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Chinese native who ran birth tourism operation in California sentenced after fleeing the US

A gavel cracks down. (Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid/U.S. Air Force)

A Chinese national who ran an Irvine-based travel company targeted by federal officials as a birth tourism operation was sentenced Tuesday to 37 months in prison.

But Chao “Edwin” Chen wasn’t in court to hear his sentence. He fled to China in 2016.

Chen was one of the operators of “You Win USA Vacation Resort,” which ran a thriving business at the Carlysle Apartments in Irvine. The company’s primary customers were well-to-do pregnant women, mostly from China, who were sold travel packages that included a place to stay in the United States and people to take care of them before and after they delivered babies who, by law, were American citizens.

In the early morning of March 3, 2015, Chao’s “You Win” operation was one of three birth tourism companies raided by some 200 federal agents who knocked on doors in Irvine, Mission Viejo, Rancho Cucamonga, Rowland Heights and Walnut. While it is not illegal to run such a business, it is illegal to commit immigration and visa fraud in the process — crimes which the birth tourism operators later were accused of committing.

This year, the U.S. Department of State issued a new rule that makes it difficult to get a U.S. travel visa for the purpose of giving birth.

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The birth tourism operators raided in 2015 committed numerous crimes, including visa fraud by helping women lie on their visa application about the true purpose of their trip, according to court documents.

The companies charged women as much as $100,000 for travel and care packages that included housing, meals and transportation to medical offices. The pricier packages featured shopping sprees to South Coast Plaza and Beverly Hills and field trips to Disneyland.

Chao pleaded guilty on June 13, 2016 to visa fraud, marriage fraud and filing a false tax return. But a month later, before he was sentenced, Chao fled the country. In December 2018, he was also charged with contempt of court for fleeing the U.S. while his sentencing was pending.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna in Santa Ana handed Chao a 37 month prison sentence for the visa, marriage and tax fraud guilty plea.

His sentence means that should he return to the United States, “there’s an arrest warrant for him and he’ll have to serve his time,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Pell.

Chao’s partner, Dongyuan Li, was sentenced last December to a 10-month prison term. That was believed to be the first sentence handed to a birth tourism operator in the nation. Li had already been in prison and served her time, so she was released immediately and left for China before a deportation order was carried out.

At least 10 other defendants charged in related birth tourism indictments have fled to China.

Chao and Li’s “You Win” company advertised a “100-person team” to Chinese birth tourism customers. It promoted the benefits of giving birth in the United States, including “13 years of free education from grade school to high school,” less pollution than in China, and the opportunity to help ease immigration for other family members down the road if the child is an American citizen.

In his plea agreement, Chen admitted that in June 2014, while meeting with an undercover agent posing as a birth tourism customer, he put that agent in touch with a “trainer” in China. That trainer, according to court documents, helped teach pregnant customers “how to trick U.S. Customs” and enter the United States without being detected, federal officials said.

The cases were developed by the investigative arms of Homeland Security and the Internal Revenue Service, with assistance from local and federal agencies.

Despite the government’s issuance earlier this year of a new rule that seeks to block the so-called birth tourists, the practice continues.

In April, the city of Orange ordered the shutdown of a small motel that was operating as a birth tourism venue. City officials in Orange ordered the closure because the motel was not approved as a boarding or lodging house. The J.R. Motel had no signs and did not take reservations from the public. It catered only to Chinese women before and after giving birth.

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© 2020 The Orange County Register