April 14, 2010 -- Millions of foreign tourists visit the United States every year, and a growing number return home with a brand new U.S. citizen in tow.
Thousands of legal immigrants, who do not permanently reside in the United States but give birth here, have given their children the gift of citizenship, which the U.S. grants to anyone born on its soil.
The number of U.S. births to non-resident mothers rose 53 percent between 2000 and 2006, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Total births rose 5 percent in the same period.
Among the foreigners who have given birth here, including international travelers passing through and foreign students studying at U.S. universities, are "birth tourists," women who travel to the United States with the explicit purpose of obtaining citizenship for their child.
Catering to the women is a nascent industry of travel agencies and hotel chains seeking to profit from the business.
The Marmara Manhattan, a Turkish-owned luxury hotel on New York's City Upper East Side, markets birth tourism packages to expectant mothers abroad, luring more than a dozen pregnant guests and their families to the United States to give birth last year alone.
"What we offer is simply a one-bedroom suite accommodation for $7,750, plus taxes, for a month, with airport transfer, baby cradle and a gift set for the mother," Marmara Hotel spokeswoman Alexandra Ballantine said.
The hotel estimates the total cost of the package at $45,000.
Most women stay for two months, Ballantine said, and they make medical arrangements on their own. "Guests arrange and pay for these by themselves," she said of hospital costs that can approach $30,000.
For those with the means to pay, it's a small price to give a child the full benefits of U.S. citizenship, including the ability to travel freely to and from the United States, easy access to a U.S. education and a chance to start a life here.
"We found a company on the Internet and decided to go to Austin [Texas] for our child's birth," Turkish mother Selin Burcuoglu told Istanbul's Hurriyet Daily News. "I don't want [my daughter] to deal with visa issues. American citizenship has so many advantages."
The greatest of those advantages may be the ability of the citizen child to later sponsor the legal immigration of his or her entire family permanently to this country, experts say.
The "birth tourism" industry, which is difficult to track and remains largely anecdotal, has been on the rise for years, according to government and participants reports.
'Birth Tourism' on the Rise?
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, although it is difficult to know for sure. The government does not track the reasons non-resident mothers are in the United States at the time of the birth or their citizenship, meaning births to illegal immigrants who live in the United States are counted in the overall total.
In recent years, many women have come from Mexico, South Korea, China and Taiwan, but the trend now extends to countries in Eastern Europe, such as Turkey, where as many as 12,000 children were born in the United States to Turkish parents since 2003 by one estimate.
The business of birth tourism is perfectly legal as long as immigrants are able to pay their own way.
The State Department and Department of Homeland Security have no specific regulations banning pregnant foreigners from entering the United States. But officials say they can and do turn away pregnant women with obvious designs on coming to the United States to take advantage of free medical care.
"When determining if an individual will be allowed to enter the U.S., Customs and Border Protection officers take into consideration the date the child is due for delivery and the length of time the individual intends to stay in the U.S.," a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said.
Still, critics say the practice largely goes unchecked and exploits the true meaning of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted after the Civil War to grant citizenship to descendants of slaves.
"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside," the amendment reads.
"It's really an incorrect interpretation of the 14th Amendment," said Jerome Corsi, a conservative author and columnist who has studied the issue of birth tourism. "Birthright citizenship is a loophole … [and] as it expands into a business for entrepreneurs in foreign countries who offer birth tourism packages, it markets the loophole to attract additional mothers to the U.S."
Lino Graglia of the University of Texas law school wrote in the Jan. 11 Texas Review of Law & Politics that the authors of the 14th Amendment never would have imagined their words bestowing citizenship to illegal or visiting immigrants.
"It is difficult to imagine a more irrational and self-defeating legal system than one which makes unauthorized entry into this country a criminal offense and simultaneously provides perhaps the greatest possible inducement to illegal entry," Graglia wrote of birthright citizenship.
Closing the 'Birth Tourism' Loophole
The Supreme Court has only addressed the issue once, ruling in 1898 that citizenship applies to U.S.-born children of legal immigrants who have yet to become citizens.
Some legislators, including U.S. Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif., have called for revising the Constitution to forbid citizenship by birth alone and thereby end the attraction of birth tourists. But other politicos, from both sides of the aisle, say such an approach is politically unrealistic, not to mention unnecessary.
"You just turn people down for being pregnant," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. "That should be the default position and then there'd have to be some very good reason for an exception."
Krikorian acknowledged that some people might find a ban on pregnant visitors "outrageous," but questions the rationality of the alternative.
"Do you really think that's right that somebody here visiting Disneyland should have their children be U.S. citizens, which they'll then inevitably use to get access to the U.S.?" he asked.
Krikorian and others call the offspring of birth tourists "anchor babies," because they can serve as a foothold for future legal immigration of an entire family.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said he sees the debate about birth tourists in a different light, however, noting that arguments about citizenship of children ignore a fundamental question of humanity.
"If we're a country that cares about families and family values, then why are we blaming the children for a decision the parents made. Their only decision was to take a first breath," he said.
"What is the State Department going to do? To fill out a visa application have a woman pee on a stick?"
The United States is one of the few remaining countries to grant citizenship to all children born on its soil. The United Kingdom, Ireland, India and Australia, among others, have since revised their birthright laws, no longer allowing every child born on their soil to get citizenship.