San Gabriel, Calif. (AP) - Authorities have shut down an upscale, two-story house after discovering a makeshift maternity clinic crammed with 10 newborns and a dozen Chinese women who paid as much as $35,000 to travel to Southern California to give birth to children who would automatically be U.S. citizens, a newspaper reported Thursday.
Police and city inspectors closed the converted home on March 8 in San Gabriel, a suburb east of Los Angeles, after the owner was repeatedly warned that it violated building codes, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune reported.
The stucco home with gold-painted shutters and an ornate brick walkway had extra rooms and some closets had been converted into bathrooms.
Officials found medical supplies along with Chinese-language pamphlets on baby care. Some babies were being cared for in what used to be the kitchen. All were examined and found to be healthy, code enforcement officer Jorge Arellano said.
U.S. law automatically entitles children born on U.S. soil to citizenship, and it is not illegal for pregnant women to visit the U.S. to give birth.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, said women from other countries have long traveled to the U.S. legally on tourist or student visas and given birth, but the discovery of a converted townhouse holding multiple women and babies might indicate the practice is becoming more institutionalized.
"The reports up to now have been about travel agencies abroad that specialized in this, but they send one person at a time here," he said. "What this could suggest is ... they're taking it to the next step. Whoever is organizing this type of operation is buying or leasing a home to become a clearing house. That's a serious problem."
So-called birthing tourists or maternity tourists generally travel to the U.S. to deliver - and get a birth certificate from a U.S. hospital - but return home soon after, the only goal being to provide their children with American citizenship, said Krikorian.
Republican lawmakers have targeted automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. and earlier this year said they hoped to trigger a Supreme Court review of the Constitution's 14th Amendment or force Congress to take action with legislation they've drafted on the issue.
Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King sponsored a bill that would limit automatic citizenship to people with at least one parent who is a citizen, a legal permanent resident or served in the military, but there has been little movement on the legislation since it was introduced.
Some states, too, have tried to take steps to limit birthright citizenship. Last week, Arizona's state Senate rejected illegal immigration bills that included measures intended to produce a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on who is entitled to U.S. citizenship at birth under the 14th Amendment.
But Rep. Judy Chu, D-El Monte, said traveling to this country to give birth is not a common practice and defended automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S.
"The 14th Amendment is fundamental to the U.S. and too important to change because of the practice of a few," she said "It would be a severe disservice to our nation if millions of immigrants are painted with the same brush."
Neighbor William Padgett, who has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years, told The Associated Press he noticed a lot of activity at the house in the past two years. He and other neighbors complained about six months ago to city officials after seeing groups of women in the advanced stages of pregnancy taking walks in the neighborhood.
"I knew something from the get-go was going on," he said. "There was always a lot of pregnant women."
There were also cars in front of the house at all hours of the night and many people leaving and entering the residence, he said.
Dwight Chang of Arcadia, who owns the home that was closed, was fined $800 for violating building codes and operating without a business license. He denied wrongdoing.
Chang told the Tribune the women had been moved to a motel and most have left the U.S. along with their children.
Mayor David Gutierrez said he understood why some foreign citizens would wish to have their children in the U.S.
"They should certainly be commended for looking at the future welfare of their children but we need to be very careful that as a result it doesn't impact services and quality of life that we provide for U.S. residents," he said.
Associated Press writers Bob Jablon and Gillian Flaccus in Los Angeles contributed to this report.