In the spring of 2012, Yan Xia was admitted to Richmond Hospital in British Columbia, Canada, and had a baby.
Inside China’s five-star confinement hotel
Canadian hospital sues birth tourist mom for unpaid million-dollar bill
But something went seriously wrong, and it would be months before Yan – a non-resident of Canada – and her child – a newly minted Canadian citizen – were discharged.
What they left behind was a massive hospital bill. With interest, it now stands at almost $922,000 (C$1.2 million).
Their current whereabouts are unknown, although China would be an excellent guess.
According to Carrie Stefanson, spokeswoman of the Vancouver Coastal Health and operator of the Richmond Hospital, the “overwhelming majority” of non-resident mothers who give birth at the hospital list China as their place of residence.
Revealed in a lawsuit filed in April by the hospital operator, the unpaid bill highlights the phenomenon of “birth tourism,” in which pregnant foreigners travel to countries like Canada and the United States to give birth and to obtain automatic citizenship for their newborns.
The practice has recently come under fire from some Canadian lawmakers who accuse it of being exploitative.
“Birth tourism is wrong,” said one of the lawmakers, Joe Peschisolido of the Liberal Party who has sponsored a petition that calls for an end to birth tourism, accusing it of imposing unfair costs on Canadian taxpayers and displacing local mothers.
Citizenship by birthplace
Unpaid bills notwithstanding, birth tourism in Canada is perfectly legal.
Citizenship by birthplace in Canada, regardless of the status or nationality of parents, has been a feature of the nation’s Citizenship Act since it was created 71 years ago. Even children born in Canadian airspace are considered Canadian citizens.
At Richmond Hospital, one in five of births involves non-resident mothers, in what is now considered a daily occurrence.
And dozens of “baby houses” now cater to the market by offering accommodation to pregnant foreign women who come to British Columbia specifically to give birth to Canadian citizens, and they appear universally targeted at Chinese visitors.
According to the Vancouver Coastal Health’s statistics, the share of non-resident mothers have steadily climbed in recent years to account for 19.9% of all births this year, up from 17.2% last year, and 15.5% in 2016.
Ordinarily, non-resident mothers are charged on the basis of “full cost recovery,” Stefanson of Vancouver Coastal Health said. The prepayment deposit stands at $6,300 (C$8,200) for a vaginal delivery and $10,200 (C$13,300) for a caesarean birth.
But as the Yan case demonstrates, fees can run much higher, and the hospital charges 2% interest per month on unpaid bills. Infants with non-resident mothers are born Canadian, but their eligibility for free care does not kick in for three months.
In Yan’s extreme case, the original amount owing was $240,000 (C$312,595). Last September, after 59 months, interest had pushed it near the million-dollar mark.
Like Canada, the US grants citizenship by birth and birth tourism in the country isn’t illegal. But it has moved to crack down on the practice.
The US authorities have in recent years targeted the business activities around birth tourism, often over alleged tax and visa fraud.
Last month, a man was sentenced to a year in prison for hiring Chinese nationals without work authorization as nannies in a “large and lucrative underground birth-tourism operation,” on Saipan, the largest island of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, according to the Department of Justice.
In 2015, Homeland Security agents raided dozens of “Chinese maternity houses” in Southern California suspected of helping mainly Chinese women go to the US to give birth on fraudulent visas and charging them about $50,000, according to the department.