(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

“What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed where there’s organized efforts—and frankly it is more related to Asian people—coming into the country, having children in that organized effort, taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship. I support the 14th Amendment. Nothing about what I’ve said should be viewed about derogatory towards immigrants at all.”

— Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), speaking in McAllen, Tex., Aug. 24, 2015

“How crazy — 7.5% of all births in U.S. are to illegal immigrants, over 300,000 babies per year.”

— Donald Trump, in a tweet, Aug. 21

In trying to explain his recent remarks on so-called “anchor babies,” former Gov. Jeb Bush said he was actually speaking about organized efforts to bring pregnant women into the United States, on legal visas, so they could give birth.

(The term “anchor baby” refers to the theory that having a child as a U.S. citizen makes it hard for an illegal immigrant to be deported, but in reality more than 70,000 parents of U.S. citizens were deported in 2013. Our colleague Janell Ross wrote a detailed look at the “myth” of the anchor baby.)

Meanwhile, his GOP rival, business executive Donald Trump, in a widely cited tweet decried the number of children who are born in the United States each year to illegal immigrants. Trump has called for denying birthright citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.

So what do the numbers show?

The Facts

First, we are dealing with estimates. But Trump is essentially correct that about 300,000 children a year are born in the United States with at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant.

In 2010, both the Pew Research Center and the Center for Immigration Studies estimated that more than 300,000 such children were born in the United States every year. Pew pegged the figure at 340,000 in 2008, while CIS gave a range of 300,000 to 400,000. Under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, all were recognized as U.S. citizens at birth.

Pew estimated that four out of every five children born to at least one authorized immigrant parent were born in the United States, for a total of 4 million in 2009. That number has probably grown by an additional 2 million in the past six years. Birth rates have declined since the Great Recession, so it’s possible the annual figure has dropped slightly below 300,000 (7.5 percent of 3.9 million births is about 294,000), but not by much.

With about 70 percent of undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, it’s a safe bet that two-thirds of these children are born to parents with Latin American roots. The next biggest population of undocumented immigrants is from China, Philippines, India and Korea — but with just 8 percent of the total, that’s probably about 25,000 a year.

So what is Bush talking about? A spokesman says he is referencing an entirely different issue: women who come to the United States on tourist visas — and thus are on U.S. soil legally — but for the express purpose of having the child born in the United States.

The Washington Post wrote about the trend in 2010, noting that the regulations do not permit the State Department to refuse visas simply because a woman is pregnant. Rolling Stone magazine recently documented the case of a Chinese couple who paid $20,000 to be housed in a small hotel in Los Angeles while they were awaiting the birth of the child. The main motivation — ensuring the child could be educated in the United States.

How many women take this step? This is even more difficult to estimate. Steven A. Camarota of CIS in 2015 estimated the number of “birth tourists” was about 36,000, after comparing the data for the number of foreign-born mothers who gave birth during the year against the number of such women who showed up in the U.S. Census. The gap was almost 36,000, but he cautioned that it was a very rough estimate.

Camarota, in an interview, said the largest share of birth tourists was probably from East Asia, but many also came from Eastern Europe (such as Russia) and Nigeria. A report in Vice says that a handful of pregnant women board every flight from Moscow to Miami, which is apparently a popular spot for Russian birth tourists.

But The Huffington Post, quoting Chinese sources, said the total number of Chinese birth tourists is projected to be 60,000 in 2014, a sixfold increase over 2012 — apparently spurred on by a romantic comedy, “Finding Mr. Right,” about a Chinese woman who flew to Seattle so she could have an American baby (and also go shopping).

“The conversation about immigrant families in the U.S. is typically centered around people from Latin America seeking economic opportunities in the States,” The Huffington Post said. “But as incomes in China rise and visa hurdles fall, women from China are making up a larger share of foreign births in the U.S., and they’re complicating many of the popular ideas about immigrant mothers.”

Federal authorities recently conducted high-profile raids on businesses in southern California that charged up to $60,000 to arrange the tourist visas and provide housing in anticipation for the birth.

The Pinocchio Test

While precise figures are hard to come by, the number of children born to undocumented immigrants each year in the United States still easily outpaces the number of children born to women who come to the United States to give birth using a legal tourist visa. What is a more important issue is obviously a policy question beyond the purview of The Fact Checker.

But given the apparent surge of Chinese applicants, Bush is likely correct that most of the birth tourists are Asian. Meanwhile, Trump is correct that number of births to undocumented immigrants is about 300,000 a year. Both earn a Geppetto Checkmark.

The Geppetto Checkmark

 


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