Three defendants accused of operating Southern California-based “birth tourism” outfits that catered to Chinese nationals were arrested Thursday by federal authorities, who unsealed indictments charging a total of 19 people allegedly linked to immigration fraud schemes in which clients paid tens of thousands of dollars for help in giving birth in the United States.

The indictments charge operators and clients of three “maternity house” or “birthing house” schemes that were dismantled in March 2015 when federal agents, who were part of an international undercover operation, executed 35 search warrants, according to U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek.

According to the indictments, all three businesses touted the benefits of giving birth in America rather than China, with claims of the U.S. having “the most attractive nationality”; “better air” and less pollution; “priority for jobs in U.S. government”; superior educational resources, including “free education from junior high school to public high school”; a more stable political situation; and the potential to “receive your senior supplement benefits when you are living overseas.”

Dongyuan Li, 41, of Irvine, Michael Wei Yueh Liu, 53, of Rancho Cucamonga, and Jing Dong, 42, of Fontana, were arrested Thursday morning on the indictments returned Wednesday, according to Mrozek, and the other 16 are fugitives.

Li, Liu and Dong, who allegedly operated businesses that advertised the advantages of giving birth in the U.S. over China, are charged with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud, international money laundering and identity theft. Liu additionally faces charges of filing three false tax returns that failed to report more than $1.9 million in income.

Li’s Irvine-based company, You Win USA, utilized 20 apartments in that city, according to Mrozek. Clients paid $40,000 to $80,000, with Li allegedly receiving $3 million in international wire transfers over a two-year period, he said.

As a result of the investigation into Li’s company, authorities have seized or are in the process of taking three properties, including her Irvine home worth $2.1 million, along with six vehicles, more than $1 million from bank accounts and a cache of gold bars and coins, according to Mrozek.

Liu and Dong allegedly operated San Bernardino County-based USA Happy Baby Inc. and used apartments in Rancho Cucamonga and Irvine to house their clients, who were charged as much as $100,000.

According to one of the 17 newly unsealed related indictments, Wen Rui Deng, 65, who formerly resided in Irvine but is believed to be back in China, operated Star Baby Care, a business in Los Angeles County that investigators suspect was a front for the largest “birth tourism” scam in the country, Mrozek said.

Deng used 30 apartments in Rowland Heights and 10 other homes in Irvine, according to federal prosecutors.

Under the birth tourism schemes, foreign nationals, mostly from China, applied for visitor visas to come to the United States and lied about where they would stay and the length and purposes of their trips, which were to come to the U.S. for three months to give birth so their children would receive U.S. birthright citizenship, according to the indictments.

The operators of the schemes allegedly coached their Chinese customers on how to pass the U.S. Consulate interview in China by falsely stating that they were going to stay in the U.S. for only two weeks. Clients were also allegedly coached to trick U.S. Customs personnel at ports of entry by wearing loose clothing that would conceal their pregnancies, and to fly to Hawaii from China — instead of directly to Los Angeles — because it was easier to get through U.S. Customs.

The indictments allege that many of the Chinese birth tourism customers failed to pay all of the medical costs associated with their hospital births, and the debts were referred to collection agencies.

“These cases allege a wide array of criminal schemes that sought to defeat our immigration laws — laws that welcome foreign visitors so long as they are truthful about their intentions when entering the country,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna.

“Statements by the operators of these birthing houses show contempt for the United States, while they were luring clients with the power and prestige of U.S. citizenship for their children,” he said. “Some of the wealthy clients of these businesses also showed blatant contempt for the U.S. by ignoring court orders directing them to stay in the country to assist with the investigation and by skipping out on their unpaid hospital bills.”

The at-large defendants, who are accused of violating federal court orders to remain in the U.S. and face charges, include:

— Qiang Yan, 42, the husband of Dongyuan Li, who was indicted in December on three counts of visa fraud;

— Xiao Yan Liu, 39, who was indicted in November on two counts of visa fraud;

— Jun Xiao, 30, and LongJing Yi, 30, who were indicted in February 2018 on conspiracy, visa fraud, obstruction of justice, and criminal contempt charges;

— Dongjiang He, 46, and his wife, Zhichan Yu, 40;

— Jia Luo, 30;

— Renlong Chen, 34, and his wife, Wei Wang, 33;

— Jie He, 29;

— Eryun Zhang, 25, her husband, Liang Ni, 25, and her mother, Ji Xu, 50;

— Chao Chen, 34, an alleged partner in the You Win USA operation, who was indicted in December on a contempt charge for allegedly fleeing the country while awaiting sentencing on guilty pleas for visa fraud, marriage fraud and tax fraud; and

— Ji Zhu, 31, who was indicted last March for allegedly entering into a sham marriage to a U.S. citizen to gain citizenship despite being married to Chao Chen.

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