SEOUL, South Korea — In a few weeks, Kim Jeong Yeon will put on her baggiest overalls to disguise her bulging belly and board a flight for Los Angeles.
She will spend three months in the United States, staying on a tourist visa, after which she will return to South Korea with a newly minted U.S. citizen in tow.
"It's easy. If you register the birth, it's automatic that your baby can get an American passport," says Kim, a 31-year-old importer of Italian shoes who is pregnant with her first child.
One might say it is the ultimate gift that South Korean parents can give their newborns. Those who can cough up the $20,000 or so it costs are coming to the United States by the thousands to give birth so their newborns can have American citizenship.
Their reasons range from a desire to enroll their offspring in American schools to enabling them to avoid South Korean military service.
Los Angeles is the most popular destination because of its large Korean-speaking population, along with New York, Boston, Hawaii and even Guam. The practice is also believed to be popular among women from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
So many are doing it that a mini-industry has developed here of agencies that refer expectant mothers to travel agents, immigration lawyers, prenatal clinics, hospitals and even baby-sitters, arranging what are, in effect, package tours for pregnant women.
"From birth to citizenship," advertises one Korean-language Web site (www.birthinusa.com) that helps women give birth in Los Angeles.
The United States is one of the few countries that grants citizenship to anyone born on its soil. Britain and Australia repealed similar laws in the 1980s.
Efforts by immigration foes in Congress to stop the practice have failed because the citizenship rights of such children, even those of illegal immigrants, appear to be guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, added after the Civil War to bestow the right on the descendants of slaves.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service says the birth tours are not illegal as long as the women have enough money to pay their medical bills.
The South Korean women giving birth in the United States tend to be well educated and upper-class, with big ambitions for their children. Since many have been to America before and have good jobs in South Korea, they are deemed unlikely to overstay their welcome and thus can easily obtain tourist visas.
Indeed, most are eager to fly home as soon as they can get the birth certificates and passports for their newborns.
Among several expectant mothers who talked about their plans for giving birth in the United States, Kim Jeong Yeon was unusual in that she was willing to be named. Kim is not bashful about having money and what it can do for her.
"If they could afford it, all my friends would go to the United States to have their babies," Kim said. "My biggest complaint about Korea is the educational system. In high school, you have to study past midnight or else you fall behind the others and can't get on with your life. And since the baby is a boy, I thought it would be a big gift for him not to be burdened with military service."
Kim estimates the trip will cost at least $20,000, much of it in medical bills that would be covered by her health insurance if she stayed at home. It would be even higher if she didn't have a grandmother in Los Angeles with whom she can stay.
Doctors say most South Korean women who come to the United States to give birth pay in cash. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of services catering to their needs. Most operate discreetly, relying on word of mouth for their clientele. But there are others that market aggressively, such as Hana Medical Center.
South Korean-run Hana has three centers for expectant mothers in the Los Angeles area and last year opened an elegantly furnished postnatal facility called Larchmont Villa, in L.A.'s Koreatown, where women can stay until it is time to fly home. Their services include such conveniences as a private car for pickup at the airport and a guide to help get the baby a Social Security number and passport.
Immigration critics believe that far stricter measures are needed to prevent women from coming to the United States for the sole purpose of giving birth.
"Even though it is not illegal immigration per se, it is exploiting a loophole," said Jack Martin, a project director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that advocates restrictions on immigration.
The federation is especially critical of what it calls anchor babies, whom mothers arrange to have in the United States with the hope that the child will later help the entire family immigrate. Under the law, a U.S. citizen cannot sponsor anyone for immigration purposes until the would-be immigrant reaches the age of 21, but according to Martin, the long wait is not a deterrent.
"It is hard to conceptualize a strategy that is so long-term with regard to U.S. citizenship, but that's what they are doing — establishing a foothold," he said.
For South Koreans, the harshest condemnation of the practice comes not from immigration critics in the United States but from other Koreans.
In Seoul, travel agent Min Yong Kee, who says he has sold many pregnant women plane tickets to the United States, says he nevertheless adamantly disapproves.
"It may be technically legal, but the majority opinion is that it is ethically dubious. Koreans are nationalistic. Why should they go to the United States to give birth? It doesn't seem right," Min said.
Under South Korean law, children can have both Korean and U.S. citizenship, but they must choose between them when they turn 18. But that could change.
American births have become so popular among the privileged that Koreans are starting to complain that soon only the children of the poor will serve in the army. Having U.S. citizens in the family has also become something of a political liability for public figures.