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How widespread are U.S. births by foreign tourists and undocumented migrants?

Some GOP presidential candidates have decried birthright citizenship and so-called “anchor babies” -- children born in the U.S. to parents in the country illegally. There’s also talk of “maternity tourism,” when foreigners arrive to give birth before returning home. Judy Woodruff learns more from Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute and Susan Berfield of Bloomberg Businessweek.

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    Back in this country, the volatile issue of immigration continues to spark debate in the 2016 presidential campaign. The latest round centers on babies born in the U.S. to parents who are not American citizens.

  • DONALD TRUMP Republican Presidential Candidate:

    I will use the word anchor baby. Excuse me. I will use the word anchor baby.


    Donald Trump started this latest furor over a term that immigration advocates view as derogatory. He complained of children born in the U.S. who immediately gain American citizenship and become the means for entire families, here illegally, to stay.

    Fellow Republican Jeb Bush weighed in as well.

  • JEB BUSH, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    There ought to be greater enforcement. That's the legitimate side of this, greater enforcement, so that you don't have these anchor babies, as they're described, coming into the country.


    By yesterday, an exasperated Bush was trying to douse criticism for using the term.


    You give me the name you want me to use, and I will use it. How about that?


    Moreover, the former Florida governor insisted that, unlike Trump, he wasn't talking about Latinos at all.


    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 our country having children in that organized effort.


    Bush campaign aides call the practice birth tourism, with foreigners arriving legally just in time to have a child.

    Numbers are hard to come by. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates some 230,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with at least one parent here illegally, while the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter rules, estimates 36,000 births a year by women who come to the U.S. to have a baby, then leave to go back home. Others say that number is smaller.

    Meanwhile, the issue has now become part of the broader immigration debate.

    To help explain the background on this, I'm joined by Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former top official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Reagan and its commissioner under President Clinton. And, Susan Berfield, she's a reporter with Bloomberg Businessweek.

    We welcome you both to the program.

    I think it helps to have everybody first understand that we appear to be talking about two different practices here, first children born in the U.S. to parents, one of whom — at least one of whom is here illegally.

    Doris Meissner, what are the typical circumstances there?

  • DORIS MEISSNER, Migration Policy Institute:

    Well, the typical circumstances are people who come to the United States without legal status, generally across the Southwest border with Mexico. They're coming to the U.S. because there are jobs here.

    Most of them have been here for many years. A large share of that 11 million that are in an unauthorized status in the United States have been in the country for many years. They're younger workers. They form families in the United States. And because they are unauthorized themselves, they are not United States citizens, but their children born here are U.S. citizens, although they may also have children in the family that they brought with them who are not U.S. citizens.


    And you said they're typically from south of the border, from Mexico, from Central America?


    Typically from Mexico and Central America. The largest share of the authorized population has been Mexico. That is now changing. That is less the pattern. More typically, the fact is Central Americans, but we're basically talking about a Latin American population.


    And, Doris Meissner, these are parents or families who hope or want to stay in the United States. Is that right?


    Well, they typically come here to work. Many of them think that they will earn enough money to be able to go back to their country at some point. That generally is not the case, because they are most typically in lower-wage jobs. They're in the service sector, they're in construction, they're in tourism.


    Now, Susan Berfield, the reporting you did for Bloomberg Businessweek had to do with foreign nationals who come into the United States for the express purpose of having a baby before they go home.

    Tell us about that. Who are these women?

  • SUSAN BERFIELD, Bloomberg Businessweek:


    So, the women that I looked at were all from China. They were well-off. They came here with tourist visas, and also with the intent to give birth. And once they did give birth, they got passports for their kids and then they returned to China. So they, you know, may at one point may want to send their kids back here for education, but their main purpose is to get a U.S. passport and all of the freedom that that affords around the world.


    This is a practice that's been called maternity tourism. And there are organized groups that are sponsoring this that these women pay in order to have this happen.


    There is an underground economy. It's largely based in California, when we're talking about Chinese families, and — though in China, it's out in the open. And these services advertise. They hold orientation meetings. There are blogs and lots of social media about the phenomenon, about the practice, rating the services.

    So, they provide women with apartments in the U.S. and recommend doctors that they can go to, hospitals where they should give birth. And, you know, where this becomes, I guess, controversial or more controversial is, what kind of coaching are these companies giving the women in terms of their visa application and also when they arrive in the country? Are they being forthright about their intent?


    And, again, these are middle-class women. These are women who can afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars to these brokers, in effect, to be able to come into the U.S. and do this.


    Yes. The women I spoke to spent, on average, $50,000. They stayed in the U.S. for about four months.

    And so, yes, you know, they expected a certain amount of service, but they also all expected to return to China after the four months.


    So, Doris Meissner, help us understand, what laws are being broken here? These sound like two different sets of practices.


    They are two different sets of practices.

    The case of tourism that is being described, this is visa fraud. This is a misuse of the immigration system. It's a misuse of the visa system. It is, as was pointed out, coaching people what to say. There's possibly fraud on hospitals for not totally paying the bills. There's possibly fraud in terms of the companies themselves that are not reporting income. It's illegal.


    And a different kind of illegality, though, with regard to parents, families who are here illegally, undocumented, having children who decide to stay.


    Who decide — and who are staying and who are in the labor force. They didn't come here to have a child here.

    They came here to work. Life happens. They're here for a longer period of time, they form families. That's different from coming here to get a U.S. passport and leave.


    Susan Berfield, how much enforcement, how much — how much is there an effort to go after these companies, these firms that are offering these services that you're describing mainly on the West Coast?


    Homeland Security began an investigation more than a year ago that led to raids on several of these companies and the apartment complexes where the women were housed in March, in the Los Angeles area.

    And that case is ongoing. It's in the court system now. I think, for Homeland Security, as Doris is suggesting, it's an issue of visa fraud. They focus their efforts, though, on the companies that are operating in the U.S. and have been accusing them of visa fraud, as well as not paying taxes and potential money laundering.

    The women who were caught up in those raids in particular are being held as witnesses, but they haven't been charged with anything.


    Finally, bottom line, Doris Meissner, we want to say, once again, this term anchor babies, which is a derogatory term thrown around, one has to be very careful not only about the term itself, but about the different practices that we're talking about.


    That's absolutely right.

    And it is a very pejorative term. It suggests that people are coming here in order that these children born here have a way of allowing their parents to be here legally. That is not the case. A child cannot sponsor a parent or a family member for immigration until the age of majority, 21 years of age.

    So it's pretty unlikely to imagine that people who come here for work purposes and also have children in the United States are actually doing so for the purpose of 21 years' wait in order to then be — have a petition for immigration status.


    Well, it's a subject that's become front and center certainly in the political realm.

    And we thank both of you for helping us understand this part of it today.

    Thank you, Doris Meissner and Susan Berfield. We appreciate it.

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