A Suicidal Nanny, an Underground Industry and 3 Babies Stabbed (New York City)

Gripping and horrific reporting of some low-cost birth hotels in Queen’s. Haven’t heard of comparable horror stories from Richmond birth hotels:

Dark circles formed like warning signs beneath Yu Fen Wang’s eyes as she worked 12-hour graveyard shifts in a Queens maternity center that operated on the margins of legality. Her family said she had grown gaunt, could not sleep and told her husband she no longer wanted to live.

Her employers, however, said they needed her to work. And her family needed the money. She earned less than $100 a day, they said, working in a private house that had been converted into a combined nursery and hotel for newborn babies and their mothers.

An open secret in the Flushing community, the center was part of an underground industry catering to a demanding clientele: local mothers resting after childbirth and Chinese visitors coming to have their babies in the United States, a practice known as “birth tourism.”

On Sept. 21, at 3:40 a.m., these dangers collided to near-fatal effect when, the police say, Mrs. Wang stabbed three babies sleeping in bassinets on the first floor — all girls — and two adults. She then turned the knife on her own neck and wrists.

The victims all survived. But the horrific act turned a spotlight on a pocket of immigrant New York, where a loose network of businesses tend to mothers and infants in the crucial, fragile month after childbirth but operate without any government oversight. The center, Mei Xin Care, is one of dozens in the area that vary widely in amenities and quality, leaving workers with few avenues for complaint, and families with little to guide them other than word of mouth, internet advertisements and blind trust.

“There are victims at all sides of the spectrum,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat who represents Queens.

Centers like this one — which was alternately known as Mei Bao, or “beautiful baby” in Chinese — provide two services. The first is for newly-arrived immigrant mothers practicing a Chinese tradition some 1,000 years old in which they recuperate for a month after childbirth while other women, often called “aunties,” care for their infants. Authorities said the centers also provide assistance to women from China who wish to give birth in the United States in order to obtain instant citizenship for their children, which is legal under immigration law.

There are some 40 such maternity centers — in private homes and apartments — advertising their services online in the New York and New Jersey area, and nearly 20 in the Flushing neighborhood.

At Mei Xin Care, employees were paid off the books, Mrs. Wang’s family said. One of its nannies, Darong Wang, 63, got the job despite being arrested in May for promoting prostitution at a massage parlor in downtown Flushing. She was slashed in the attack, requiring 20 stitches on her face; a father of one of the children was stabbed in the leg and wrist.

The crime took place in a three-floor brick apartment house with white metal lattice balconies on the outskirts of Flushing. Its only advertisement existed on the internet, on a Craigslist of sorts for the local Chinese immigrant community.

Mei Xin Care appears to be a combination of the names of two owners: Meiying Gao and Xuexin Lin. Local employment agencies said the owners had been in the business for about a decade but opened their latest location in 2016, when city records show they bought the building for $1.5 million. Reached by phone, the owners declined to comment.

One neighbor said in an interview that she saw a steady stream of clients arriving, sometimes in fancy cars.

Some of them would have been following the custom of a monthlong rest after childbirth. The period culminates in a “red egg celebration” to mark the baby’s survival of its fragile first weeks, said Margaret M. Chin, a professor of sociology in the Asian American Studies program at Hunter College.

The centers are an alternative to obtaining visas so family members can fly to the United States, or returning to China, where health care is often less sophisticated. For several thousand dollars, new mothers have access to 24-hour nannies and cooks.

Michael Cheng and his Shanghai-born wife, who live in Flushing, considered using the center for her recuperation period. They toured the facility twice in the spring and were quoted a fee of $4,800 — in cash.

Mr. Cheng said babies were sleeping on the first floor, while their mothers slept in small bedrooms on the second and third floors.

He remembered seeing five to six workers, whom he estimated to be in their 40s and 50s. “They were working 24 hours in shifts,” he said. “I can imagine that it was a very high-stress job.”

Mr. Cheng said his wife, who did not want to give her name, spoke with some of the residents on the upper floors, one from China and another who was a New Yorker. “Before we walked out, I was like, ‘Are you sure you like this place?’ to my wife,” Mr. Cheng said in an interview. “To me, it felt stuffy in there.”

He was skeptical and asked to see a license. The owners sent a copy of a generic business operation certificate and another for maternity nutrition.

“In hindsight,” he said, “if there was more talk about these places, and people knew if you go to one of these centers that they had to hang their licenses right out in front, some kind of regulations around that, maybe it would help.”

Ultimately, the couple felt uneasy about Mei Xin Care and opted to spend the month at Mr. Cheng’s parents’ home on Long Island after their daughter was born. They got their $800 deposit back when another mother quickly filled the spot.

After the stabbings occurred, Flushing was in an uproar. At temples, in food courts and on the streets beneath bright signs in Chinese, residents worried that the incident would stir up anti-immigrant attitudes toward their community.

Others decried the center’s second purpose, easing the path for birth tourism. “They should not come through loopholes,” said Catherine Chan, 50, a bar owner in Queens who used to work on Wall Street. She came to the United States from China when she was 6, after a long process involving family sponsorship, she said. “There is no shortcut.”

Birth tourism is a well-known phenomenon. In recent years, it has drawn mostly well-off mothers from China, Korea, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Nigeria to the United States for birthright citizenship, which President Trump has vowed to eliminate.

It can be legal, as long as pregnant foreigners applying for visas state their intention to give birth when they are in the United States and prove that they can cover the cost. If they conceal their real purpose for traveling they could be subject to visa fraud.

Once United States citizens turn 21, they are eligible to sponsor a parent for a green card, giving their parents the option of eventually settling there. Parents do not always use that opportunity, and immigration officials could deny a green card, claiming the parents had willingly defrauded the American government.

Many are more concerned about securing the future of their children who, as American citizens, have the option of schooling in the United States or in competitive private Chinese schools that have lower entry standards for foreign students. They can travel to other countries without having to apply for a visa. It is seen as a status symbol in China.

For Chinese birth tourists, Los Angeles is the marquee destination. Centers compete with each other by advertising stays at plush hotels, shopping extravaganzas in nearby malls, and state-of-the-art hospitals. Fees can range from $50,000 to $80,000.

In 2015, immigration enforcement authorities raided the Los Angeles centers, saying owners had avoided paying taxes.

Still, the raids did not deter business owners who saw an opportunity. As Chinese internet services like Weibo and WeChat expanded, so did advertisements for birth tourism services in New York.

In the New York metropolitan area, more upscale maternity centers tend to exist in New Jersey and Long Island suburbs. The ones in Flushing appear to be smaller, and less expensive, options, where mothers stay in rooms that often have been subdivided.

Annie Gao, the owner of one upscale birth center in Center Moriches, on Long Island, expressed disdain for the cramped and somewhat secretive operations of the Flushing centers.

Ms. Gao, who opened her center in Flushing in 2004, said that several years ago she tried to convince other owners to join an association that could self-regulate and keep out cut-rate, potentially unsafe, centers. Ms. Gao thought that some centers skimped on food quality and cleaning services, noting that ones she had seen looked “dirty.”

An advertisement for Mei Xin Care, also known as Mei Bao, claims the center has been legally registered for more than 10 years and provides five meals a day to new mothers.Credit

But those owners disagreed, she said.

These centers elude city and state licensing categories and zoning codes. They do not qualify as day care centers because mothers are on-site; they do not need a medical license because owners offer Chinese nutritional practices.

“There isn’t a real category for these type of activities, and they were able to leverage it and apply for a general business license and pretend that was O.K. for their clients,” Mr. Kim, the assemblyman, said.

Although neighbors of Mei Xin Care filed complaints that it was operating as a hotel, city buildings inspectors were denied access three times, which automatically closes the complaint. Neighbors can file an affidavit to warrant a full inspection, but city records show that did not happen.

The state Office of Child and Family Services, the city’s administration for Children’s Services, the state Department of Health and the city Department of Health all said such centers did not fall under their purview.

The police shut down Mei Xin Care after the stabbing, but less than three weeks later, the center seemed to have reopened. Women could be seen through the windows, and a pile of diapers sat outside…

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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