About 20 locations in Southern California were raided Tuesday in connection with a federal investigation into three “maternity tourism” schemes that allow pregnant foreign nationals to deliver children in the U.S. and ensure their babies’ American citizenship.
Federal criminal search warrants were served at locations in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, according to a spokeswoman with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Affidavits unsealed Tuesday describe locations in Irvine, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Rancho Cucamonga as “Chinese birthing houses” where visa, marriage and tax fraud allegedly occurred.
Video from the scene of one of the raids in Irvine showed Internal Revenue Service agents entering an apartment complex called The Carlyle at Colton Plaza.
The raids represent a rare crackdown on the maternity tourism business in the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reported.
During the raid at a Rowland Heights apartment complex, babies could be heard wailing, and pregnant woman in sweat clothes gave confused looks to agents, according to the Times.
Clients of the businesses pay between $15,000 to $50,000 for lodging, transportation and food, according to an email from ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice. Some of the more expensive packages include visits to Disneyland, shopping malls or a firing range.
An Orange County operation was branded as “You Win USA Vacation Resort,” while a business in Rancho Cucamonga went by “USA Happy Baby, Inc.,” Kice wrote.
Clients, who were not expected to be arrested in Tuesday’s raids, were told their infants would get U.S. Social Security numbers and passports. Once the U.S.-born infants reach adulthood, they would be able to apply for U.S. visas for family members living abroad, according to Kice.
The mothers were coached into wearing loose clothing and giving false reasons for their trips to the U.S., authorities said.
“It’s not illegal to have your baby born in the United States, but it is illegal to lie about your reasons for travel,” ICE Special Agent Claude Arnold said. “In these cases, the women were misrepresenting their reason for travel. They were concealing the fact that they were pregnant, and they were coached by the businesses on how to do that.”
In one case, an Orange County birthing operation was linked to more than 400 children born at just one Orange County hospital between January 2013 and February 2015, according to an affidavit.
The scheme included defrauding hospitals of payment by claims of poverty, the affidavit stated.
Those named in the three affidavits were: Chao Chen, Dong Li and Jie Zhu in connection with the Irvine operation; Michael Wei Yueh Liu and Jing Dong, in connection with the Rancho Cucamonga U.S.A. Happy Baby, Inc., operation; Wen Rui Deng, Li Yan Lang, and Wen Shan Sun in connection with apartments in Rowland Heights.
State and local law enforcement participated in the raids alongside federal authorities.
Investigators were looking for evidence of criminal activity and hoped to interview clients and identify them as possible witnesses.