Federal prosecutors revealed that in exchange for payments between $7,500 and $10,000 each, Turkish women received transportation, medical care as well as lodging at a so-called birth house on Long Island — allowing them to travel to New York on tourist visas and return to Turkey with babies who were American citizens.
Prosecutors charged six people with running the “birth tourism” operation on Long Island since 2017, which facilitated the births of an estimated 119 babies to Turkish women.
Prosecutors said how the costs of the births were fraudulently billed to the state, which caused New York’s Medicaid program to lose over $2.1 million.
“The defendants cashed in on the desire for birthright citizenship, and the American taxpayer ultimately got stuck with the $2.1 million bill,” said acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Seth DuCharme. “The indictment unsealed today reinforces the principle that American citizenship is not for sale, and that our benefits programs are not piggy banks for criminals to plunder.”
The defendants received about $750,000 total in payments from pregnant women.
Birth tourism has been around for quite some time. In the past, it has since drawn attention from well-off mothers from China, Korea, Russia, Turkey, Egypt as well as Nigeria to the U.S. for birthright citizenship.
Earlier in the year, the State Department gave visa officers more power to stop pregnant women from visiting the United States if the women were suspected of traveling to give birth.
After children who are U.S. citizens turn 21, they are able to sponsor a parent for a green card.
While the State Department has estimated that thousands of babies are born to tourists from abroad every year, there are no official numbers. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2018, there were about 3.8 million total births in the United States.
The defendants were charged with fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. Four of them are Turkish nationals accused of advertising the scheme and of facilitating the women’s lodging and transportation, while the other two are U.S. citizens who are suspected of helping to file the fraudulent Medicaid applications.
The mothers were not criminally charged and prosecutors allege it would be unlikely for the children to lose their U.S. citizenship.
The year-long, federal investigation on Long Island involved surveillance photographs, wiretapped conversations, search warrants for iCloud accounts along with an undercover agent.
The accused leader of the scheme, Ibrahim Aksakal, said in a recorded conversation in May 2019 how the women needed to apply for a tourist visa before the pregnancy became “obvious.” He was not aware he was speaking to an undercover Homeland Security employee at the time who was posing as the spouse of a pregnant Turkish woman.
An unnamed co-conspirator revealed to the undercover employee how the women should arrive no later than their 34th week of pregnancy.
The investigation began when local police received a tip that a group of Turkish women, who all had the same address, had given birth around the exact same time. Investigators eventually discovered seven birth houses in Long Island where the women lived.
One pregnant woman who applied for a visa in October 2019 claimed she was traveling to the U.S. for tourism and would stay at a Manhattan hotel.
But in reality, she stayed at a house in West Babylon on Long Island, according to prosecutors. Then in April, she left the U.S. after an American passport application had been filed on her child’s behalf.
Prosecutors revealed that to cover the prenatal and delivery costs, the defendants filed dozens of false Medicaid applications that hid the women’s immigration status — claiming they were permanent residents in Long Island with zero income.
Mr. DuCharme revealed at a news conference how some of the women were actually “of substantial means.”
Christopher Lau, a top official with Homeland Security Investigations, also stated at the news conference how birth tourism usually act as unlicensed health care providers, which put pregnant women and babies in unsafe conditions.
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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