Investigating New York’s Chinese ‘Maternity Hotels’

A room in a "maternity hotel" in New York. (Photo via World Journal)

A room in a “maternity hotel” in New York. (Photo via World Journal)

[Editor’s note: Chinese-run “maternity hotels,” which provide comprehensive services to maternity tourists from China, have caused more and more controversy in recent years. Doing business in a largely unregulated area, these maternity hotels are questioned for their practices such as tax evasion, training potential clients to lie to the visa officers and getting Medicaid with false documents for clients who are not eligible.

Federal law enforcement raided a few dozen locations of these businesses in Southern California on March 3 in one of the largest operations in recent years. It immediately became a hot topic in the Chinese community in New York where such businesses are also common. On March 5,  World Journal published a number of stories, occupying an entire page, about the obscure maternity hotels in New York and the reactions from members of the Chinese community here.]

Below are excerpts from some of the stories (translated by Rong Xiaoqing from Chinese).

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A story by reporter Xue Li offers a snapshot of the maternity hotels in New York:

Chinese-run maternity hotels, big or small, are popular in New York. Many of them are family-owned underground businesses that provide all sorts of services including helping maternity tourists from China to apply for the white card [Translator’s note: “White card” is the nickname for Medicaid among Chinese]. The services cost at least $20,000 but the quality is not impressive.

By rough estimation, there are close to 40 maternity hotels in the city which claim they have licenses granted by the authorities. But there are many more household-based informal ones. Some Chinese started their business by simply installing dividers in a spare room in their home and turning it into a hotel with a few beds. Most of these hotels don’t do advertising. They get clients through referrals from family and friends. They put their numbers on their own websites so potential clients in China can call. Some of them even have offices in China.

Those who claim they have licenses mainly mean they have licensed home attendants. These hotels don’t have to provide medical services so they do not need to apply for permits from government agencies that regulate medical facilities. Even the ones that do advertising and claim they are “legitimate” are run in a stealthy way. Many of them are located in downtown Flushing where there are large concentrations of Chinese and in surrounding neighborhoods such as Bayside, Fresh Meadows and College Point. They sit among many apartment buildings or houses, and almost none is marked by a name plate on the door.

All of these maternity hotels provide one-stop services that start with picking up clients at the airport. By an industry standard known as “3+1,” pregnant women get four months live-in care from the hotels including 90 days before delivery and 30 days after. Every day the clients are served with three formal nutritious meals and two light meals. Every week they get a room cleaning and laundering services. Hotel staffs are also responsible for driving the clients to the hospitals for checkups or delivery and picking them up afterwards. In addition, they provide round-the-clock babysitting and help clients to apply for visa renewals, U.S. passports for the newborns and the documents that allow the babies, American citizens, to go back to China.

Some of these hotels even drive clients to stores to go shopping, refer them to language schools, day care centers and investment workshops, and provide visa application training before they come to the U.S. In the training, expectant mothers are taught how to hide their bulging bellies in order to successfully get through U.S. Customs.

Most such maternity hotels charge $2,000 to $4,000 per month for boarding and lodging before delivery, depending on the size of the room, and $3,000 to $6,000 afterwards. A Chinese woman can easily spend $20,000 to $25,000 to come to New York for labor including airfare, visa fees and medical costs. Some Long Island-based maternity hotels, boasting luxury renovations and catering to extremely high end clients, may cost even more.

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But not all Chinese-run maternity hotels target tourists from China. Reporter Yiyi Huang finds that in Brooklyn, many such businesses, with below standard facilities and services, mainly serve immigrants from Fujian province:

BAssinets lined up at a "maternity hotel" (Photo via World Journal

Bassinets lined up at a “maternity hotel” (Photo via World Journal

A knowledgable community activist said Fujianese make up a large portion of the Chinese population in Brooklyn. Pregnant women in this community rarely choose to live in expensive maternity hotels. They would rather stay at home and hire a home attendant to take care of them. Those who live in the maternity hotels in Brooklyn are mainly Fujianese immigrants who don’t live in New York. “The facilities in Brooklyn are shabby. Maternity tourists from rich families in China are not likely to stay here unless they are referred by friends or are worried about becoming targets of law enforcement if they live in bigger hotels.

As for the expectant mothers who check in here, the community activist said, they are mainly attracted by the low costs and the proximity these hotels may have to homes of their relatives and friends so they can get help when they need it. These hotels, normally with only one attendant to take care of the clients, charge less than $3,000 per month.

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The diversity of the clientele of maternity hotels triggered some complex feelings among local Chinese about the crackdown by law enforcement. A story written by reporter Lei Zhu says:

Some Chinese support the actions of the federal authorities. They think illegal maternity hotels, which employ fraudulent tricks, indeed hurt the interest of taxpayers. Their clients who use medical resources here without paying contribute to the skyrocketing health care premiums of law-abiding taxpayers. Several Chinese who were interviewed for the story said neither running a maternity hotel nor coming to the U.S. for delivery is wrong. If rich Chinese tourists only come here to deliver their babies and pay for all the medical costs without utilizing welfare here, they should not be faulted. It is welfare fraud that is outrageous.

Mr. Zhao from Flushing said it is a traditional custom of the Chinese to get special care before and after labor. Such care is normally offered by the elderly in the family. But for young immigrants who don’t have their folks around, maternity hotels are necessary. Mr. Zhao said he is busy at work and his parents and his wife’s parents are all in China. His wife stayed in a maternity hotel in Flushing for a few months last year when she delivered their child. “My wife was taken care of very well. And we are now friends with the staff there,” he said.

But some people don’t like the idea of permitting Chinese tourists to deliver babies in the U.S. at all. “These people will move back to China with the babies soon after labor. They don’t contribute to the U.S. and pay no taxes. But in the future, their U.S. citizen children will come back here to get free education, free medical care and other free resources available for citizens,” some commentators said.

In addition, there are some conflicts between maternity hotels and their neighbors because most of these businesses locate in residential areas. A person who lives beside a maternity hotel complained that pregnant women from China don’t have a good reputation. Some people fly back to China without paying tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. And some people abuse the return policy that shopping centers offer customers.

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Some Chinese working in health care worry that these cases will end up tarnishing the image of the entire Chinese community. A story by Rachel Liu says:

In the view of Selina Chan, Director of Asian Services at Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital, the biggest negative impact of the raids on maternity hotels is that it may tarnish the image of all Chinese. Chan has been naturalized and so have many of her Chinese friends. But “we are always people with yellow skin and black hair,” said Chan. No matter how Americanized “we always want to feel proud of being a Chinese. We don’t like to be looked down on by other people,” she said.

Chan said the hospital she works at doesn’t allow anyone to help pregnant women from China come here for labor. “If patients walk in and need our help, we’ll try our best. But we won’t support anyone to bring them here from China on purpose.”

Lina Chan, Director of Health Essential Association, a health education organization for Asians in Brooklyn, said once the image of Chinese is damaged, it may be hard to mend. After the crackdown, even legitimate Chinese tourists may go through tight scrutiny at U.S. Customs. Those who run these illegal maternity hotels may have their honesty questioned even when they switch to other businesses in the future. “One should be aware that paper cannot cover fire. Anything you’ve done sooner or later will be exposed,” she said.

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