When pregnant Chinese women called You Win USA Vacation Services, they didn’t receive information on visiting Disneyland or the Grand Canyon.
Instead, they sought coveted advice on how to make a very different type of trip — one aimed at giving birth on U.S. soil so their children would be American citizens. You Win USA employees allegedly coached the women on the lies they should write on bogus applications for tourist visas and made sure the women traveled before their bellies swelled too much to conceal.
Fly first to Hawaii to blend in with the hordes of tourists, and list the Trump International Hotel in Honolulu as your destination, the women were told. Then, hop a flight to Los Angeles.
It was a scheme that federal authorities say went on for years. But Thursday, the operator of You Win USA and the owners of another allegedly illicit “birth tourism” company in Southern California were arrested and charged with an array of crimes including immigration fraud, money laundering and identity theft, according to indictments filed in U.S. District Court.
The arrests marked the culmination of a long-running investigation by agents from the Department of Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service into three outfits operating for years in Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and Orange County. They charged as much as $100,000 for their clandestine services — a price tag that authorities say Chinese parents-to-be readily paid to make sure their children would be citizens of what You Win USA’s promotional material called the “most attractive nationality.”
“These cases allege a wide array of criminal schemes that sought to defeat our immigration laws — laws that welcome foreign visitors so long as they are truthful about their intentions when entering the country,” U.S. Atty. Nicola Hanna said in a statement. “Statements by 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.”
Arrested Thursday morning were Dongyuan Li, 41, of Irvine, who was identified in court records as an executive at You Win USA Vacation Services in Irvine; as well as Michael Wei Yueh Liu, 53, of Rancho Cucamonga; and Jing Dong, 42, of Fontana, who authorities said owned and operated a company called USA Happy Baby in San Bernardino.
All three pleaded not guilty in court appearances Thursday afternoon, according to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office. Li was ordered to be held in custody pending a detention hearing next week. Liu and Dong can be released after they post $250,000 bonds.
Also indicted Thursday was Wen Rui Deng, 65, an American citizen officials accuse of running a Los Angeles agency named Star Baby Care, which authorities believe to have been the largest birth tourism operation in the U.S. She is believed to be living in China, authorities said.
Li’s husband also faces charges, along with her business partner, Chao Chen, and several people who allegedly lied on visa applications to come to the U.S. to have babies. But they are all in China as well, according to more indictments unsealed Thursday. Chen pleaded guilty to some crimes and agreed to cooperate with investigators as part of a plea deal but then fled the country as he awaited sentencing.
The cases are a new foray into immigration enforcement for the government, marking the first time criminal charges have been brought against operators and customers of birth tourism businesses, Hanna said.
Although the government does not track birth tourism figures, estimates by the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative-leaning think tank, put the number of annual Chinese births in the U.S. at about 36,000.
Local officials in Southern California have struggled for years with how to respond to a surge in the number of operators who fill leased apartments with a constant churn of expectant and new mothers, who are sometimes accompanied by their husbands or parents.
Although childbirth can be a legitimate reason to travel to the U.S. if the traveler provides the correct paperwork and evidence they can pay for their medical care, lying about the purpose of a visit can lead to charges of visa fraud. Customs and Border Protection agents at major ports of entry such as Los Angeles International Airport in recent years have tightened security for pregnant Chinese women and sometimes block them from entering the country.
Taiwanese, Korean, Turkish and Russian mothers-to-be are also known to engage in birth tourism, but the practice has become particularly popular with the newly wealthy Chinese middle class.
Under the Trump administration, birth tourism has come under increased scrutiny as the president has included the issue in his campaign to remake the country’s immigration laws. He railed against the idea of birthright citizenship — the constitutional right that automatically bestows citizenship on anyone born on U.S. soil.
“This policy has even created an entire industry, it’s called … ‘birth tourism,’ ” President Trump said in November, “where pregnant mothers from all over the world travel to America to make their children instant, lifelong citizens with guaranteed everything.”
The current cases predate Trump’s presidency and stem from a series of raids agents carried out in March 2015 on dozens of apartments used to house pregnant women and other locations linked to the birth tourism schemes.
After the raids, several women and their husbands living in the apartments were ordered by a judge to remain in the country as material witnesses in the case. Many of them fled to China, however, leading to charges being filed against them and an Irvine attorney who helped them escape.
To investigate You Win USA, a female Customs and Border Protection agent fluent in Mandarin posed as a pregnant Chinese woman. Over several conversations with a company employee, she was coached on how to deceive U.S immigration officials. She was instructed to fabricate a job and the name of the place she went to school, information the You Win USA employee later used to complete an application for a tourist visa to the United States on behalf of the woman.
The investigation would later widen to include Star Baby Care and Happy Baby USA.
It is not known how many women were brought to the U.S. by the three agencies implicated in Thursday’s indictments. On her website for Star Baby Care, Deng boasted of having orchestrated 8,000 U.S. births since opening her doors in 1999, according to court records. Li and Chen told prospective clients they had successfully sneaked more than 500 pregnant women into the country, records show.
Women were told to come to the U.S. before their third trimester and to wear loose-fitting clothes in order to better conceal their pregnancies from immigration officials. For example, in a voicemail message to a customer in 2014 intercepted by investigators, Li said: “The main thing is they look and see if you look obvious [pregnant]; can they see it? First thing is not to let them see it,” according to Li’s indictment.
After giving birth, mothers typically stay in the U.S. at least long enough to observe the Chinese custom of zuo yuezi, a monthlong regimen that restricts a new mother’s diet and lifestyle in order to help her recover from pregnancy.
In a document titled “Strategies to Maximize the Chance of Entry” that investigators discovered while searching You Win USA’s offices, Li and Chen spelled out the particulars of their strategy. They told women, for example, they would improve their chances of slipping past immigration officials by putting on their tourist visa applications that they intended to stay at Trump’s hotel.
Liu and Dong, who ran USA Happy Baby, catered to wealthier clients that included Chinese government officials and charged as much as $100,000 for their services, authorities said. The other outfits typically charged less.
The indictments also drew attention to the drain on resources at the hospitals where the women gave birth. After paying tens of thousands of dollars to the companies that brought them to the U.S., the mothers often claimed to be uninsured or poor to receive a reduced bill for childbirth services, the indictments said.
In one 2014 case highlighted in Li’s indictment, a couple paid an unnamed hospital its indigent rate of $4,080 for bills that exceeded $28,000, despite having more than $225,000 in a U.S. bank account that was used to make purchases at a Rolex store in Costa Mesa and a Louis Vuitton shop in Beverly Hills.
In searches conducted during the 2015 raids, agents discovered stacks of unopened hospital laboratory bills, said Mark Zito, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Los Angeles.
Despite the subterfuge the mothers employed to come to the country, their children nonetheless are citizens under U.S. law, and officials said they do not plan to try to challenge their citizenship.
The nearly four-year lag between the raids and Thursday’s arrests was due in part, officials said, to the time it took investigators to comb through the large cache of records they seized, including a trove of communications from the Chinese messaging app WeChat, which had to be translated from Mandarin.
After the raids, agents said, the shadowy operations went dark for several months.
“But then we weren’t quickly indicting people because we had to go through all this evidence, and it started to come back,” Zito said. “The problem has definitely grown…. We might make an impact with these companies, but others took their place.”
It can be a lucrative business.
Li, for example, received $1.5 million in wire transfers from China in both 2013 and 2014, while other defendants took in similar amounts, according to the indictments.
In November 2013, Li was able to buy a house in Irvine for $2.1 million and a $118,000 Mercedes-Benz. She had enough cash on hand to buy both outright without loans, authorities alleged in the indictment. As part of the investigation into Li, authorities said, they have seized the house, six vehicles, more than $1 million from bank accounts and many gold bars and coins.
Image: Federal agents escort residents from an apartment in Rowland Heights during a 2015 raid on an alleged “birth tourism” operation. On Thursday, prosecutors charged several people in such schemes, which bring pregnant women to the U.S to give birth.