Visa restrictions on ‘birthing tourism’ could hurt border economy

National

Advocates decry visa restrictions they say target poor women of color; supporters maintain that 33,000 a year come to U.S. just to have babies

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The Trump administration’s push against “birthing tourism” could have grave, unintended consequences for U.S. cities that rely on Mexican shoppers, border experts say.

That’s because the new consular officers’ discretion to deny “B” class visitor or business visas to foreign women they suspect may be trying to have their babies on the U.S. side includes the B1/B2 Border Crossing Card, local immigration attorneys say. That card for the past few decades has enabled millions of Mexicans to routinely visit and shop in cities like El Paso, Laredo and San Diego.

“A lot of our economy is dependent on those temporary visitors that come from Mexico to go shopping, go out to eat with family members, who buy big-ticket items. It’s going to have a huge impact,” said El Paso immigration attorney Iliana Holguin.

The State Department issues more than 1 million of those visas to Mexican citizens every year, and they remain valid for 10 years.

Mexican shoppers account for 8% to 14% of El Paso’s retail economy on any given year, according to Tom Fullerton, professor of economics at the University of Texas at El Paso. Last year, that meant $1.25 billion in purchases by residents of Northern Mexico; this year’s impact is likely to be $1.28 billion, he said.

“It’s going to have an effect not only in El Paso, but on all border communities that depend on people coming over from Mexico and spending their money here,” Holguin said.

The rule that went into effect last Friday empowers State Department consular employees to deny tourist or other “B” class visas to pregnant applicants who may be coming to the United States to give birth — unless they can prove they can pay for the hospital care or need specialized care in order for the unborn baby or themselves to survive.

Women from 39 countries on a visa waiver list are exempt. Those countries include virtually all of Western Europe, Scandinavia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. The only exempt Latin American country is Chile.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors immigration controls, says that 33,000 foreign women come to the United States every year to have babies. The group applauded the State Department’s new rule as a way to curtail visa fraud and prevent foreigners from gaining immigration benefits down the road due to having a U.S. citizen child.

But other immigration policy experts and advocates said the rule is racist — intended to keep out poor women from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“The new regulation could apply to a pregnant woman traveling to Disneyland with her family or a pregnant woman coming to the United States for a business meeting or to seek specialized medical care to save her baby’s life or her own during childbirth,” said Ur Jaddou, director of DHS Watch and a former chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). “Consular officers who are not trained medical experts will be required to ask intrusive, complicated medical questions in public and make obstetric judgements.”

She said the rule went into effect without Congress making a change in federal immigration law or the public being able to comment on it. She also fears that women will be subjected to more scrutiny at ports of entry even if they secured a visa.

Airlines, too, will be under pressure to scrutinize female travelers of child-bearing age, said Ann Marie Benitez, senior director of government relations for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

“This rule … is just one more attack against our community of women of color,” she said, referring to the “public charge” rule, which a divided Supreme Court on Monday allowed the Trump administration to put in place to restrict legal residence to persons who are deemed as potentially becoming an economic burden to the country. “The political climate is taking a toll on all levels. In Texas, we have seen an increase of (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers in hospitals. In the Rio Grande Valley, people are not going to their (medical) appointments because they see Border Patrol parked outside.”

Holguin, the immigration attorney from El Paso, said she hasn’t learned of any client yet denied a visa on account of pregnancy. “But it’s still early,” she said.

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