. soil. To get around this, many maternity hotels offer a coaching service to help their clients get through customs with ease. (They also provide medical recommendations and transportation when the time comes to give birth.)
About a month ago, dozens of federal agents descended upon several apartment complexes throughout southern California, looking for evidence of maternity hotel operations where they suspected immigration and tax fraud. The hotels, of course, aren’t hotels proper: they’re set up in apartment complexes, condos, with proprietors renting units for their own use. No one was arrested in this raid, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Virginia Kice did say that the search yielded a “significant” amount of physical evidence to their investigation, along with several material witnesses.
But no sign of the raid, or any resultant fearfulness, was apparent on the day my friend and I visited the Pheasant Ridge Apartment Community in Rowland Heights, one of the complexes that had been searched. Among the drab brown buildings in the complex, the women walked around, extraordinarily pregnant and rarely alone. They were mostly kept company by their husbands and mothers, who often elected to come to the U.S. to support their wives and daughters through the pregnancy.
“In China, people focus a lot on the health and well-being of the mother when she’s pregnant. And that means other family members have to pick up a lot of responsibility to care for her when she’s pregnant,” said Jai*, a woman in her early 30s from Shanghai.
Jai lives in a unit very close to some of those raided in the ICE investigation. Her two-month-old baby boy named August lay on a blanket covering the carpet a few feet away, mesmerized by the mobile above him. Jai looked towards him, making sure he was comfortable as she talked.
She was alone in the maternity hotel. Her husband had returned to China after August was born. Before that, he had been by her side through the pregnancy and birth of the couple’s second—and first American-born—child.
Jai declined to say exactly which service she used, but her apartment is in the immediate vicinity as the apartments known to be affiliated with StarBabyCare. Her decision to pick the service came after one of her friends in Shanghai recommended it to her after using it to have a child in the States.
About five or six months into her pregnancy, Jai contacted the maternity service. For about $14,500, they told her, she could sign up for a three-month package, spanning the final two months of pregnancy and allotting for one month of recovery time.
“My friend said they treated her well. And all of the pictures on the Internet looked good as well,” Jai said. “I liked this service because it is larger, more organized than some of the other services. The apartments offer more privacy than some of the other ones that are in single-homes.”
The package included lodging, local tours, prepared food served in a cafeteria like-setting, transportation, doctor recommendations, and a slew of local consultation services on how to raise a newborn child for the course of the entire stay.
When she made the decision to commit, she was sent an e-contract to sign, paid some of the money upfront, and booked a flight to New York City.
“My husband and I took a tour of the West Coast last year,” she said. “We wanted to see the East Coast this time for something different before coming back to Los Angeles.”
Jai’s tourist visa from her previous trip was still valid when she returned to the United States in late 2014. Though she was nervous that it might get revoked, she said that when they landed in New York nobody questioned her about whether or not she was pregnant. Her visa was simply accepted immediately.
Baby August is two months old now, but Jai plans to remain in the United States for some more time, letting him get stronger and grow bigger before flying back home to Shanghai. Jai says she wants to keep him away from the noxious air pollution for as long as possible.
“It’s not a sacrifice for me, or any of us,” she said referring to other mothers. “For us, it’s ensuring a better education for the child later on. And it costs significantly less than paying the fine for violating China’s one-child policy.”
According to Jai, the fine in Shanghai for violating the one-child policy is about 300,000 RMB ($48,000), much more than the 90,000 RMB ($14,500) she paid her maternity service to live in the U.S. If everything goes to plan, August will attend American schools for high school and college.
Despite American press coverage that frequently denounces maternity hotels as underworlds, rife with fraud and cash-only businesses, Jai paints the picture of a well-organized service providing something Chinese women are grateful for.
Information from one of the search-warrant affidavits revealed that the proprietors of StarBabyCare have been conducting business for more than 16 years. And, though the businesses do operate in a place of liminal legality, there isn’t anything spectacularly shady about the actual services they provide to the families who pay for them.
Jai and the thousands of others like her don’t see their actions as exploitation. To them, maternity hotels don’t represent defrauding the system; they represent an opportunity to ensure a better future for their babies, and then, after a few months, go home.
Matt Tinoco is a young journalist in Los Angeles who likes reporting on strange things. Follow him on Twitter @onthatbombshell. He thanks his friend Dan Li for his essential and vital help as a Mandarin-English translator in reporting this story.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.