Every year, hundreds of pregnant Russian women travel to the United States to give birth so that their children can acquire all the privileges of American citizenship.
They pay anywhere from $20,000 to sometimes more than $50,000 to brokers who arrange their travel documents, accommodations and hospital stays, often in Florida.
While the cost is high, their children will be rewarded with opportunities and travel advantages not available to their Russian countrymen. The parents themselves may benefit someday as well.
And the decidedly un-Russian climate in South Florida and the posh treatment they receive in the maternity wards – unlike dismal clinics back home – can ease the financial sting and make the practice seem more like an extended vacation.
The Russians are part of a wave of “birth tourists” that includes sizable numbers of women from China and Nigeria.
President Donald Trump has spoken out against the provision in the U.S. Constitution that allows “birthright citizenship” and has vowed to end it, although legal experts are divided on whether he can actually do that.
Although there have been scattered cases of authorities arresting operators of birth tourism agencies for visa fraud or tax evasion, coming to the U.S. to give birth is fundamentally legal. Russians interviewed by The Associated Press said they were honest about their intentions when applying for visas and even showed signed contracts with doctors and hospitals.
There are no figures on how many foreign women travel to the U.S. specifically to give birth. The Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for stricter immigration laws, estimated that in 2012, about 36,000 foreign-born women gave birth in the U.S., then left the country.
The Russian contingent is clearly large. Anton Yachmenev of the Miami Care company that arranges such trips, told the AP that about 150 Russian families a year use his service, and that there are about 30 such companies just in the area.
South Florida is popular among Russians not only for its tropical weather but also because of the large Russian-speaking population. Sunny Isles Beach, a city just north of Miami, is even nicknamed “Little Moscow.”
“With $30,000, we would not be able to buy an apartment for our child or do anything, really. But we could give her freedom. That’s actually really cool,” said Olga Zemlyanaya, who gave birth to a daughter in December and was staying in South Florida until her child got a U.S. passport.
An American passport confers many advantages. Once the child turns 21, he or she can apply for “green card” immigration status for the parents.
A U.S. passport also gives the holder more travel opportunities than a Russian one; Americans can make short-term trips to more than 180 countries without a visa, while Russians can go visa-free only to about 80.