On the streets of Richmond, an immigration topic on people’s lips for years has been “birth tourism.”
The practice — where pregnant women travel to a foreign country to give birth, thereby guaranteeing their baby automatic citizenship — has been rising steadily in the city, whose hospital is considered “ground zero.”
Under Canadian immigration law, birthright citizenship is law. But some in the city say people are increasingly taking advantage.
One woman, Kerry Starchuk, has made it her mission to bring an end to birth tourism. She has submitted two online petitions to the federal government since 2016, arguing more needs to be done to clamp down on the practice.
“It is undermining our citizenship,” she said. “Everyone comes through the front door and they work very hard to come here. This is undermining the system.
“People are lying to border guards and not saying why they’re coming here, and coming to stay at places that are unregulated. If we want a healthy community, everyone needs to contribute to being on board.”
WATCH: (Nov. 23, 2018) New numbers show more ‘birth tourism’ in Canada than thought
Starchuk says several homes in Richmond are being advertised on Chinese websites and Instagram accounts as so-called “baby houses,” where families can rent rooms in advance of their hospital visit.
“We have given the wrong messages by not addressing the issue, so now there are even more operators bringing birth tourism into Richmond,” she said.
Starchuk’s first petition was sponsored by Alice Wong, the longtime Conservative MP for Richmond Centre, and gained more than 8,800 signatures — 5,100 of which came from B.C.
A second petition in 2018 was signed over 10,800 times, again with a majority coming from B.C.
That petition’s sponsor was Liberal MP Joe Peschisolido, whose riding of Steveston-Richmond East sits just east of Richmond Hospital and contains several neighbourhoods where “baby houses” have popped up.
“Birth tourism undermines both the integrity of our immigration system, as well as the integrity of our health care system,” he said. “It’s a business, but it’s an illegitimate business.
“What you have are unscrupulous businesspeople who are making money off our generosity … and that has to stop.”
The petition called on Ottawa to not only declare it doesn’t support birth tourism and study its full extent and effects, but also move towards policies that would dismantle businesses that promote the practice.
Peschisolido says the government in the process of adopting all three of those requests, but admits it’s taking time.
“We have to quantify it and come up with numbers to see what it is, what’s occurring, what kind of problems are involved,” he said. “Then we have to come up with a plan to shut down the industry, and that’s what we’re in the process of doing.”
While Statistics Canada data has reported relatively small numbers of births by nonresidents based on birth registrations — just 313 across Canada in 2016 — new studies have shown birth tourism could be much more widespread.
A 2018 Policy Options study that looked at the number of births through hospital discharge data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) found 3,223 cases that same year, more than five times the number from Statistics Canada.
Andrew Griffith, a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute who was behind the report, says that number has only continued to increase, to 3,628 in 2017 and 4,100 in the last fiscal year, which ended in March.
“That represents a 13 per cent increase year over year, which is quite significant,” he said, while noting the number still represents less than two per cent of all births in Canada.
Griffith acknowledged the data includes all births to nonresidents, including those temporarily living in Canada on student visas, and it’s difficult to tell in each case whether birthright citizenship was a motivating factor.
WATCH: (July 17, 2018) Last day for ‘birth tourism’ petition
The CIHI information shows while B.C. may actually lag behind Ontario in the number of births to nonresidents — 689 in 2017, compared to more than 2,000 in Ontario — Richmond Hospital continues to outpace all other hospitals in the country.
In 2017-18, the B.C. hospital saw 469 births to nonresident mothers, accounting for more than 21 per cent of all births there. The next closest figure comes from Scarborough and Rouge Hospital in Ontario, with 163 nonresident births, representing 9.5 per cent of total births at the hospital.
Griffith’s report recommended financial action against nonresidents attempting birth tourism to discourage it, such as hospitals requesting substantial deposits from nonresidents.
Peschisolido says all options are being considered, but pointed to a $52-million government investment meant to help RCMP crack down on “baby houses” as a “good first step.”
An Ipsos poll conducted in January for Global News found more than half of Canadians surveyed either tend to agree or strongly agree that Canada is too welcoming to immigrants.
In March, an Angus Reid Institute poll suggested 64 per cent of Canadians disagree with the country’s birthright citizenship laws, with 60 per cent calling for stricter laws against birth tourism.
But responses to Starchuk’s two petitions have suggested Ottawa has no plans to get rid of the law, despite admitting birth tourism is a problem that needs addressing.
“While there may be instances of expectant mothers who are foreign nationals who travel to Canada to give birth, requiring that a parent be a citizen or permanent resident in order for their child to acquire citizenship through birth in Canada would represent a significant change to how Canadian citizenship is acquired,” then-immigration minister John McCallum said in response to the 2016 petition, which was ultimately rejected.
Current Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen made similar points in response to the 2018 petition, but pledged to study the issue more closely.
Peschisolido, who was first elected to the new Steveston-Richmond East riding in 2015, says he plans to make the issue a key promise in his re-election bid.
“If I’m blessed and fortunate enough to be re-elected … I’m going to be pushing very hard to not only undermine birth tourism, but ultimately stop it and eliminate it,” he said.
Conservative candidate Kenny Chiu and Green candidate Nicole Iaci did not make themselves available for interviews.
At their most recent convention, Conservative Party members vowed to bring an end to birth tourism.
WATCH: (Aug. 27, 2018) Conservatives look to end birth tourism in Canada
In a statement, NDP candidate Jaeden Dela Torre said the problem is concerning as it related to the health care system, but said any policies that crack down on birth tourism must come with careful considerations.
“We must not use this issue as a way to divide Canadians and fan the flames of racism and xenophobia,” she said.
“We’re reviewing all facts to come up with a fair and compassionate solution that protects health care services for all Canadians.”
Starchuk says she’s been in touch with many of the candidates, but has yet to see the action that Peschisolido has promised.
“I don’t trust anyone right now, because nothing has been resolved,” she said. “It’s a growing issue, but I haven’t seen anyone do anything.”
—With files from Paul Johnson, Eric Stober and the Canadian Press