It started last summer. Neighbors of a tan, sun-baked mansion in Chino Hills, Calif., knew something was going on in the large Spanish-style home with stucco walls and a tiled roof overlooking the community. Cars sped up and down the quiet little road. And a remarkable number of pregnant Asian women came and went throughout the day.
Then in September, disgruntled neighbors became anxious citizens when 2,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled down the hillside.
City authorities discovered in the subsequent investigation that the seven-bedroom house had become a 17-room “birth hotel.” The 7,964-square-foot residence on Woodglen Drive had been housing up to 30 pregnant Chinese women who wanted to give birth to their children on American soil. Each room had matching bedding and furniture, room keys, monogrammed towels, and a portable hot water kettle.
Last month, a local court shut down the operation, owned by Los Angeles Hermas Hotel Inc., for building code violations that included exposed wires, missing smoke alarms, improper ventilation, and carpet stretched over a 3-foot-wide hole in the floor. The owners have six months to fix the problems and get the proper business permits, or they face permanent closure.
This operation was just one of about 15 baby hotels in the heavily Asian Chino Hills area, with dozens more around the country.
“Birth tourism” has made the news recently, but the Chino Hills incident touched off a crackdown in California as local authorities apply zoning and building codes in an effort to control the operations.
It’s also reopened the debate over the Fourteenth Amendment. Birth hotels are legal in the U.S. because the Fourteenth Amendment gives citizenship to children born on American soil. They have the right to vote, immigrate from their parents’ home country, and apply for permanent visas for their parents once they turn 21.
Birth tourism is a rising industry in countries like China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. A three-month stay, plus medical fees, can easily run more than $50,000. Although the Chino Hills operation had a variety of safety and health issues, other birth hotels offer luxurious accommodations with chefs to prepare food from the home country.
Recent studies by the National Center for Health Statistics have reported the number of babies born to non-resident women topped 7,000 per year, up 50 percent since 2000, although it’s not clear how many are the result of birth tourism.
That is a tiny fraction of the number of children born with at least one parent in the country illegally—350,000 in 2009, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center. But critics say “birth tourism” is an abuse of an American law designed to enfranchise slaves born on American soil.
“The practice is a misinterpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment,” said John Fonte, Hudson Institute senior fellow and director of the Center for American Common Culture. “U.S. citizens should be very concerned.”
Some Californians are concerned. Rosanna Mitchell started a group called Not in Chino Hills to protest against the facility. “Our mission is to keep a vigilant eye and use all our efforts necessary to do so,” wrote Mitchell on the website.
She told WORLD that, aside from worries about sanitation, traffic, and under-the-table businesses, she doubts those patronizing birth hotels are genuinely pursuing the American dream. “Something needs to be done,” she said. “It’s outrageous that they would take advantage of the U.S.”
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, introduced a bill in January to amend the Fourteenth Amendment to “clarify” that citizenship applies to those born in the U.S. provided at least one parent is a U.S. citizen, a lawful immigrant, or serving in the military. The bill, with 13 co-sponsors, is currently in committee.