The Facebook post advertised a tantalizing offer for pregnant women in Turkey. “If you believe your baby should be born in the USA and become an American citizen,” the ad said in Turkish, “then you are at the right place.”
In exchange for payments between $7,500 and $10,000 each, the women received transportation, medical care and lodging at a so-called birth house on Long Island, federal prosecutors said — allowing them to travel to New York on tourist visas and return to Turkey with babies who were American citizens.
On Wednesday, prosecutors charged six people with running the “birth tourism” operation on Long Island, which facilitated the births of an estimated 119 babies to Turkish women since at least 2017.
The costs of the births were fraudulently billed to the state, causing New York’s Medicaid program to lose more than $2.1 million, prosecutors said.
“The defendants cashed in on the desire for birthright citizenship, and the American taxpayer ultimately got stuck with the $2.1 million bill,” said Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. “The indictment unsealed today reinforces the principle that American citizenship is not for sale, and that our benefits programs are not piggy banks for criminals to plunder.”
In total, the defendants received about $750,000 in payments from pregnant women, prosecutors said.
Birth tourism is a longstanding phenomenon. In recent years, it has drawn mostly well-off mothers from China, Korea, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Nigeria to the U.S. for birthright citizenship. A 2018 case involving the stabbing of three babies at a maternity center in Queens exposed the risks of the unregulated practice.
Earlier this year, the State Department gave visa officers more power to stop pregnant women from visiting the United States if the women were suspected of traveling to give birth. The new rule described giving birth as “an impermissible basis” for visiting the United States.
After children who are U.S. citizens turn 21, they can sponsor a parent for a green card.
The State Department has estimated that thousands of babies are born to tourists from abroad every year, but there are no official numbers. In 2018, there were about 3.8 million total births in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The defendants on Wednesday were charged with fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. Four of them are Turkish nationals accused of advertising the scheme and of facilitating the women’s lodging and transportation. The other two are U.S. citizens who are suspected of helping to file the fraudulent Medicaid applications.
The mothers were not criminally charged and are not targets of the investigation. Prosecutors said it would be unlikely for the children to lose their U.S. citizenship.
The federal investigation on Long Island, which took more than a year, involved surveillance photographs, wiretapped conversations, search warrants for iCloud accounts and even an undercover agent.
Ibrahim Aksakal — an accused leader of the scheme — said in a recorded conversation in May 2019 that the women needed to apply