Photo: World Chinese Weekly.

Photo: World Chinese Weekly.

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times ran an article about “maternity hotels” in Southern California where expectant mothers from Chinese speaking regions go to give birth and recuperate. Why do they spend so much money to travel across the Pacific and give birth in a foreign country? The answer is simple. All children born within the territory of the United States are automatically US citizens, with all of the rights and privileges that citizenship entails.

Birth tourism in countries with automatically conferred birthright citizenship has been very controversial lately. In the US, the debate has largely been about Mexican “anchor babies,” the assumption being that pregnant undocumented women give birth in the US so that they have easier access to US citizenship. (Until this week, that has simply not been the case.) In Hong Kong, which confers Hong Kong permanent residency by birthright to children of Chinese citizens, the controversy has been framed as a space and capacity issue.

In all cases, the combination of birth tourism and birthright citizenship is controversial because it calls into question the meaning of citizenship itself. To most people, citizenship implies membership and belonging. A child who returned to China immediately after birth may have the status of US citizen, but is she a member of the American nation? Canadian commentators came up with the term “Canadians of convenience” to describe people who, in their view, have the status of Canadian citizen but do not fully see themselves as members of the Canadian nation:

Canada is not an international refuelling station. It’s not a place where you go to enjoy our stable government and strong economy only to stockpile your finances to in turn fuel your conflicts in a foreign government.

Part of the controversy about Mexican “anchor babies” is the assumption that the mothers and the rest of the family want to live and work in the United States. As Eric pointed out on Twitter, East Asian birth tourists do not necessarily want to emigrate. Foreign citizenship or permanent residency actually opens up many opportunities for their children in their homeland. For example, in Seoul’s posh Gangnam district (yes, that Gangnam), parents are buying foreign permanent residency for their children so that they can go to English-medium international schools in Korea.

In China (and South Korea), one of the big motivations to get a foreign passport for your kids is so they can opt OUT of the hypercompetitive local school system and attend an international school — by law, local citizens with no connection to a foreign country can’t enroll their kids in those schools otherwise … Then they follow it up with boarding school and college in the U.S., and drop back into Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong on their golden parachute …
So I agree with you that birth tourism probably doesn’t have much effect on the U.S. … but I’m quite uncomfortable seeing the U.S. passport (and the English language) used as yet another mechanism for the social elites of foreign countries to maintain their entrenched privilege and pass it on to the next generation.

As a side note, having a foreign citizen child can get complicated in some places. Eric also shared a news article (Chinese only, unfortunately) about a Hong Kong couple who were told that their child could not be registered as a Hong Kong permanent resident because the child was born in Canada, where both parents had permanent residency. The combination of parents’ foreign permanent residency and child’s birthright Canadian citizenship meant that the child could not be a Chinese citizen by birthright.

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