South Florida Sees a Boom in Russian ‘Birth Tourism’

Another birth tourism centre and clientele:

Every year, hundreds of pregnant Russian women travel to the United States to give birth so that their child can acquire all the privileges of American citizenship.

They pay anywhere from $20,000 to sometimes more than $50,000 to brokers who arrange their travel documents, accommodations and hospital stays, often in Florida.

While the cost is high, their children will be rewarded with opportunities and travel advantages not available to their Russian countrymen. The parents themselves may benefit someday as well.

And the decidedly un-Russian climate in South Florida and the posh treatment they receive in the maternity wards — unlike dismal clinics back home — can ease the financial sting and make the practice seem more like an extended vacation.

The Russians are part of a wave of “birth tourists” that includes sizable numbers of women from China and Nigeria.

President Donald Trump has spoken out against the provision in the U.S. Constitution that allows “birthright citizenship” and has vowed to end it, although legal experts are divided on whether he can actually do that.

Although there have been scattered cases of authorities arresting operators of birth tourism agencies for visa fraud or tax evasion, coming to the U.S. to give birth is fundamentally legal. Russians interviewed by The Associated Press said they were honest about their intentions when applying for visas and even showed signed contracts with doctors and hospitals.

There are no figures on how many foreign women travel to the U.S. specifically to give birth. The Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for stricter immigration laws, estimated that in 2012, about 36,000 foreign-born women gave birth in the U.S., then left the country.

The Russian contingent is clearly large. Anton Yachmenev of the Miami Care company that arranges such trips, told the AP that about 150 Russian families a year use his service, and that there are about 30 such companies just in the area.

South Florida is popular among Russians not only for its tropical weather but also because of the large Russian-speaking population. Sunny Isles Beach, a city just north of Miami, is even nicknamed “Little Moscow.”

“With $30,000, we would not be able to buy an apartment for our child or do anything, really. But we could give her freedom. That’s actually really cool,” said Olga Zemlyanaya, who gave birth to a daughter in December and was staying in South Florida until her child got a U.S. passport.

An American passport confers many advantages. Once the child turns 21, he or she can apply for “green card” immigration status for the parents.

A U.S. passport also gives the holder more travel opportunities than a Russian one; Americans can make short-term trips to more than 180 countries without a visa, while Russians can go visa-free only to about 80.

Traveling to the U.S. on a Russian passport often requires a laborious interview process for a visa. Just getting an appointment for the interview can take months.

Some Russians fear that travel opportunities could diminish as tensions grow between Moscow and the West, or that Russia might even revert to stricter Soviet-era rules for leaving the country.

“Seeing the conflict growing makes people want to take precautions because the country might well close its borders. And if that happens, one would at least have a passport of a different country and be able to leave,” said Ilya Zhegulev, a journalist for the Latvia-based Russian website Meduza that is sharply critical of the Kremlin.

Last year, Zhegulev sold two cars to finance a trip to California for him and his wife so she could give birth to their son.

Trump denounced birthright citizenship before the U.S. midterm election, amid ramped up rhetoric on his hard-line immigration policies. The president generally focuses his ire on the U.S.-Mexico border. But last fall he mentioned he was considering executive action to revoke citizenship for babies born to non-U.S. citizens on American soil. No executive action has been taken.

The American Civil Liberties Union, other legal groups and even former House Speaker Paul Ryan, typically a supporter of Trump’s proposals, said the practice couldn’t be ended with an order.

But others, like the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for less immigration, said the practice is harmful.

“We should definitely do everything we can to end it, because it makes a mockery of citizenship,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an outspoken Russian lawmaker, said the country can’t forbid women from giving birth abroad, and many of them also travel to Germany and Israel.

“Trump is doing everything right, because this law is used as a ploy. People who have nothing to do with the U.S. use it to become citizens,” Zhirinovsky said.

Floridians have shown no problem with the influx of expectant mothers from Russia.

Yachmenev, the agency manager, says he believes it’s good for the state because it brings in sizable revenue.

Svetlana Mokerova and her husband went all out, renting an apartment with a sweeping view. She relished the tropical vibe, filling her Instagram account with selfies backed by palm trees and ocean vistas.

“We did not have a very clear understanding about all the benefits” of a U.S. passport, she said.

“We just knew that it was something awesome,” added Mokerova, who gave birth to a daughter after she was interviewed.

Zemlyanaya said that even her two nights in the hospital were a treat, like “a stay in a good hotel.”

In contrast to the few amenities of a Russian clinic, she said she was impressed when an American nurse gave her choices from a menu for her meals.

“And then when she said they had chocolate cake for dessert, I realized I was in paradise,” Zemlyanaya added.

She even enjoyed how nurses referred to patients as “mommies,” as opposed to “rozhenitsa,” or “birth-giver” — the “unpleasant words they use in Russian birth clinics.”

Zemlyanaya said she was able to work remotely during her stay via the internet, as were the husbands of other women, keeping their income flowing. Yachmenev said his agency doesn’t allow any of the costs to be paid by insurance.

Most of the families his agency serves have monthly incomes of about 300,000 rubles ($4,500) — middling by U.S. standards but nearly 10 times the average Russian salary.

Yachmenev said he expects that birth tourism among Russians will only grow.

Business declined in 2015 when the ruble lost about half its value, but “now we are coming back to the good numbers of 2013-14,” he said.

Source: South Florida Sees a Boom in Russian ‘Birth Tourism’

There’s No Stopping the Russian Baby Boom in Miami

Very up market birth tourism services:

Matryoshka was bustling as usual, selling blinis, caviar and borscht. Not all of the customers were pregnant. Just, it seemed, most of them.

The deli store in Sunny Isles Beach, a little city on a barrier island north of downtown Miami, has long been a gathering place for Russian-speaking foreigners who stay in the area as they wait to give birth. They come for the hospitals, the doctors, the weather, the beach — not, they will tell you with some exasperation, to score citizenship for their offspring.

The perk of a U.S. passport was “the last thing on my agenda, literally,” said Viktoriia Solomentseva, 23, a former Matryoshka regular who had a daughter seven weeks ago and recently flew home to Moscow with little Emily, a newly-minted U.S. citizen. “Why does Trump think everyone is dying to have one?”

It’s a somewhat sensitive topic for the women like Solomentseva who are driving a baby boom in south Florida. They’ve been swept up in the birthright citizenship debate, reignited when President Donald Trump recently vowed to end it for children of foreigners. While his target was undocumented immigrants, he also complained that the privilege granted in the 14th Amendment has “created an entire industry of birth tourism.”

That, in fact, it has. Data are scarce, but the Center for Immigration Studies has estimated more than 30,000 women tap it every year. Some nationalities prefer certain metropolitan areas, with the Chinese, for instance, favoring Los Angeles, while Nigerians tend to choose cities in the Northeast and Texas. For women with roots in the former Soviet Union, it’s Miami; if they’re affluent, it’s Sunny Isles Beach, called Little Russia because so many of its 22,000 residents hail from that part of the world.

And these women’s numbers, by all accounts, are growing. The weakness of the ruble, the tense relations between Russia and the U.S., the hurdles that have to be scaled to get a visa — none of that is slowing down the flow.

On every flight to Miami from Moscow there’s at least one pregnant woman, said Konstantin Lubnevskiy, the owner of an agency called Miami-mama, whose logo is the silhouette of an expectant mother in front of a big American flag. On some, there are more than five, he said. “What they’re doing is perfectly legal.”

True enough. But honestly, is it for the passports?

Absolutely not, Solomentseva said from the marble-laden lobby of one of the Trump Towers in Sunny Isles Beach, where she’d rented a 39th-floor unit for a few months. “I wanted to give birth in the place that has the best medical service and is comfortable and relaxing,” she said, as her husband, who owns a business in Russia, looked after the baby upstairs. Not incidentally, the weather is a lot more pleasant in Miami than Moscow in the winter. “But I can’t wait to get back to Russia.”

Like everyone else, she did, of course, fill out the necessary paperwork for Emily. It’s not as if citizenship isn’t viewed as something that might one day come in handy. Maybe it could help a kid get into a U.S. college, or set up a business in New York, or buy a house in Sunny Isles Beach, said Moscow resident Anna Bessolnova, 42, who had a girl in Miami in 2014, days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea triggered waves of international sanctions.

“I don’t know whether my daughter will end up using the passport or not, but it’s good to have different options,” she said.

Maria Khromova, whose son was born last month in Miami, has the same attitude. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen 20 years from now.”

Like all the rest, though, Khromova said she chose to have her baby in the U.S. mainly because of the superior medical care. She pointed to two C-section scars under her shirt, one from the birth of a daughter in Russia and another from the same procedure for her son. The first one is so ugly she can’t look at it without crying, she said.

Khromova, 36,  also stayed in the Trump-branded condo complex. She was there for three months, assisted by a nanny, an interpreter, a driver, a yoga tutor and a massage therapist. A native of Siberia, she lives with her husband in Phuket, Thailand, where they run a company that helps foreigners buy property.

“I came here with a lot of money to spend,” she said. “I don’t cost the U.S. taxpayers a thing.”

Being a birth tourist in Sunny Isles Beach isn’t cheap, with agencies charging as much as $50,000 to set up housing, hire interpreters, find doctors and deal with paperwork. Those who can’t afford that level of service buy smaller packages and rent apartments in far-flung suburbs, sometimes teaming up to share lodgings and expenses.

The phenomenon has, over the years, attracted bad actors. Federal agents have raided so-called maternity hotels in California catering to women from China and Taiwan; some were coached to disguise their pregnancies when they arrived in the U.S. and lied about why they were in the country, according to federal officials. Miami-mama was raided once, too, and a notary public was indicted for making a false statement in a passport application and conspiring to commit an offense against the U.S. (That employee was immediately terminated, Lubnevskiy said.)

The focus of Trump’s criticism hasn’t been the abuse of the system but the fact that it exists. One of his arguments against birthright citizenship is that when the babies born on U.S. soil become adults, they can petition for their parents to live permanently in the country.

But to many of the Russians in Sunny Isles, at least, this idea sounded unappealing. The biggest deterrent: They’d have to start paying personal income taxes that are more than double what they are in Russia. “There’s this feeling among some that it’s cool to be a U.S. citizen,” said Victoria Parshkova, who had a son in September. “It’s not cool at all.”

Birth tourism brings Russian baby boom to Miami – NBC News

As in the case of similar debates in Canada, the conversation largely occurs based on anecdotal evidence rather than hard data (see my analysis of the push by the Conservative government against birthright citizenship and the relatively small numbers involved What happened to Kenney’s cracking down on birth tourism? Feds couldn’t do it alone).

The estimated annual numbers – 36,000 according to The Center for Immigration Studies which wants stricter limits on immigration – is small compared to the overall number of births of about four million (2015), or about 0.9 percent:

Lured by the charm of little Havana or the glamour of South Beach, some 15 million tourists visit Miami every year.

But for a growing number of Russian women, the draw isn’t sunny beaches or pulsing nightclubs. It’s U.S. citizenship for their newborn children.

In Moscow, it’s a status symbol to have a Miami-born baby, and social media is full of Russian women boasting of their little americantsy.

“It’s really common,” said Ekaterina Kuznetsova, 29. “When I was taking the plane to come here, it was not only me. It was four or five women flying here.”

Ekaterina was one of dozens of Russian birth tourists NBC News spoke to over the past four months about a round-trip journey that costs tens of thousands of dollars and takes them away from home for weeks or months.

Why do they come?

“American passport is a big plus for the baby. Why not?” Olesia Reshetova, 31, told NBC News.

“And the doctors, the level of education,” Kuznetsova added.

The weather doesn’t hurt, either.

“It’s a very comfortable place for staying in wintertime,” Oleysa Suhareva said.

It’s not just the Russians who are coming. Chinese moms-to-be have been flocking to Southern California to give birth for years.

What they are doing is completely legal, as long as they don’t lie on any immigration or insurance paperwork. In fact, it’s protected by the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says anyone born on American soil is automatically a citizen.

The child gets a lifelong right to live and work and collect benefits in the U.S. And when they turn 21 they can sponsor their parents’ application for an American green card.

As president, Donald Trump has indicated he is opposed to so-called chain migration, which gives U.S. citizens the right to sponsor relatives, because of recent terror attacks. And as a candidate, he called for an end to birthright citizenship, declaring it in one of his first policy papers the “biggest magnet for illegal immigration.”

“You have to get rid of it,” he said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “They’re having a baby and all of a sudden — nobody knows — the baby is here. You have no choice.”

In a twist, as the Daily Beast first reported, condo buildings that bear the Trump name are the most popular for the out-of-town obstetric patients, although the units are subleased from the individual owners and it’s not clear if building management is aware.

There is no indication that Trump or the Trump Organization is profiting directly from birth tourism; the company and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Roman Bokeria, the state director of the Florida Association of Realtors told NBC News that Trump- branded buildings in the Sunny Isles Beach area north of Miami are particularly popular with the Russian birth tourists and Russian immigrants.

“Sunny Isles beach has a nickname — Little Russia — because people who are moving from Russian-speaking countries to America, they want … a familiar environment.”

“They go across the street, they have Russian market, Russian doctor, Russian lawyer,” he added. “It’s very comfortable for them.”

Reshetova came to Miami to have her first child, hiring an agency to help arrange her trip. The services — which can include finding apartments and doctors and obtaining visas — don’t come cheap. She expects to pay close to $50,000, and some packages run as high as $100,000. Bokeria says some landlords ask for six months rent up front.

One firm, Miami Mama, says it brings about 100 Russian and Russian-speaking clients to the U.S. per year, 30 percent of them repeat clients. The owners are Irina and Konstantin Lubnevskiy, who bought Miami Mama after using the firm to have two American children themselves.

The couple says they counsel clients to be completely transparent with U.S. immigration officials that they’re expecting.

“We tell every client, ‘You have the documents, you have to tell the truth. This is America. They like the truth here,'” Konstantin said.

“I would like the American people to understand they don’t have to worry,” he added. “Those who come here want to become part of the American people.”

But Miami Mami has drawn scrutiny from law enforcement. In June, it was raided by the FBI, and an employee was convicted of making false statements on passport applications. The owners say they knew nothing about it, fired the worker and their business license was renewed.

Federal prosecutors declined to comment on the case, and the FBI said it could not discuss “an active investigation.”

There is no official data on birth tourism in the United States. The Center for Immigration Studies, which wants stricter limits on immigration, estimates there are 36,000 babies born in the U.S. to foreign nationals a year, though the numbers could be substantially lower. Florida says births in the state by all foreign nationals who live outside the United States have jumped 200 percent since 2000.

Customs and Border Protection says there are no laws governing whether pregnant foreign nationals can enter the country or give birth here.

“However, if a pregnant woman or anyone else uses fraud or deception to obtain a visa or gain admission to the United States, that would constitute a criminal act,” the agency said.

When federal agents raided California “maternity hotels” catering to Chinese clients in 2015, authorities said in court papers that some of the families falsely claimed they were indigent and got reduced hospital rates.

In Miami, the Jackson Health System said 72 percent of international maternity patients — who represented 8 percent of all patients giving birth last year — pay with insurance or through a pre-arranged package.

via Birth tourism brings Russian baby boom to Miami – NBC News