By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; A01
SHANGHAI -- What can $14,750 buy you in modern China? Not a Tiffany diamond or a mini-sedan, say Robert Zhou and Daisy Chao. But for that price, they guarantee you something more lasting, with unquestioned future benefits: a U.S. passport and citizenship for your new baby.
Zhou and Chao, a husband and wife from Taiwan who now live in Shanghai, run one of China's oldest and most successful consultancies helping well-heeled expectant Chinese mothers travel to the United States to give birth.
The couple's service, outlined in a PowerPoint presentation, includes connecting the expectant mothers with one of three Chinese-owned "baby care centers" in California. For the $14,750 basic fee, Zhou and Chao will arrange for a three-month stay in a center -- two months before the birth and a month after. A room with cable TV and a wireless Internet connection, plus three meals, starts at $35 a day. The doctors and staff all speak Chinese. There are shopping and sightseeing trips.
The mothers must pay their own airfare and are responsible for getting a U.S. visa, although Zhou and Chao will help them fill out the application form.
At a time when China is prospering and the common perception of America here is of an empire in economic decline, the proliferation of U.S. baby services shows that for many Chinese, a U.S. passport nevertheless remains a powerful lure. The United States is widely seen as more of a meritocracy than China, where getting into a good university or landing a high-paying job often depends on personal connections.
"They believe that with U.S. citizenship, their children can have a more fair competitive environment," Zhou said.
There are no solid figures, but dozens of firms advertise "birth tourism" packages online, many of them based in Shanghai, and Zhao said the number has soared in the past five years. But he said that many are fly-by-night operations, unlike his high-quality service.
"The customers we serve are very successful and very affluent," he said.'We are not snakeheads'
Zhou and Chao insist that everything they do is legal, noting that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, says anyone born on U.S. soil has the right to citizenship.
"We don't encourage moms to break the law -- just to take advantage of it," Zhou said. "It's like jaywalking. The policeman might fine you, but it doesn't break the law."
"We are not snakeheads," he added, using the common term here for Chinese gangsters involved in smuggling illegal immigrants.
U.S. officials confirm that it is not a crime to travel to the United States to give birth so that the child can have U.S. citizenship. "You don't deny someone because you know they're going to the U.S. to have children," said a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing embassy rules.
The spokesman, who said expectant mothers typically claim they are going to the United States as tourists, compared the baby consultancies to services that help foreign students apply for American universities: "If you have the money, they give you the service. They tell you how to prepare your dossier."
"I'm sure people in Congress would call it a loophole," the spokesman said.
Many anti-immigration activists in the United States agree. Some argue that the 14th Amendment -- aimed at guaranteeing citizenship rights to freed black slaves -- was never meant to provide an instant passport to the children of people who are in the country illegally or who travel there expressly to gain U.S. citizenship for their child.
The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department have no specific regulations regarding pregnant foreign visitors, which critics see as an issue.
"The problem here is not with the travel agencies or even the women," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "The real problem is the State Department. The regulations do not permit them to turn pregnant women down."
Krikorian said that it is unclear whether or how the 14th Amendment could be changed and that in any event, Congress has never seriously addressed the possibility.
Zhou, a former marketing director, and Chao, a former television producer in Taiwan, said they have helped between 500 and 600 mothers give birth to American babies in the five years they have been in business. They started with themselves, when Chao went to the United States to give birth to daughter Fiona, now 4.An affluent clientele
Now, they said, their clients include Chinese doctors, lawyers, business leaders, government officials, well-known media personalities -- most of whom do not want media attention and, Zhao said, would not agree to be interviewed.
About 40 percent of their clients come from Shanghai, 30 percent from Beijing and the rest from Guangzhou and elsewhere, including Taiwan. Some, the couple said, were giving birth to their second child to skirt China's one-child policy. Most say they do not intend to live in the United States themselves.
And all are affluent, Zhou and Chao said. Unlike the poor illegal immigrants from Central America who try to cross the border to have their babies in the United States, Zhou said, these Chinese parents fly in on first-class seats.
"They also do some shopping," he said, "so they are contributing to the economy."
The reasons they want U.S. passports for their babies are varied, but most come down to two key factors -- education and setting.
"The mainland [China] moms believe the U.S. has better educational resources," Zhou said. This year, 10 million students are battling for 6.6 million spots at Chinese universities and the chance for a better life. "The competition is too fierce on the mainland," Zhou said.
In their pitch to prospective clients, Zhou and Chao point out that as a U.S. citizen, a child has access to free public education from primary school through high school and that a full education in the United States can be much cheaper than at the top Chinese private schools and universities.
Education was one thing Christina Chuo had in mind when, late in her pregnancy, she and her husband decided to have their first child in the United States in January and turned to Zhou and Chao for assistance.
Chuo, 35, said that her brother and sister both studied in the United States and that "my parents paid a huge amount of money for their education" because they were foreign students. Giving her newborn U.S. citizenship, she said, would "provide one more choice for our baby."
Equally important was the setting. "It's spacious and with no pollution," Chuo said. "We thought it would put us in a good mood looking at the nice scenery, the hills and the water."
Chuo said she and her husband like living in Taiwan and are not interested in migrating to the United States, except, perhaps, when they retire. She said they got their visas by saying their purpose was tourism. But she worries it will not be so easy for others.
"I am afraid in the future, with more people going to U.S., it will be harder to get a visa," she said.
Researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.