Birth Tourism: The Newest Red Herring in the Anti-Immigration Arsenal

First published on Global Comment on July 23, 2010. Read the original with comments here.

Earlier this year, The Marmara Manhattan, part of a Turkish hotel chain, began offering a package to expectant mothers. For between $5100 – $15000, visitors got a two-month stay, prenatal consultation, crib, and items for both mother and newborn. They say they’ve already sold 15 such packages. This is the cutting edge in birth tourism, the practice of visiting countries to give birth to children who will then be citizens. And though it involves a tiny number of women, it’s about to be a big deal, if the anti-immigration crusaders of The Tea Party have their way.

In late May, Rand Paul told a Russian news program that America is “the only country I know that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen.” While it may be true that we are the only such country Paul knows, we are far from the only country with birthright citizenship laws. Yet as anti-immigrant sentiments become more common in developed nations, that list of countries is shrinking. It’s been suggested that recent changes in the birthright laws of England, India, Australia and other countries have been undertaken to prevent birth tourism. In a contentious 2004 referendum, 80% of Irish voters rejected birthright laws over concerns about “citizenship tourism.”


And more and more American politicians are beginning to share their fears. State Senator Russell Pearce, best known for sponsoring Arizona’s draconian immigration law SB1070, has proposed a state bill that would deny citizenship to any child born in Arizona unless one parent can document their US citizenship. Randy Terrill, a Republican Representative from Oklahoma, has introduced a similar bill in his state. Under current laws, Terrill told NPR, “children of invading armies would be considered citizens of the U.S.” Fear-mongering at its best.

The media, it seems, is following their lead. Just last week, The Washington Post published an article entitled “For Many Pregnant Chinese, A U.S. Passport for Baby Remains a Powerful Lure.” The “many” of the title is questionable, however. The article admits there are no hard numbers, and the company they spoke to estimated they had helped 500-600 women in the course of five years – not quite the flood of wealthy Chinese birth tourists the title conjures up.

In April, ABC News carried an almost hysterical segment on birth tourism, which used rampant speculation in the place of facts. “Of the 4,273,225 live births in the United States in 2006, the most recent data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics, 7,670 were children born to mothers who said they do not live here. Many, but not all, of those mothers could be ‘birth tourists,’ experts say.” [emphasis added] By their own admission, that makes birth tourism responsible for a whopping .001 percent of all births at most.

Using the tiny number of birth tourists as a front, birthright laws are coming under a full-frontal attack by the Tea Party. And why shouldn’t they? Isn’t this just an easily exploitable loophole in our immigration policies?

In short: no. Birthright citizenship is an incredibly important part of the social contract that is enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Without it, the stage is set for the creation of a permanent underclass of workers that have no recourse for citizenship, even down through generations. It was designed to ensure that slavery could never again happen in the US. The citizenship laws that have replaced explicit birthright laws in much of Europe require an ancestor with citizenship for a child to gain citizenship of their own. This creates a situation where immigrant populations can be trapped as resident non-citizens forever.

In fact, attacks on birth tourism are simply red herrings designed to mask a larger assault on immigrants in this country. The image of rich foreign families coming over to give birth is easy to demonize. As The Washington Post article put it, “these Chinese parents fly in on first-class seats.” It is simpler to attack these families than it is the true face of birthright citizenship: the children of poor, hardworking immigrant communities in the US.

For Paul, Terrill, Pearce, et at., the real fear is not the small number of women who may come to visit the U.S. to give birth (and, in eighteen years, have their family sponsored for citizenship), but rather the women and families who are already in this country.This is but one small part in a larger Tea Party initiative to chip away at the rights of all immigrants in this country, legal and illegal.

Thankfully, amending the Constitution is a difficult and unlikely process. But as more and more state level officials jump on the anti-immigration bandwagon, we can expect to see an uptick in local bills that require proof-of-citizenship to access pre-natal care and birth-related services.