Federal agents raid suspected 'maternity hotels' in California

By Steve Gorman LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Federal agents raided about 20 Southern California locations on Tuesday suspected of involvement in "maternity tourism" schemes providing travel, lodging and medical care to pregnant foreign women seeking to give birth in the United States, immigration officials said. Authorities say the so-called maternity hotels targeted in the sweep catered largely to wealthy women from China who paid $15,000 to $80,000, depending on services offered, in hopes of obtaining U.S. citizenship for their children. The locations searched included three apartment complexes - one each in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties - suspected of housing foreign clients, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE. No criminal arrests were anticipated from Tuesday's raids, which were carried out by federal agents and local law enforcement, said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in Los Angeles. The sweep was believed to mark the first such enforcement action against a cottage industry that has gained a growing foothold in the United States in recent years while operating largely out of sight of federal authorities, he said. The U.S. Constitution grants citizenship to any child born on U.S. soil, regardless of parentage, and immigration experts say there is nothing inherently illegal about women coming from abroad to give birth in the United States. But operators of the maternity hotels are suspected of obtaining non-immigrant U.S. visitor visas under false pretenses, as well as engaging in tax fraud, money laundering and other offenses, Arnold said. Any women encountered in the raids were to be interviewed, and those identified as potential material witnesses instructed where and when to report for further questioning, ICE said. Businesses engaged in maternity tourism, also known as "birth tourism," are believed to have been operating for several years, relying on websites, newspaper advertising and social media to promote their services, immigration officials said. As part of the package, clients were promised they would receive Social Security numbers and U.S. passports for their infants, ICE said, documentation the mothers would take with them when they returned to their home countries. Once the children reach adulthood, they can seek U.S. visas for relatives living abroad. More expensive packages include recreational activities, such as visits to Disneyland and shopping malls, ICE said. Clients apparently pay cash for prenatal medical treatment and delivery of their babies. At least some have fraudulently benefited from sharply discounted hospital rates normally reserved for indigent or uninsured patients, according to court documents. More than 400 children linked to operators in Irvine were born at one of the Orange County hospitals they used since January 2013, authorities said. Immigration officials say they believe thousands of Chinese women have been traveling to the United States using temporary visitor visas for the sole purpose of giving birth. They typically arrive through tourist destinations such as Hawaii or Las Vegas to avoid heightened scrutiny they might otherwise encounter at Los Angeles International Airport, officials said. (Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Mohammad Zargham)