SANTA ANA, Calif. — Dongyuan Li's business was called "You Win USA," and authorities say she coached pregnant Chinese women on how to get into the United States to deliver babies who would automatically enjoy all the benefits of American citizenship.
Over two years, the now-41-year-old raked in millions through her business, where mothers-to-be paid between $40,000 and $80,000 each to come to California, stay in an upscale apartment and give birth, authorities said.
Li, who was arrested Thursday, is one of 20 people charged in the first federal crackdown on "birth tourism" businesses that prosecutors said brought hundreds of pregnant women to the U.S.
Jing Dong, 42, and Michael Wei Yueh Liu, 53, who allegedly operated "USA Happy Baby," also were arrested. More than a dozen others, including the operator of a third such business, also face charges but are believed to have returned to China, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said.
While it isn't illegal to visit the United States while pregnant, authorities said the businesses — which were raided by federal agents in 2015 — touted the benefits of having U.S. citizen babies, who could get free public education and years later help their parents immigrate.
They also allegedly had women hide their pregnancies while seeking travel visas and lie about their plans, with one You Win USA customer telling consular officials she was going to visit a Trump hotel in Hawaii.
The charges include conspiracy, visa fraud and money laundering. But U.S. authorities said the businesses also posed a national security risk since their customers, some who worked for the Chinese government, secured American citizenship for children who can move back to the United States once they're 21 and then sponsor their parents for green cards.
"I see this as a grave national security concern and vulnerability," said Mark Zito, assistant special agent-in-charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's homeland security investigations. "Are some of them doing it for security because the United States is more stable? Absolutely. But will those governments take advantage of this? Yes, they will."
Messages left for Li and Dong's attorneys were not immediately returned. Derek Tung, Liu's attorney, said the growing interest among Chinese women to give birth to American babies drew attention to a phenomenon long employed by citizens of other countries.
His client had nothing to do with getting women visas from China but worked almost as a subcontractor to provide housing once they arrived, he said.
Birth tourism businesses have long operated in California and other states and cater to couples from China, Russia, Nigeria and elsewhere.