FILE - Federal agents enter an upscale apartment complex where authorities say a birth tourism business charged pregnant women between $40,000 and $100,000 for lodging, food and transportation, in Irvine, Calif., March 3, 2015.
FILE - Federal agents enter an upscale apartment complex where authorities say a birth tourism business charged pregnant women between $40,000 and $100,000 for lodging, food and transportation, in Irvine, Calif., March 3, 2015.

Federal authorities revealed Thursday that they have charged 20 people with an illegal operation to bring pregnant Chinese women to the United States to give birth.

A baby born on U.S. soil gets automatic citizenship.

Three travel agents operating in Southern California were arrested Thursday, charged with conspiracy, visa fraud and money laundering.

U.S. attorneys said they believe most of the other suspects have fled back to China.

“The operators of these birthing houses show contempt for the United States while they were luring clients with the power and prestige of U.S. citizenship for their children,” U.S. attorney Nick Hanna said.

FILE - This March 3, 2015, photo shows an upscale
FILE - This March 3, 2015, photo shows an upscale apartment complex where authorities say a birth tourism business charged pregnant women for lodging, food and transportation, after it was raided in Irvine, Calif. On Jan. 31, 2019, authorities announced they have charged 20 people in an unprecedented crackdown on businesses that helped hundreds of Chinese women travel to the United States to give birth to American citizen children.

Those under arrest allegedly ran U.S. travel agencies with such names as “You Win USA Vacation Services” and “USA Happy Baby.”

According to the indictment, upper middle-class and wealthy Chinese couples — including Chinese government officials —paid the agencies between $40,000 and $100,000 to arrange travel to the U.S. for their pregnant customers.

The women allegedly lied about the purpose of their travel to the U.S. when securing visas. In some cases, they were advised to tell immigration officials that they were going to stay at the Trump International Hotel in Honolulu.

The travel agents told the women to wear loose-fitting clothes to hide their pregnancies from border control officials who may be on the lookout for such schemes.

After delivering their babies, some of the women claimed to be impoverished to avoid big medical bills, when, in fact, they had large U.S. bank accounts.

The women allegedly stayed in the U.S. for as long as three months, living in apartments arranged by the travel bureaus, before returning home with their babies — U.S. citizens who as adults can sponsor family members in the U.S.

“I see this as a grave national security concern and vulnerability,” special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Mark Zito said. “Are some of them doing it for security because the United States is more stable? Absolutely. But will those governments take advantage of this? Yes, they will.”

Federal authorities broke up the ring in 2015 after a series of raids on those apartments and other sites.

They said it took this long to charge the suspects because of the huge number of records and evidence to comb through, much of it in Mandarin.

Officials said several other countries, including South Korea, Turkey and Russia, have similar birthing operations.