By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles official moved on Tuesday to crack down on so-called maternity hotels he said have sprung up across parts of Southern California as pregnant women travel to the United States in a growing "birthing tourism" trend.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe asked colleagues to approve a series of steps designed to ultimately close the hotels - typically single-family homes carved into bedrooms where visiting women pay to stay in anticipation of giving birth to a child who will be born a U.S. citizen.
"His intent here with this motion is not to regulate these maternity hotels, it's to eliminate them," Knabe's spokeswoman, Cheryl Burnett, said following a Board of Supervisors meeting.
"These are really underground money-making schemes that attract women to the U.S. to have their babies," she said.
The issue of maternity tourism bubbled to the surface in recent months when residents of an upscale Los Angeles suburb protested against what they said was a maternity hotel operating in their neighborhood to host pregnant women from China. They complained it caused sanitation and other issues.
The U.S. Constitution grants citizenship to any child born on U.S. soil, regardless of parentage, and immigration experts said there was nothing inherently illegal about women coming from abroad to give birth to children in the country.
Burnett said that Knabe's action was directed at zoning and health and safety issues associated with the hotels, noting that county officials have no jurisdiction over immigration laws. She said U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement would be asked to determine how the women were entering the country.
Burnett said the board of supervisors was expected to approve the motion next week, directing a number of county agencies to investigate the hotels. It also orders the county counsel to draft zoning ordinances that would put them out of business in Los Angeles County.
Last month residents in an upscale neighborhood of Chino Hills protested a large hilltop home that was found to have been divided up into 17 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms.
The Los Angeles Times quoted Chino Hills officials as saying in a December court filing that 10 women from China and their babies were staying in rooms of the home, which did not have permits to operate as a business.
Neighbors had complained of a sewage spill from an overloaded septic system and cars speeding in and out of the driveway. An inspection found exposed wiring, missing smoke alarms and holes in bedroom floors - as well as brochures on how to have a U.S. citizen baby, according to the Times.
Since then the county has received some 65 complaints about maternity homes operating in the county's San Gabriel Valley, home to a large Asian population.
A report commissioned by the county board of supervisors in December said zoning enforcement agents had investigated 20 such illegal maternity hotels that it described as part of a mushrooming "birthing tourism" trend.
"This trend seems to be expanding in Southern California (particularly in Los Angeles counties) as well as New York City and Vancouver, Canada," the report said.
Southern California immigration activists suggested the issue was being blown out of proportion, saying it may have been stoked by an ongoing national debate over illegal immigration.
"If you've got a home and it's unsafe for one reason or another, you certainly want a public safety interaction making the place safer," said Manuel Pastor, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California.
"But this is playing out against the terrain of pretty heated immigration politics that's likely to get even more heated in next few months," Pastor said.
In October, a pregnant woman who was arrested trying to cross from Mexico into California with a fake identification documents to deliver her baby in Los Angeles made headlines when she told customs agents that she was the daughter of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
The woman, Alejandrina Gisselle Guzman-Salazar, pleaded guilty in December to using a false passport and was deported to Mexico before she could give birth.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)