California

Trip to federal prison ahead for Southern California woman behind ‘birth tourism’ scheme

Federal agents gather at a parking lot near an upscale apartment complex, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Irvine, Calif. Shortly after sunrise, federal agents swarmed the complex in the Orange County where authorities say a birth tourism business charged pregnant women $50,000 for lodging, food and transportation. The key draw for travelers is that the United States offers birthright citizenship. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Federal agents gather at a parking lot near an upscale apartment complex, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Irvine, Calif. Shortly after sunrise, federal agents swarmed the complex in the Orange County where authorities say a birth tourism business charged pregnant women $50,000 for lodging, food and transportation. The key draw for travelers is that the United States offers birthright citizenship. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) AP

A Chinese national whose illegal “birth tourism” enterprise drew wealthy pregnant clients to Southern California tens of thousands of dollars at a time to give birth on American soil and gain their children U.S. citizenship pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges tied to the operation.

Dongyuan Li, 41, pleaded guilty to single counts each of immigration and visa fraud in U.S. Central District Court in Los Angeles connected to the multi-million dollar scheme, U.S. attorneys said Tuesday in a statement announcing the plea agreement.

The Irvine woman faces up to 15 years in federal prison with the plea at her sentencing scheduled for Dec. 16 before U.S. District Judge James V. Selna.

Li’s scheme ran for two years, from 2013 to 2015. You Win USA Vacation Services’ offices in Irvine and China catered to wealthy and well-connected foreign nationals including Chinese government officials setting up travel to the U.S. for birthright citizenship.

More than 500 customers paid $40,000 to $80,000 for the California birth trips, U.S. Attorney’s officials said, citing a January 2019 federal grand jury indictment. Li put them up in 20 apartments scattered across Orange County.

Li raked in $3 million in international wire transfers from China over the life of the scheme, U.S. Attorney’s officials said.

Li admitted to coaching birth travelers on how to pass U.S. Consulate interviews in China by assuring officials that they planned to stay in the U.S. for weeks instead of months; to planning their travel to best clear customs; to coaching clients on how to disguise their pregnancies at U.S. ports of entry, federal prosecutors said.

As part of the Tuesday plea agreement, Li will turn over automobiles, give up a home in Murrieta in Riverside County and surrender more than $850,000.

Li of Irvine is one of 19 people indicted in the operation and the first to take a deal. The indictments were unsealed earlier this year, said federal prosecutors.

Other defendants are either pending trial or are on the run, U.S. Attorney’s officials said.

Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.
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