clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why a Taiwanese woman gave birth on a plane — only to be separated from her child

JTB Images/UIG via Getty

Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, on October 8, a Taiwanese woman with the surname Jian went into labor on China Airlines Flight 8. Luckily for her, a UCLA doctor was on the same flight; and with the assistance of the flight crew, Dr. Angelica Zen was able to deliver the baby. (The delivery was captured on a cellphone video.) And the flight, which was supposed to go to Los Angeles, ended up touching down in Alaska instead so the woman could get postpartum care.

The baby is still in the United States. But the mother has been deported back to Taiwan. She's been criticized by Taiwanese government officials. And she might end up having to pay the Taiwanese government (which is the majority owner of China Airlines) to cover the cost of diverting the plane to Alaska.

This sounds incredibly harsh — and maybe it is. But the reason government officials and the media in Taiwan are so upset with this woman is that they suspect she lied to the airline (and possibly to the US government) about her pregnancy in order to get onto that plane, in the hopes of giving birth in the United States. In other words, she was trying to have an "anchor baby" — and it might have backfired. Here's why Taiwan is so concerned.

"Birth tourism" is real, and it's a problem — particularly in East Asia

Pretty much anyone born in the United States is a United States citizen, regardless of her parents' immigration status. Some immigration hawks worry that this is being exploited: People are deliberately having babies in the US so that the child can turn around and sponsor his parents to become legal US residents. (For the record, this would take a long, long time; you can't sponsor any relatives until you turn 21.)

In the United States, when people talk about "illegal immigration" they're usually talking about immigration from Latin America, and when they talk about "anchor babies" they're usually talking about children born in the US to Latin American unauthorized-immigrant parents (even though, in most cases, the immigrants have already settled in the US before having children).

But as we've written, the only evidence that people are actually coming to the US for the purpose of having US citizen children — otherwise known as "birth tourism," since parents arrive on six-month tourist visas — comes from East Asia. When politicians do acknowledge this, as Jeb Bush did in August, they do it in a clumsy and racially inflected way that casts aspersions on Asian Americans. But that doesn't stop it from being a real problem.

The "birth tourism" industry caters primarily to Chinese parents-to-be. The Chinese government says 10,000 babies were born in the US to Chinese tourist parents in 2012; more recent, unofficial estimates are higher. (There's a very thorough recent feature about this from Benjamin Carlson of Rolling Stone.) But there's a large market for birth tourism in Taiwan as well.

The Taiwanese woman may have had to lie to US and airline officials to board the plane

Having a baby in the United States isn't illegal. But the US government has started to crack down on birth tourism by going after parents-to-be for lying to US officials.

Chinese citizens can't come to the US without a tourist visa, and Taiwanese citizens have to get a tourist visa if they'll be in the US for more than 90 days. (Most birth tourists come for more like six months — giving them time in advance of giving birth as well as afterward.) To get a tourist visa, a family has to pass an interview with a US embassy official in their home country — and the embassy official can ask any questions he wants to make sure the family plans to use the visa for its intended purpose (tourism).

With the rise of birth tourism, embassy officials have started questioning Chinese women who look like they could be pregnant; when the women travel to the US, some Customs and Border Protection officers do the same. (There are also stateside crackdowns on the "hotels" where birth tourists stay.) Lying to either of these officials is illegal. So would-be birth tourists who get asked about it, and say they're not having a baby, are breaking US law — and invalidating the terms of their visa.

Taiwanese citizens who want to stay for less than 90 days get to skip past of this process. That's because Taiwan is one of the countries in the US' Visa Waiver Program — which allows short visits from certain countries without a visa at all. It's a gesture of trust that countries have good enough security not to allow their citizens to abuse their privileges. Even so, though, they still get questioned upon entering the US by Customs and Border Protection officials — who can deny them entry into the US.

We don't know most of the details in the case of the Taiwanese woman: how far along she was in her pregnancy, whether she had a tourist visa for a longer stay or was planning to take a quick trip without a visa, whether she'd told anyone she wasn't pregnant, or why she got deported. But the facts certainly fit the hypothesis that she's a failed "birth tourist" who told a US official she wasn't pregnant (or at least was prepared to lie about it if asked by US officials upon landing) then blew her cover on the way into the country.

This is what's behind the frustration with the woman in Taiwan. At a time when the US is already cracking down on "birth tourism," this is an embarrassing case for the Taiwanese government to have to deal with, and one that might lead to the US becoming more skeptical of Taiwanese citizens generally — or even booting the country our of the Visa Waiver Program entirely. Certainly, the fact that the US deported this woman so quickly — mere days after she gave birth — indicates that the government is trying to send the message that it takes birth tourism seriously.

While we don't know if she had already broken US law, we do know that she almost certainly had to lie to get onto the plane. Most birth tourists head to the US a few months before the baby is due (to avoid this exact situation). This woman apparently did not (possibly in order to keep her stay in the US under 90 days). If the Taiwan Airlines crew had known the truth about her pregnancy, they might not have let her onto the plane for her own safety. This has motivated speculation that the woman might also have lied to the flight crew. That could justify forcing her to pay the cost of the diversion; the flight crew and her fellow passengers boarded a flight to Los Angeles without knowing there was a chance they'd have to take a time-intensive and costly detour to Alaska.

Why has the mother been separated from her baby?

According to reports, even though the Taiwanese mother has been deported, the baby is still in the United States in the care of a friend.

Parents of US citizens are deported with depressing frequency: At the peak of deportations during President Obama's first term, 200,000 parents of citizens were deported over two years. The overwhelming majority of those were unauthorized immigrants who were settled in the US, and whose children had lived in the US for their whole lives — so the children typically stay in the US in the care of another relative or adult, or in foster care. As you'd expect, dealing with a parent's deportation can be traumatic — but parents often figure it would be less traumatic than uprooting their children to a country they've never seen.

In this case, though, it's not clear the child will be raised in the US.

For one thing, even after all that trouble, it's not even clear the child is a US citizen. It depends on where the plane was when he was delivered. If the plane was in US airspace — above a location on US soil, or above ocean that's within US territory (a 12-mile stretch from the shore) — he's a citizen. But he has to prove it to the US government:

Generally speaking, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would require some documentation of the birth, generally an excerpt of the ship’s/aircraft’s medical log or master/captain’s log, reflecting the time, latitude, and longitude when the birth occurred.

Even if he is a citizen, though, he might just be staying in the US until it's safe for him to fly to Taiwan. Most birth tourists want US citizenship for their children so that the kids can hopefully attend an American school down the road— private schools are cheaper for US citizens, and citizens are eligible for financial aid in college. But they care more about sending their children to school than about settling the family in the United States.

This runs counter to the "anchor baby" stereotype. But it's easy to see why the US government wants to crack down on it: At a time when most students struggle to pay for college, and many public schools make a lot of revenue off international students, it's a serious financial hit when students living abroad get aid. And the more concerned the US is about it, the more pressure it will put on Taiwan.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Taiwanese woman would have needed a tourist visa to enter the US. That's only true for visits of more than 90 days. The article has been corrected to reflect Taiwan's participation in the Visa Waiver Program, and the ramifications of that for this case. It's also been corrected to reflect the age at which a US citizen can sponsor parents for green cards: 21, not 18.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.