By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California lawmaker said on Thursday that what he called a maternity ward for Chinese mothers who wanted their babies born in the United States showed the need for immigration law changes.
City officials in San Gabriel, which is less than 10 miles from Los Angeles, said that on March 8 they discovered three adjoining condominiums illegally converted into a maternity ward with seven newborn babies.
California state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican, said the discovery shows an abuse of the Constitution's 14th Amendment, which gives citizenship to any baby born in the United States, with rare exceptions.
"You wind up with these extreme situations where people will go to any length to get U.S. citizenship," he said.
The makeshift maternity ward in San Gabriel illustrates how foreign mothers, in this case Chinese nationals, are traveling to the United States to give birth, Donnelly said.
Jennifer Davis, director of community development for San Gabriel, said she was unaware of whether the two mothers present at the facility when city code enforcement inspectors visited were foreign citizens. But she said immigration authorities are involved in the case.
The facility was run by an operator who charged Asian mothers a fee for staying there, and had knocked out walls between three condominiums to create one unit, Davis said.
The babies found at the makeshift maternity ward were born at hospitals, but inspectors got few details from the operator, Davis said.
"In these types of situations, they don't tend to say much," she said.
Virginia Kice, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman, said her office investigated a similar case about a year ago, but found no evidence of a crime.
If a makeshift maternity ward is involved with visa fraud, the abuse of public benefits or human smuggling, that will warrant criminal charges, she said.
"There is nothing in the law precluding a pregnant foreign woman from traveling to the United States, providing she meets the requirement for admission," Kice said.
At the San Gabriel facility, a staff member acted as a nurse, and the babies were kept in bassinets, Davis said. The place was clean and orderly, but there did not appear to be any medical equipment on hand, she said.
The operator was fined $900 and ordered to restore the three condominiums to their original state. He transferred the mothers to a hotel, Davis said.
Donnelly is a longtime opponent of illegal immigration whose ability to deal with the issue is limited because he is a state and not a federal official.
But he said foreign mothers coming to the United States to have their children born here is a growing problem.
"It's seen around the world ... as a way to shortcut the (immigration) line, because you have a child anchoring you to the United States," he said.
But Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the nonprofit Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, disputed that contention.
"This is not an example of anything other than a bad business doing the wrong kind of thing," he said.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)