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The trials and tribulations of China's 'anchor babies'

AFP/File/Peter Parks

China's new rich are increasingly taking advantage of loopholes in American visa law to have their babies in the United States. Parents believe these so called "anchor babies" will have greater economic and educational advantages, but many are just beginning to see the problems that come with their status as well.

BEIJING – The question of children born of illegal immigrants - so-called “anchor babies” - was re-injected back into America’s national discourse late last year when a U.S. study found that an estimated 340,000 of 4.3 million babies born in the United States in 2008 – or every 1 in 15 - had an illegal-immigrant parent.

While much of the debate – and a healthy dose of vitriol – was focused on immigrants of Hispanic background, stories of upper-class Chinese women flying to the United States in style and staying at private clinics to have their babies to take advantage of citizenship laws soon began to appear in the news cycle.       

With them, a new breed of anchor baby was born, and their very existence changed the dynamics of the controversy completely.

While Hispanic anchor babies might be stereotypically viewed as coming from poverty and consequently destined to be heavily reliant on government social services, the parents of Chinese anchor babies were wealthy Chinese who legally paid their own way to the United States, freely spent money at American stores, and generally intended to return back to China soon after giving birth.

Just how many Chinese mothers have come over to the United States remains unclear. One report, though, cited an agency that claims it has helped over 600 mothers travel to the U.S. to have their children in the last five years.

The motivations of these families are far-ranging: from a desire to provide better educational and travel opportunities to their children in an increasingly competitive and international job market, to a clever way to skirt China’s one-child policy, to a desire to one day enjoy the American lifestyle and all the benefits – both social and economic – that entails.

Whatever their motivation, the machinations behind the process were always clear: for approximately $15,000, Chinese mothers were navigated through the process of applying for an American visa, including how to fill out forms and how to approach interviews given at American embassies by visa officers.

Once in America – mostly in cities on the West Coast but sometimes U.S. territories like Saipan - the mothers were given two months of prenatal care and a month of medical support post-birth. Throughout the three months, the mothers were given room and board and scheduled activities such as shopping trips at local malls or walks around the clinic for exercise.

Though many of these clinics operate without a proper business license, throughout their time in the U.S., the women were safe in knowing that everything they had done from the initial visa process that gained them entry to the United States to later applying for citizenship for their newborn was legal and fully protected under current U.S. law.

Both the 14th Amendment and State Department rules that don’t regulate pregnant foreign visitors ensured that.

Dual passports, double headaches
Fast-forward to today, and it would seem that the trend of pregnant Chinese women traveling to the United States to give birth has not abated. Yet, on the heels of such reports comes a new story from the Chinese newspaper, Economic Observer, that details the consequences that many of these mothers returning to China with their American children now face.

Perhaps the most immediate problem for families is the fact that China does not allow dual citizenship. Absent then of documents like a Chinese passport, birth certificate or a hukou – the infamous resident permit that allows Chinese citizens to legally live and work in a city – these children are foreigners in the eyes of the government and subsequently subjected to higher school tuitions and limited access to national health care.

Some parents have attempted to game the system by conning the Chinese government into issuing their children passports. Still others have paid for fake birth certificates and hukous that allow them to at least enroll their children in the local schools they desire without facing the additional fees required of foreign children.

However, with such steps come additional risks and concerns.    

With dual passports, comes the greater chance of getting caught by both Chinese and American authorities while travelling between the two countries. U.S. law stipulates that in most cases, dual nationals must use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the United States. However, to leave China on an American passport would expose a child’s dual nationality and in essence negate their ill-gotten Chinese citizenship.

In order to circumvent these legal landmines then, Chinese families often must apply for a visa to a second country or a region like Hong Kong, where they transit through using their Chinese passports to enter and then fly onwards from there to the United States on their American passports.

Finally, Chinese babies born in America will eventually find themselves subjected to the same civic responsibilities that other citizens must face: taxes. After they turn 15 years old, Chinese anchor babies will be expected to pay state and federal taxes. While the consequences of not paying taxes vary from state to state, it is clear that the benefits that they would be entitled to had they paid would not be fully afforded to them.

Also of particular interest to Chinese families of anchor babies is that while their children will one day be able to sponsor their the parents American citizenship when the children turn 21, it will be a difficult case to make to immigration officers about their suitability if their offspring have not paid any taxes into the system.  

Whether the State Department decides to amend this loophole or whether the experience of this first generation of Chinese anchor babies proves troublesome enough to deter people remains to be seen. However, it should be comforting – perhaps coldly so to some – to Americans to know that despite all the news one reads almost daily about China gaining on the United States in a variety of measurables, U.S. citizenship still remains a hotly desired status symbol for much of China’s privileged and economically mobile class.