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Activists: One-Child Policy Drives Some Chinese to US 'Maternity Hotels'

Federal agents enter an upscale apartment complex where authorities say a birth-tourism business charged pregnant women $50,000 for lodging, food and transportation, Irvine, Calif., March 3, 2015.

A U.S.-based women's rights group says China's one-child policy has contributed to the trend of pregnant Chinese women traveling to California to give birth in collusion with tour companies who bring them to the United States under false pretenses.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided at least 20 locations in Southern California on Tuesday in a crackdown on "maternity tourism" businesses that help the expectant mothers to give birth in the United States so that their babies will be granted automatic U.S. citizenship.

Federal investigators suspect those businesses advise the Chinese women to falsely claim they are visiting the United States as tourists in order to secure tourist visas. Once the women reach Southern California, the businesses accommodate them in residences that serve as "maternity hotels" until they give birth.

Human rights

In a phone interview with VOA from California, Women’s Rights Without Frontiers President Reggie Littlejohn said one of the women caught up in Tuesday's raids told authorities that she came to the United States to skirt China’s one-child policy.

It is not illegal for foreign women to give birth in the United States. Investigators made no immediate arrests at the targeted sites, but warned that people involved in the "maternity tourism" schemes could face criminal charges such as visa fraud.

Littlejohn said it is unclear what will happen to the women.

"I’m sure that part of what investigators will consider is: If you send back to China a pregnant woman who came here to skirt the one-child policy, would she be forcibly aborted?" she said.

Littlejohn's organization seeks to halt forced abortions and sex-selection abortions in China.

Big business

Littlejohn said that if news of the raids reaches China, it may deter some pregnant women from traveling to the United States, due to a fear of being prosecuted for lying on their visa applications. She said the number of Chinese women who make such "maternity" trips to the United States annually is in the "thousands."

China eased its one-child policy in 2013, stating that if one or both parents are an only child, they can seek official approval to have a second child of their own. Many parents have been reluctant to have a second child in China, however, because of the onerous regulations involved and the high cost of living.

Littlejohn said another motivation for pregnant Chinese women to seek U.S. citizenship for their babies is their desire to give them a U.S. education.

"As U.S. citizens, their children would have the ability in the future to go to U.S. colleges and pay regular tuition fees as opposed to the higher tuition fees for foreign students," she said.

Some Chinese parents also hold the U.S. education system in high esteem. The Los Angeles Times quoted a Chinese woman at one of the raided "maternity hotels" as saying, “America has the world's best universities.”

Victor Beattie contributed to this report from Washington.