Complaints have spiked over "birth tourism" in Los Angeles County, with 60 alleged maternity hotels being reported in the past month, according to a report by the county planning department.
Authorities have found it difficult to gain access to the alleged maternity hotels and verify suspicions. So far, they have been able to inspect only seven, and found that three of them were in violation of zoning codes.
The surge in complaints comes after a high-profile campaign was waged to shut down a "maternity mansion" in neighboring San Bernadino County. Previously, the commission had reported 15 complaints over a period of five years, according to the Jan. 14 report.
Nestled in residential neighborhoods, the so-called maternity hotels are overwhelmingly advertised to women from Asia, as evidenced from various websites, offering expectant mothers the chance to give birth to an American citizen.
The practice isn't illegal, according to federal immigration law. The 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States.
"This is the sort of thing the government winks at," said David North, a researcher with the non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies. "It's just one more of the elements in which the American immigration policy is an open door situation."
Instead, local authorities have had to find other ways to crack down on the maternity hotels. The alleged locations have been investigated for zoning violations and some cases have been reported to the state tax board, the report said.
"We are trying to make sure every house is in compliance with the zoning ordinance," said Alex Garcia, a supervising regional planner at the Los Angeles Department of Regional Planning. "These recovery homes do what they're going to do and as long as we see they're in compliance, then we don't go and crack down on them."
An investigation by Los Angeles County officials revealed that of the 60 complaints, all but one were located in places where boarding houses are not allowed. According to the report, some complaints included locations already under investigation.
Of the 20 alleged maternity homes that have been visited by city inspectors, permission to enter was granted at only seven. Three of those were found to have zoning code violations, the report said.
"It has been our experience that county inspectors typically do not gain access to inspect alleged maternity boarding houses as occupants do not answer the door even when it's clear that there are people home," the report said. "When occupants answer the door, they often state that they do not speak English."
Garcia said that without access to the home, planning officials have few options.
"Most of them look like a house from the outside," he said.
In order to overcome this, a Mandarin and Cantonese translator will be included in inspection teams, the report said, and inspections will include other agencies, such as the Public Works, Health and Fire departments.
But for now, the maternity homes that have not been inspected or have not been found to violate zoning, tax, or other violations, can continue to exist.
The website from the now-defunct Chino Hills operation, translated from Chinese, includes tips for mothers on how to hide their pregnancies from U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, so they can receive a visitor's visa. Officers have the discretion to deny entry to those entering the country.
Pregnant mothers are advised to wear a dark T-shirt and holding a large backpack in front of them to cover their stomachs, according to advice on the website. They are also told to not bring in any items specific to pregnant women and babies, in order to prevent suspicion.
Aside from citizenship, the website touts other perks American citizens enjoy, including free public education, better loan rates and social welfare during retirement.
"Birth tourism is another indication that Uncle Sam is a stupid cupid," North said. "If there is not a law or regulation, then no one really keeps track of how prevalent this is."