On the day my son Eden was born, the only thing I was anxious about was the paperwork. I'm from Ukraine and my husband is from Israel, and even though we both knew that the United States has birthright citizenship, I still wondered if my son would indeed get a birth certificate and become an American.
I made sure I met the hospital birth registrar well in advance, on a tour of the hospital. I bought her candy according to my country's tradition of thanking — or, more accurately, bribing — the right people. I felt like I needed to pull strings to get my son his passport. I even bought a onesie with a black tie so that Eden would look all formal in his photo shoot for the American passport.
It was a big day when my son's passport finally arrived in mail. My husband and I stared at its blue cover, and then turned every page carefully and respectfully. I showed it to all of our relatives on Skype, and they admired it. Ever since, they call Eden "the American" and seldom by his name. I still find it especially mind-blowing that the passport says the secretary of state requests to give my son "all lawful aid and protection." I'm happy for such a generosity. But I can't stop thinking that my son and I didn't do anything to deserve this privilege.
Being pregnant isn't a crime, but I still felt like I was smuggling my unborn son into the country
I didn't set out to have an American baby. I came to the United States three years ago on an exchange visitor visa to study at New York University. One summer I had an internship in Miami, where I met a cute guy on OKCupid. A couple of weeks later, I accidentally got pregnant. Several months after, I went into labor at Memorial West Hospital in Florida and gave birth to "the American." (I also married the guy afterward.)
Still, there are tens of thousands of women (estimates vary widely, from 36,000 globally to 60,000 from China alone) per year who go to great lengths to have babies here: "birth tourists," they're called. Women — usually wealthy — from all over the world come to the US around seven months into their pregnancy, give birth, stay until they receive the baby's passport, and go back home. They have special Facebook groups and forums where they write reviews on the doctors, buy used strollers, and discuss how to avoid problems on the border.
Birth tourism is controversial — Donald Trump has said he wants to end birthright citizenship because he believes it's "the biggest magnet for illegal immigration." Countries such as China and Taiwan are starting to crack down on citizens who go to the US to give birth.
But it's also poorly understood. I ended up making a documentary about birth tourism, interviewing seven women from Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe about their experiences having babies in the US. Here's what I learned from my research and my own experience.
Birth tourists don't break any laws
Expectant women come to the US on tourist visas. These are easy to obtain — you fill out an online form, go to the US Consulate in your home country, and give the officer your passport and supporting documents like proof of employment, bank statement, air tickets, and a hotel reservation.
Usually birth tourists are rich, so they have no problems getting those visas. Some claim they are just going to the US for a vacation and apply before the pregnancy is obvious. Many women don't show until month five, and officers wouldn't ask, avoiding the risk of insulting an overweight woman.
Other women prefer to say openly that they are going to give birth. And that's totally legit, especially if it's a high-risk pregnancy, because there's such a thing as a tourist visa for medical treatment in the USA. Women just have to collect several letters from the physicians.
Birth tourists prepare thoroughly for any encounters with immigration officers but are rarely asked any questions. Here's how Svetlana from Moscow describes her experience at the border control in the airport upon arrival to Miami: "I was pregnant, and it was obvious. I was wearing a tank top, and I wasn't hiding it. I had documents with me to show that we are paying [the hospital for the delivery], that we have an invitation from the doctor, bank statements, real estate records, and so on. I was holding all these in my hands. And no immigration officers asked to see them. I was kind of disappointed."
Birth tourism is legal, and probably the only three opportunities to break the law along the way are opening a maternity hotel, which violates zoning and tax regulations; avoiding paying the medical bills; or lying to an immigration officer.
In an interview for my documentary, Steven Camarota, the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said he estimates Medicaid fraud by birth tourists costs the US government up to $400 million per year. I doubt this number, since I only know one birth tourist who tried to apply for Medicaid to cover the delivery of her baby. She failed, but maybe others were more fortunate than she was.
Foreign women who give birth in the US do not feel proud. They feel guilt, shame, and sometimes fear.
I didn't tell the Fulbright fund, or people at NYU, that I got pregnant. I hid it from my classmates. Once I was late for a class because of morning sickness, and my professor yelled at me and made me bring a note from the doctor. After that, I could not look him in the eye.
When I went back to Ukraine to renew my visa, I hid my belly from the US consulate officer under a winter jacket. I did the same at the passport control in JFK Airport. Being pregnant isn't a crime, but I still felt like I was smuggling my unborn son into the country. All birth tourists I know feel like that.
Women also feel guilty for choosing not to give birth in their home countries. "I feel uneasy in front of my compatriots," confesses Olga, a birth tourist from Kiev, my hometown."They can't afford [to be] doing what I can, giving their children the opportunity that I am giving to my child. I feel like I am not patriotic enough."
Governments in Asia and Eastern Europe alike nurture such feelings in birth tourists, but Russia also has strong anti-American propaganda.
"Aren't you afraid to give birth to Americans given the US sanctions against Russia?" asks a woman on a Facebook group for birth tourists.
"On Russian TV they show Americans are torturing children," said Viktoria from Moscow, who gave birth in New York.
"If you are in Russia, the idea of coming here seems a bit crazy," said Maria, who came to Miami from Moscow. "But once you come here and learn more, it changes your mind."
Many "birth tourists" come to the US for its superior health system
Apart from the child's citizenship, there are medical reasons to have a baby here. US health care, with all its flaws, is better than in China, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Lots of women are afraid of complications during birth, and also don't want to be in pain. So they come to the states for the NICUs and epidurals.
And there are further potential benefits for the child. I know a mother of an American baby who is a health care official in Ukraine. Unlike many of the birth tourists I spoke to, she is not rich. She didn't stay in a fancy apartment with an ocean view — she slept on a couch at a friend's place in Harlem, and then gave birth with a midwife. She saved every cent to be able to make it. "If my baby gets really sick, I want her to come and receive treatment in the US," she said. "In Ukraine, children die because their parents can't afford cancer treatment. I don't want anything like this to happen to my daughter."
Most mothers don't stay in the US after they have their babies
For me, the term "anchor baby" is not insulting, but it's also not accurate. I didn't give birth to my son here to stay in the States. Even if I wanted to, Eden wouldn't be able to sponsor me or his father for legal status until he turns 21. That's very long-term planning. I can't imagine a woman thinking: "Oh, I'll have this baby, change thousands of diapers, mess up my career, lose sleep and my social life. But then in 21 years my child will finally petition me to get a green card. Yay!"
It also doesn't make any sense in terms of money. Raising Eden in our neighborhood in Florida, we will spend around $500,000 on food, housing, child care, and other costs by the time he is 18. I know people who got a green card spending just $30,000!
I didn't give birth to my son here to stay in the States. Even if I wanted to, Eden wouldn't be able to sponsor me or his father for legal status until he turns 21.
A baby is too expensive as an "anchor." There are a lot of other ways to gain legal status that are cheaper and quicker. Some people are lucky and win the diversity visa lottery, spending less than $200 in application fees. Others find a US citizen spouse, real or fake. There are also people who seek political asylum and pay around $5,000 to a lawyer who prepares all the paperwork.
Even if you have no luck, nobody is persecuting you, and you have zero grounds to become an American, you can become one with an investment visa — and such visas give a path to citizenship. If you have the money to come here and have a baby in the first place, investment is cheaper than raising a baby in the States. I know a person who did as little as opening a nail salon investing around $30,000, and got his green card.
When you think of it in those terms, having an "anchor baby" is a pretty silly financial decision.
Most of the birth tourists I spoke with don't plan to raise their kids in the USA anyway. They go home: They don't burden the US medical system, care providers, and social services. "Our baby will be a citizen of the world," an expectant mother from Ukraine told me. "She will have Ukrainian, Russian, and American passports, and she will be able to live anywhere. My husband and I want to provide her with a choice and all the available opportunities." She plans to go back to Ukraine with her newborn, then move to Moscow and send the "American baby" to America no sooner than college.
There are exceptions, of course: I know a white Russian woman who came to Miami to give birth to a baby she'd conceived with her Nigerian boyfriend in Holland. The boyfriend ditched her while she was pregnant, so she ended up as a single mom with no money and few personal belongings.
She was afraid to return to Russia because racial discrimination is rampant there. Her own relatives were unwilling to accept a nonwhite child into the family. So she applied for political asylum in the US. Now, is her daughter an "anchor baby"? Yes, probably. But she wouldn't have a future in Russia.
As for my family, we haven't decided what we are going to do: We are not sure if we want to live in the United States or go elsewhere. But no matter what we decide, Eden's US passport allows him to go to 174 countries without a visa, and that's more travel freedom than my husband and I enjoy. If my son decides to do so, he will be able to live, study, and work in the United States without the bureaucratic difficulties his parents experienced.
Still, the babies and their parents pay taxes
Undocumented immigrants come to the States to make money, and often they end up having babies, because that's how life goes. Unlike them, birth tourists come to the States to spend money. They pay around $10,000 out of pocket in doctor and hospital bills alone. They also pay sales taxes.
Moreover, the "American babies," no matter where they live, must pay US taxes. You can exclude the first $100,800 you earned abroad from your taxable income, but you still have to file taxes every year. That's a pretty good deal for the US — children, raised by foreign parents elsewhere, using other countries' schooling, medical care, and social services, end up being haunted by the IRS and contributing to the US economy once they grow up and have a solid income.
Even filing US taxes may become big trouble for birth tourists, once you think of compliance with American legislation, tax consultants, and the many ways things can go wrong.
My worst nightmare is Eden's grandparents opening an account in his name. I would probably have to report it somewhere and file taxes for him, but I have no idea how and where this has to be done. So I easily see us all ending up tax evaders by accident.
Birth tourists believe in the American dream
Some people argue that birth tourism cheapens the whole concept of US citizenship, turning it into something instrumental. I asked a birth tourist from Moscow, Svetlana, about it. She looked at me with her big blue eyes full of childish amusement: "I wanted a passport for the child. Why not? He will decide himself if he wants to use it or not. It's possible. Not forbidden. So why not?"
None of the birth tourists I interviewed saw an ethical problem with treating citizenship as something designed only for the benefit of their child, taking advantage of the rights and disregarding the obligations that come with it.
But America is about taking advantage of an opportunity.
Over and over, women would tell me that the US is the best country in the world, and they wanted the best for their kid and never thought some people might have a problem with it.
Well, Donald Trump and apparently lots of other people don't like it. They think that babies like my son shouldn't have US citizenship, and "no sane country would do that," as Trump's policy paper on immigration says.
Yes, no sane country would do that. Only the greatest country in the world would.
"There are people who don't realize how amazing this country is, and that it is an amazing gift that they were born here," Dr. Ernesto Cardenas, a Miami doctor who proudly admits many birth tourists from Latin America, told me. "But that's our Constitution. It protects it. It makes our country very special compared to other countries."
He argues that trying to secure a baby's future is "very American," and trying to change the Constitution and close opportunities is "un-American." I couldn't agree more. After all, Dr. Cardenas, an immigrant himself, served in Afghanistan to earn his right "to stand shoulder by shoulder with fellow Americans." What did Mr. Trump do?
Kateryna Panova is a multimedia journalist from Ukraine and a former editor in chief of a website for Russian speakers in the US. Her writing, pictures, and videos have been published in Forbes, National Geographic, CBS, and Newsweek. You can see her documentary about birth tourism here and read more about her work on katepanova.com.