BEIRUT: “American citizenship is the best in the world,” said a woman who identifies herself as Karen over the phone, as her 1-month-old son gurgled in the background.
It was this opinion that prompted Karen, then 36 weeks pregnant, to travel to the United States to give birth on American soil so that her child could have a U.S. passport.
Giving birth in Canada is also an appealing choice for many Lebanese.
It may seem extreme, but, like many people in Lebanon, Karen sees American citizenship as an invaluable tool for navigating the world today. It provides freedom of movement with little need for visas – at least compared to the requirements for Lebanese citizens – access to American universities at a cheaper price and sometimes, if needed, evacuation from war zones. With Green Cards notoriously difficult to obtain, birthing a child in the U.S. remains the simplest way to ensure they have access to all of this and more. “We want to help our children going forward in the future,” Karen explained.
And this was not the first time Karen had indulged in what has been dubbed “birth tourism.” Her first son is a year and three months old and he too “is American,” she told The Daily Star.
“We get the papers from the hospital and then go and submit them to immigration. You pay around $265 ... and you get the passport the next day,” Karen explained.
Despite being very controversial in the U.S., such a practice is currently completely legal, and pregnant women are free to travel up until around 36 weeks so long as their doctor OKs it.
According to the 14th amendment of the American constitution, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”
Known as “jus soli” (“right of the soil” in Latin) or birthright citizenship, the stipulation was introduced to protect the rights of recently freed slaves during the 1800s.
The American Embassy in Lebanon says it does not consider birth tourism an issue of concern.
“The INA [Immigration and Nationality Act] does not contain any ineligibility with regard to pregnancies or the intention to give birth in the United States,” an embassy official told The Daily Star via email.
The only requirement is that all visa applicants must demonstrate they have the ability to pay for “all the costs of their trip, including any planned or unplanned medical care.”
“It’s important that you don’t violate [the law],” Karen agreed. “There is nothing illegal about it [birth tourism], but if you don’t pay the hospital bill then there’s a problem.”
Stories of people giving birth in the U.S. and then skipping out on their hospital bills are not unheard of, especially as there is little to no way for medical institutions to track patients down once they’re out of the country.
This issue, combined with an ongoing debate on immigration reform in America, has recently thrust birth tourists such as Karen into the limelight.
Several Republican members of Congress have attempted to introduce laws that would deny citizenship to children who are born in these circumstances, but all have been complicated by the fact that international legal conventions prohibit signatory countries from rendering a child stateless.
Discourse around the subject has been further inflamed by talk of “terror babies.”
A few years ago, Texan House Representative Louie Gohmert claimed that many terrorist organizations – citing Hamas as an example – were sending women to give birth in the U.S. so that their babies could acquire American citizenship and then be brought back to their parents’ country to be “raised and coddled as future terrorists.”
However, a senior ranking former FBI agent speaking to CNN at the time refuted the theory, saying that there were no reports confirming such a trend and that terrorist organizations could easily recruit American citizens already of age, saving them the trouble of planning 20 years ahead.
The U.S. is not the only place being targeted by Lebanese birth tourists. Of around 30 countries in the world that have birthright citizenship enshrined in law, Canada appears to be just as popular.
The issue was brought to the forefront during the Lebanon-Israel war in 2006. Some 15,000 Lebanese-Canadian citizens were evacuated during the conflict, but it later came to light that around 7,000 of those later returned to Lebanon.
Many of the evacuated were accused of never living in Canada, leading to the coining of the term “Canadian of Convenience,” i.e. a citizen that holds another passport and merely uses his Canadian nationality when it suits him.
As in the U.S., the issue sparked a huge debate in Canada – still ongoing – about citizenship rights, with the subject of birthright citizenship coming under particular scrutiny.
A previously confidential report by the governmental agency Citizen and Immigration Canada which surfaced last week listed recommendations to help curb birth tourism and ensure newborns “have a strong connection to Canada” throughout their lives and have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident.
However, it also conceded that just 500 out of more than 360,000 newborns in Canada annually are born to foreign nationals, suggesting the subject should not be a priority.
Numbers in the U.S. paint a similar picture. According to the most recent data available from the National Center for Health Statistics, only 7,719 of around 4 million babies born in 2010 had foreign parents.
Even without legislation and restrictions, the difficulty of obtaining a tourist visa combined with the high cost of travel, accommodation and hospital bills mean birth tourism is only a viable option for a select number of people.
Interestingly, birthright citizenship does not exist in Lebanon and foreigners are almost never given a passport – the law is that the Lebanese nationality can only be passed down the paternal line. So while a Lebanese man can request citizenship for his foreign wife, a Lebanese woman cannot do the same for her foreign husband, and cannot pass her nationality on to their children.
“[In Lebanon] it’s a different conception of the citizenship ... there’s a discourse that it’s blood ... so it’s harder for people from outside to become truly Lebanese,” said Dr. Dina Kiwan, an associate professor at AUB with extensive policy experience in the domain of citizenship.
While she agreed that it was every country’s right to define their citizenship laws, Kiwan warned that one should not be too quick to judge birth tourists. “I think one can look at it internationally and you can almost sort of rank status and power of nationality,” she said.
“One can understand from the Canadian or American point of view that it’s not so desirable,” she added, “but one can also understand that the world is a messy place and people have to operate and try to do the best for themselves and their families.”