Pregnant women traveling to the United States from certain countries could now be denied tourist visas if it’s believed that they’re traveling to give birth. The new U.S. State Department rule, which went into effect on Friday, targets the practice of so-called birth tourism—when women travel to the United States to give birth there so that their children can be citizens.
In recent years, there’s been an uptick in women traveling from countries such as Russia, China, and Nigeria to give birth, the Associated Press reports, and now the State Department says that the practice is not “a legitimate activity for pleasure or of a recreational nature.”
Earlier this year, Hong Kong Express airline apologized after making a pregnant Japanese woman take a pregnancy test at Hong Kong International before flying to the U.S. Pacific island of Saipan.
So who would be affected by this new rule, how will it be enforced, and is this kind of move even legal? Here’s what we know so far.
Which travelers could be affected?
The amended regulation applies to travelers who need a visitor visa (known specifically as a B-2 visitor visa) to visit the United States, including those traveling from countries such as Russia or China. B visas cover temporary travel for vacation, visiting friends or family, medical treatment, or business.
The regulation does not apply to visitors from the 39 countries—including France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Chile—that participate in the Visa Waiver Program, which allows travel to the States for up to 90 days without a visa. Nor does it affect travelers from Canada or Bermuda.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that some 10,000 foreign residents gave birth in the U.S. in 2017.
How will the process actually work?
Right now, it’s hard to say. Basically, the new regulation gives consular officers the power to deny travelers short-term B visas if they believe the person is traveling for the “primary purpose” of giving birth.
The State Department also reports that if a consular officer believes that any applicant will give birth during her stay in the United States, it can be “presumed” that the person is “traveling for the primary purpose of obtaining U.S. citizenship for the child.”
But it’s unclear how exactly that process would work—or be enforced. Officers won’t ask all female visa applicants of childbearing age if they’re pregnant or intend to get pregnant, the AP reports, and they would only ask the question if they had reason to believe they are pregnant and likely to give birth in the United States.
What’s the reaction been?
Not surprisingly, there’s been pushback on this amendment. “Young women already have a difficult time securing visas for travel,” Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, told Vox. “These guidelines will make it harder for women, particularly young women, to travel to the United States for any purpose.”
There’s also a broader concern that the change could lead to discrimination against pregnant women and women in general. In response to the new visa restrictions, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “Pregnant women. This administration is now targeting pregnant. Women. When you single out the most vulnerable, the cruelty is the point.” Former Obama administration official Doug Rand also told Vox that the policy is “designed to cast basically all women of childbearing age as presumptive lawbreakers.”
The B visa currently allows for pregnant women to visit the United States “for the primary purpose of obtaining medical treatment for reasons related to childbirth for maternal or infant health.” But there’s worry that this exception wouldn’t be honored—and that traveling mothers could be turned away, putting their health and their baby’s health in jeopardy.
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