LOS ANGELES (CN) - Federal authorities unveiled the largest-ever operation to curb “birth tourism” in the country, unsealing charges Thursday against 20 operators and clients of schemes that lured mostly Chinese women into paying to give birth to babies who would receive automatic U.S. citizenship.
Federal agents arrested three birth tourism operators Thursday who oversaw businesses in Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. The operators are charged with international money laundering, conspiracy and immigration fraud, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
The charges stem from international undercover investigations of the schemes, and a March 2015 raid on three birthing houses by federal agents who executed 35 search warrants.
The clients, mostly Chinese women, paid tens of thousands of dollars to operators, who coached them on how to defraud immigration officials during their U.S. Consulate interviews, according to U.S. Attorneys.
In order to obtain their visitor visas, the woman concealed the purpose of their trip, lying to authorities about the length of their trips and where they would stay.
The clients were also told to enter the country by flying into Hawaii instead of Los Angeles where clearing U.S. Customs was perceived to be more difficult, prosecutors said.
According to unsealed charges against operators of the schemes, Chinese clients were also told to wear loose clothing to conceal their pregnancies from U.S. Customs agents at ports of entry.
Operators fabricated financial documents and skipped out on medical costs associated with the women’s hospital births, authorities said, adding that the debts were later referred to collection.
U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in the statement that the wealthy operators of the schemes showed contempt for U.S. laws by ignoring court orders to stay in the country as investigations continued and by refusing to pay hospital bills.
“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,” Hanna said.
Joseph Macias, the federal agent overseeing investigations in Los Angeles, said in a statement that authorities will continue to pursue individuals who make a mockery of immigration law.
“America’s way of life is not for sale,” Macias said. “Anyone who would exploit our nation’s generosity and our legal immigration system should be on notice – they may end up being the ones to pay a very steep price.”
The three operators arrested Thursday - Dongyuan Li, 41, of Irvine, Michael Wei Yueh Liu, 53, of Rancho Cucamonga and Jing Dong, 42, of Fontana - were charged in indictments returned Wednesday by a federal grand jury.
Li ran an Orange County-based operation called You Win USA. Li told clients that her 100-person team in China and the U.S. had served more than 500 Chinese birth tourism customers, prosecutors said.
Li and other operators touted the benefits of giving birth in the U.S., rather than in China, telling clients that the U.S. had better air quality, availability of federal jobs, quality schools and “the most attractive nationality,” authorities said.
Operators also promised their clients a more stable political atmosphere than the one in China.
Authorities confiscated Li’s property, including her $2.1 million residence in Irvine, six vehicles, gold bars and more than $1 million from her bank accounts.
The investigation into Li’s business led to the arrest of attorney Ken Zhiyi Liang, who was later sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for helping witnesses flee to China in violation of court orders.
The cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Pell.
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