Birthright Tourism: Babies Heat Up Immigration Debate

April 14, 2011

From “anchor babies” to “tourism babies,” the wee ones just can’t seem to catch a break.

In the last year, the news media has been peppered with stories about illegal immigrants sneaking across our borders to have children and then staying in the country to raise them as US citizens. Cue the arguments about anchor babies not paying taxes, depleting US resources, making a mockery of the Constitution, et cetera.

More recently, another hot topic about birthright citizenship has been added into the immigration debate. Stories are emerging about non-Americans who come to the US expressly to have their babies here. Officials recently closed down a “maternity tourism” house in San Gabriel, California, that served pregnant tourists from China. For unspecified reasons, these women, who are normally from well-to-do backgrounds and hold valid tourist visas, time their visits with the purpose of giving birth in the US. Afterwards, they and their babies return to their home country.

Interestingly enough, the same arguments of not paying taxes and depleting US resources are leveraged against these new little Americans as well.

The main argument against birthright tourism has been that they are exploiting the 14th amendment, which states that all persons born in the US are automatically US citizens. Presumably, the children of birth tourists can return at any time to take advantage of our free public education and civil rights, such as voting and running for president. Additionally, once the children turn 21, they would be able to petition the US government to grant their parents permanent residence status.

Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tougher immigration controls, takes huge issue with this. He is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “These people aren’t doing anything in violation of our laws. But if anything, it is worse than illegal immigrants delivering a baby here. Those kids are socialized as Americans. This phenomenon of coming to the US and then leaving with people who have unlimited access to come back is just ridiculous.”

Ah, so now non-Americans can be derided for not violating our laws! Excellent point, Mr. Krikorian, seeing as that makes zero sense. While I agree that it is perhaps unusual to have babies in the US without any intention of staying in the country, I think calling birth tourism a ‘phenomenon’ is just plain old xenophobic fear-mongering.

According to the article, the Center for Health Care Statistics estimates that there were 7,462 births to foreign residents in the US in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Being as there were about 4.3 million total births that year, that’s really not a huge number. Assuming that these numbers are reliable, that means children of foreign residents make up about 0.17 percent of total births in the US. How many of these foreign residents are birth tourists is unknown, but it's highly unlikely that all of them are dreaded 14th Amendment exploiters. It's not certain how many birth tourists ever return to the US, but even if every single one of them did, that’s still only a small fraction of a fraction of one percent of the population. Besides which, characterizing this population as an “economic drain” doesn't make sense, considering it's widely accepted that birth tourists are not impoverished individuals, but people who are, if anything, among the more globally privileged.

Nevertheless, political officials have mobilized a national legislative apparatus to call for a crackdown to close the birthright ‘loophole.’ Senator David Vitter, R-La, has introduced a bill to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act in order to limit birthright citizenship to children born in the US to at least one parent who is a US citizen, legal resident alien or active member of the US armed forces. The bill is supported by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and was co-authored by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. Vitter and Paul had previously tried to introduce the proposal to amend the 14th Amendment.

I don’t know how I feel about this. It hits a little too close to home for me. Allow me to share some personal details.

My parents came to the US on my dad’s student visa. They did not intend to have a kid, but these things happen, as they so often do. (TMI? Yeah, it’s taken me years to come to terms with the accidental nature of my existence. But that’s a story for another day; my therapist says it’s still too soon.)

So anyway, I was born in New York. My parents took it in stride but, at the time, they didn’t make a big deal of my US citizenship, since they truly didn’t plan on living here. My dad finished his degree before my first birthday, and off we went back to Taiwan. We lived there until my dad was offered a job in the US, and we moved to Virginia just in time for me to start kindergarten. I don’t know how much of a role my being a US citizen played into the decision to move, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I was one.

As a funny sort of twist, I received the Citizenship Award that first year in the US. (Eat your heart out, senators.) Yes, my teacher gave the award to a girl who was just learning English and could barely pronounce the word. I don’t think anyone was more surprised than my parents.

In some ways, that kindergarten Citizenship Award laid the foundation of the rest of my academic career. I did well in school. I even got a graduate degree. I rarely got into trouble and I’ve never been arrested. Now, I’m gainfully employed and dutifully pay taxes. Not to toot my own horn, but I feel like I’ve been something of a model citizen.

So it’s troubling for me to question the legitimacy of my citizenship status. Like many second-generation kids, I initially struggled with having a bicultural heritage but eventually came to embrace it. I’ve spent my entire life simply knowing that I was an American because I was born here. It is a huge root of my identity.

Vitter’s proposal wouldn’t make much of a difference for me now -- my parents went by the book and were naturalized before I turned 18, so citizenship would have automatically been conferred on me in high school. Whereas, I realize that the issue these senators are fired up about is that some people are taking advantage of the birthright clause in a opportunistic way. But to demand a constitutional amendment by characterizing this population as a major threat, is a (politically) opportunistic move of its own.

And in the end, I'm not so sure it really matters to supporters of this campaign, whether 'anchor babies' are dropped by accident or deliberately. It’s weird to think that these officials are angling to change the Constitution because of people like me.

And, by ‘people like me,’ I obviously mean ‘educated, employed, law-abiding, reasonably attractive and all-around awesome’ people.

Toot, toot.

Photo credit: Fraternal Twins by Peter Griffin




Maternity tourism also thrives in Hong Kong, where there's an influx of mothers-in-waiting from mainland China. U.S. reactions mirror Hong Kong situation.