20 February 2019
Pregnant mothers are a boon to the Saipan eonomy. Photo: Reuters
Pregnant mothers are a boon to the Saipan eonomy. Photo: Reuters

Saipan visa waiver gives birth to tourist baby trade

The Pacific island of Saipan, a US territory, has become the latest hotspot for Chinese women who want an American baby. But its governor and congressman have appealed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to limit “birth tourism”.

According to the US National Center for Maternal and Infant Health, the number of Chinese women who went to the United States to give birth more than doubled to over 10,000 in 2012, up from 4,200 in 2008.

It is a lucrative business. The agencies that run it charge women about 150,000 yuan (US$24,300) for 45 days in the continental US, including medical care, lodging before and after birth, food, nursing care and tourist excursions.

Then the agencies discovered they can charge as little as 50,000 yuan for the same service in Saipan, an island in the Northern Marianas that the US took over from Japan after the second world war. It has a population of 48,000.

Until 2007, it had a flourishing garment industry that was exempt from US minimum wage rules. But that year president George Bush signed into a law an increase in the minimum wage that included Saipan. As a result, the industry collapsed, with the last producer closing in January 2009. The territory has since become heavily dependent on tourism.

While several carriers have cancelled flights to Saipan for want of clients, eight charter flights arrive each week from Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. Chinese have become the largest source of tourists; they can stay for 45 days without a visa, under an exemption to US immigration rules aimed at encouraging tourism. The journey takes four hours, the shortest distance between China and US territory.

It’s this visa exemption that opened the door to birth tourism. While the birthrate of Saipan residents is falling, the number Chinese births has risen from eight in 2009 to 282 in 2012. They outnumbered babies of any other ethnic group.

Birth agencies offer different packages. Staying in a hotel is expensive but legal; staying in a dormitory is cheaper but runs greater risk of trouble. Agencies offer a guesthouse where the mothers can have a total rest for a month after the birth; for this, they charge US$11,000 for full board, nurses, post-natal care, translation, drivers and all documentation. Medical bills cost US$7,000-11,000.

These visitors are a boon to the economy; they spend heavily on retail items, food and translation, as well as lodging and medical services.

The parents want their child to have a U.S. passport, enabling him or her to receive a free public education, be eligible for social and medical benefits and work in the US legally, including in the government. And an infant born in Saipan does not count as the single child allowed to the vast majority of Chinese parents. They can have another.

After the child turns 21, the family can apply to join him in the US and will receive a preference higher than many categories of family member. They see this as an escape route in the event of political turmoil at home.

But there are downsides. The child has no legal registration in China and is ineligible for free education, health care or social benefits. His parents must pay for these themselves, including health insurance, which is a substantial bill.

If they wish him to be educated in the US, they either send him to a private boarding school – with high fees – or one of them will go to live with him; while his public school is free, the parent will have to rent a house and pay the living costs. If the US embassy believes that the parent intends to emigrate, it will refuse the visa.

In addition, the child must wait until he is 21 before he collects his US citizenship. Who can say how policy will change over the next 20 years?

Saipan governor Eloy Inos knows his territory is heavily dependent on Chinese tourism; a lifting of the visa waiver would devastate its economy. Nor can people be sent back simply because they are pregnant.

But he fears that, if the numbers continue to rise, Washington will decide to lift the waiver by itself. So he is working with the DHS, the Chinese government and Asiana Airlines, the main carrier, to minimize the practice. Another fear is that mothers do not have the financial means to pay for the entire process; if a complication occurs or the mother decides not to keep the child, the Saipan health system becomes responsible.

Ideas being considered by the government include a security deposit to ensure that all expenses are covered and raising the cost of a birth certificate for a “tourist baby” from US$20 now to US$50,000.

Parents considering the Saipan option should move quickly before the door closes or the entry bar is raised much higher.

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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