Last month, the Trump administration issued a new immigration directive targeting “birth tourism,” a term applied to foreign nationals who travel to the United States with the intent to give birth and gain U.S. citizenship for their children.
Under the new directive, the U.S. Department of State was ordered to stop issuing temporary visas to applicants who are suspected of seeking them for the purpose of birth tourism.
Critics have assailed the directive as vague and unenforceable, and it appears particularly unenforceable in Ambos Nogales, where large numbers of U.S. visa-holding Sonorans cross routinely into Arizona for a wide variety of reasons.
The abundance of Sonora-plated cars in the parking lots of local retailers illustrates the extent and impact of those visits. The birth notices published in Friday editions of the Nogales International show that some of the visitors from Mexico also choose to have their babies here.
Even so, the new policy has raised concerns about the unnecessary barriers and invasion of privacy that it could bring for all women applying for U.S. visas, as well as the effect it might have on the local area.
“I think it could certainly impact the healthcare community here on the Arizona side of the border because I think it could cause a chilling effect on both healthcare and tourism,” said Luis Parra, a Nogales-based immigration lawyer who added that he believes the policy opens the door for consular officials to ask invasive questions about women’s intentions to start families.
“Women, as opposed to having to face those types of questions, may just not apply for a tourist visa and that could impact the local economy,” he said.
According to a White House statement issued on Jan. 23, the new policy was implemented to “enhance public safety, national security and the integrity of our immigration system.” It called birth tourism an “industry” and said the directive would “defend American taxpayers from having their hard-earned dollars siphoned away to finance the direct and downstream costs associated with birth tourism.”
However, it did not specify how the government would identify people seeking visas for the purpose of birth tourism.
Parra said the new policy seems to be targeted more towards families that have the economic ability to travel to the country for several months at a time to plan out the birth. But he said it doesn’t take into account the close-knit relationship between residents in border communities such as Ambos Nogales, where women’s decisions regarding birth may be motivated by several factors other than citizenship.
“You’re going to have women from Nogales, Sonora that feel more comfortable with a doctor on the U.S. side of the border – and it’s a good deal, too, for them compared to the healthcare costs on the Mexican side of the border,” Parra said.
Calls seeking comment from two Arizona-based physicians who have advertised their ob/gyn services on billboards in Nogales, Sonora were not returned.
Patricia Mendez, a 39-year-old resident of Nogales, Sonora who gave birth to her two children in Nogales, Ariz., said her decision was based upon factors including immigration status and medical services during labor.
She explained that her health insurance provider in Mexico covered her labor expenses in both countries, but differences in the services offered on each side of the border made her decision easier.
“In case of an emergency, it was much closer to move to Tucson or Phoenix,” Mendez said, noting that if she had needed emergency services in Mexico, it would have been more complicated because “they take you all the way to Obregon or Hermosillo.”
She added that gaining U.S. citizenship for her children was also a motive, as she wanted them to have more opportunities in terms of education and employment.
Still, citing the experiences of relatives who had dual citizenship, Mendez said it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that her children’s adult lives would be spent in the United States.
Some of her family members, she said, decided to complete part of their academic careers in the United States and another portion in Mexico, eventually staying in the latter.
“Some of my cousins were born (in the United States) and they live in Mexico by choice… They have their businesses here, the lifestyle is less expensive and they also have certain freedoms here,” she said.
Guidelines getting blurrier
Diana Erendira Castillo Reina, a Tucson-based lawyer who has participated in immigration forums in Nogales, said the new policy was another way to “scapegoat” a particular group.
“This administration is doing everything it can to put obstacles and bars to not allow people to immigrate to the United States for whatever reason,” she said.
Parra said he thinks the directive was issued mainly to satisfy a certain voter base that demands stricter policies regarding “anchor babies,” which refers to U.S.-born individuals who use their citizenship to immigrate their family members.
As for Mendez and her husband, Mexican citizens with U.S. visas, there was no interest in seeking U.S. residency or citizenship through their children, as they already enjoy a comfortable lifestyle in Mexico.
“We don’t believe in the ‘American Dream’ like most people who live under different circumstances,” she said.
But Parra said that, with no definitive way of finding out a person’s true motives while applying for temporary visas, the new directive only makes the guidelines blurrier for all applicants.
“It’s so difficult to be able to identify people who have that intent,” Parra said. “(The Trump administration) needs to be a lot more transparent with respect to what they consider the basis of a denial under the birth tourism policy.”