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By Perrin Grauer StarMetro Vancouver
VANCOUVER—More than one in five babies born in Metro Vancouver’s Richmond Hospital could be so-called “anchor babies” — children born to non-residents in order to gain Canadian citizenship — according to a new study.
The study, authored by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) and published Thursday in Policy Options magazine, suggests 21.9 per cent of the children delivered in Richmond Hospital are born to non-resident mothers — more than double the percentage born in any other Canadian hospital.
The IRPP study also shows the number of such children born in Canada is far higher than previously estimated.
While a Statistics Canada report found roughly 312 babies are born in the country each year to mothers whose place of residence is officially listed as outside of Canada, IRPP’s study put that number at closer to 1,500 or 2,000 children annually. The data shows the number of births to non-resident mothers — including all provinces but Quebec, which refused to release the data — skyrocketed to 3,628 last year from just 1,354 in 2010.
The issue of birth tourism — when pregnant women fly to Canada to give birth — is divisive because children born under such circumstances are automatically granted Canadian citizenship. They therefore enjoy all the attendant rights and privileges, such as access to domestic university fees as well as subsidized education and health care, even though their parents aren’t taxpayers and the children themselves will not necessarily be raised in Canada.
Joe Peschisolido, Liberal MP for Steveston-Richmond East, believes the revelation provided by the study has some troubling implications.
“Even though I believe the (birth tourism) epicentre is in Richmond — and at the hospital in Richmond — I think you’re starting to see birth tourism as an institution,” Peschisolido told StarMetro in a Thursday phone interview.
“There are individuals that are profiting from this. And I think that’s the most heinous thing. You’re getting individuals that are abusing … the immigration and citizenship system … and are profiting off of an illegitimate — and the government has said unethical — system.”
A Thursday statement from Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) confirmed the numbers in the IRPP study, though slightly more children were actually born to non-resident mothers in Richmond Hospital than the IRPP study accounted for.
While the IRPP study showed 469 non-resident births occurred in Richmond Hospital in 2017-18, VCH’s figures show 474 children were born to 469 resident mothers. The disparity, the statement explained, comes from the number of twins born in that time period.
And while the number of babies born to non-resident mothers has been increasing over the past several years — from 15.4 per cent of the total in 2014-15 to 22.1 per cent of the total in 2017-18 — the total number of babies born to all mothers decreased slightly this year, according to VCH.
The health authority also noted that non-residents are required to pay all hospital and medical-care costs for the mother and baby, including a prepayment deposit of $8,200 for a vaginal birth and $13,300 for a caesarean birth.
In March, Peschisolido sponsored a petition spearheaded by Richmond resident Kerry Starchuk calling on the federal government to condemn the “abusive and exploitative practice” of birth tourism.
Birth tourism, the petition said, fundamentally debases the value of Canadian citizenship; costs taxpayers money, since children of non-residents have access to services such as health care and subsidized education; and displaces residents from local hospital beds.
On Monday, the federal government tabled its response to Peschisolido’s petition, saying Canada does not currently collect information on whether a woman is pregnant when she enters Canada.
“A person is not inadmissible nor can they be denied a visa solely on the grounds that they are pregnant or that they may give birth in Canada,” the response reads.
And while misrepresenting the purpose of a visit to Canada to a federal officer carries “significant consequences,” the statement points out citizenship acquired through birth on Canadian soil has been policy since 1947.
Ottawa’s response, however, refers back to 2016 data from Statistics Canada, saying only about 300 of the 385,000 children born in Canada each year are born to non-resident mothers.
“This constitutes less than 0.1 per cent of the total number of births in Canada,” the response says, adding these numbers show the practice is not widespread but that the government has nevertheless commissioned research from the Canadian Institute for Health Information to look into the issue. It also committed to developing measures to address the institute’s findings.
Peschisolido said he was satisfied with the response. He said he hopes to participate in the review process once more granular data has been collected and responsible decisions can be made about the extent of birth tourism and what can be done to stop it.
But Will Tao, a Vancouver immigration lawyer, said he worries that focusing purely on statistics risks unnecessarily casting aspersions on all non-resident mothers.
“I don’t think (birth tourism) is the problem itself, so much as a symptom of the problem,” Tao told StarMetro. “I think the real problem is the unregulated nature of immigration advice.”
There are most certainly practitioners abroad who advise mothers to come to Canada to give birth as a kind of backdoor to citizenship, he said. And the federal government could do a better job providing a narrative — much in the way it has for individuals seeking refugee status — that would discourage abuses of the birthright policy, he said.
But there are countless non-residents who have children while in Canada for many other reasons. Those people, he said, should not be painted with the same brush as those who wilfully exploit the path to Canadian citizenship.
The IRPP study reflects that concern, noting its figures are not exact because they don’t express how many children were delivered by mothers with temporary status in Canada — a bracket that includes Canadian expatriates returning to give birth, corporate transferees and international students.
But researcher Andrew Griffith told The Star that a conservative estimate would suggest roughly 40 or 50 per cent of the non-resident mothers were birth tourists.
The study mined the Canadian Institute for Health Information discharge database, and according to Griffith, the IRPP’s figures — based on hospital financial data that codes services provided to non-residents under “other country resident self-pay” — more accurately reflect the number of non-resident births in Canada.
The IRPP study offered several options to address the problem of birth tourism, including:
Amending immigration laws to make it an offence if a woman fails to disclose the delivery of a child as the purpose of a visit to Canada and make that child’s citizenship fraudulent due to its procurement through misrepresentation
Adopting a “qualified” birthright approach by which a child is granted citizenship only when at least one parent is either a Canadian citizen or permanent resident and the child resides in Canada for at least 10 years after birth
Tao, the immigration lawyer, said he understood why people are shocked by how far above the national average the number of children born to non-resident mothers in Richmond Hospital are.
But through his interactions with clients, he said, he has encountered many families who could technically be called “birth tourists,” were that definition applied loosely enough. He said he was concerned that forthcoming regulations could encompass non-resident families or individuals whose children were born in Canada for legitimate reasons.
Tao also suggested a policy requiring immigration officials to question the motives of pregnant women as a matter of course could be “a very slippery slope into prejudice and background checking of other types.”
Griffiths, the researcher, agreed that birth tourism at the national level, currently accounting for roughly 0.5 per cent of the total annual live births in Canada according to the IRPP, is not a huge problem but suggested it should be monitored closely.
“Using this as a starting point, if we see any further increase or a trend line, then we need to take another fresh look at it,” he said.
But Peschisolido said that in a city like Richmond, where birth tourism appears to be a far more pervasive trend, every level of government has a responsibility to investigate how it can be slowed or stopped and what, exactly, may be driving it.