The dream of many South Korean parents is to have a child who is educated in the United States. But because of high costs and visa regulations, it's not always so easy. Now many families are avoiding those obstacles by giving birth in the US, which guarantees their child American citizenship.
The US grants citizenship to anyone born on its soil
Thirty one year old Jess is eight months pregnant. In a few days she’ll be leaving for a three month stay on the island of Guam, a United States territory in the Pacific. There, she plans to give birth to a baby girl. Jess says the trip is in her child’s best interest.
“The reason I go to Guam to have baby is because of education, English. In Korea, it’s really important and you have to spend a lot of money. So if my child has US citizenship she can go to America and have maybe a free education."
Women such as Jess do not usually make this type of trip on their own. There are dozens of so-called birth tour agencies with offices in Guam and in the US that help thousands of Korean mothers-to-be arrange flights, reserve hospital rooms and find translators.
Some charge up to twenty thousand US dollars for their services. Obtaining foreign citizenship and education abroad has long been a status symbol for South Korea's wealthy and elite.
Kwon Young In is a researcher at Yonsei University's Department of Family Studies.
"This whole phenomenon started from the upper middle class people who had enough money to do this. They believe this is for their children and is the fastest way and most convenient way to go up the social ladder and become a really upper class."
Now that South Koreans no longer need visas to enter the US for up to 90 days, more and more birth tourists could be on their way.
And this fact has grabbed the attention of American conservative groups. Jack Martin is with FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. He says, “This is in effect a loophole that allows a backdoor way into the United States other than obtaining an immigrant visa.”
Opposition from US Conservatives
Martin says that foreigners are taking advantage of a clause in the US Constitution that grants citizenship to anyone born on American soil. The amendment was originally added to ensure that freed slaves became citizens.
FAIR is lobbying politicians to bring the case to the United States Supreme Court.
There are critics of birth tours in South Korea too. Some say it's unpatriotic and devaluates Korean citizenship, especially in hard times. Yonsei University's Kwon Young In says this might happen during the current global financial crisis.
"Now the world economy is kind of going down and people need to sacrifice but they first do when you devaluate the citizenship the first thing they do is move to another country that has a better situation."
Birth tours are still a relatively new practice in South Korea, and it's too early to see how US nationality will affect the children’s sense of identity once they become adults.
But Kwon thinks that a child with dual Korean and US citizenship won’t have any problems fitting into Korean society at least until 18, when he or she will have one nationality or the other.