Matryoshka was bustling as usual, selling blinis, caviar and borscht. Not all of the customers were pregnant. Just, it seemed, most of them.
The deli store in Sunny Isles Beach, a little city on a barrier island north of downtown Miami, has long been a gathering place for Russian-speaking foreigners who stay in the area as they wait to give birth. They come for the hospitals, the doctors, the weather, the beach — not, they will tell you with some exasperation, to score citizenship for their offspring.
The perk of a U.S. passport was “the last thing on my agenda, literally,” said Viktoriia Solomentseva, 23, a former Matryoshka regular who had a daughter seven weeks ago and recently flew home to Moscow with little Emily, a newly-minted U.S. citizen. “Why does Trump think everyone is dying to have one?”
It’s a somewhat sensitive topic for the women like Solomentseva who are driving a baby boom in south Florida. They’ve been swept up in the birthright citizenship debate, reignited when President Donald Trump recently vowed to end it for children of foreigners. While his target was undocumented immigrants, he also complained that the privilege granted in the 14th Amendment has “created an entire industry of birth tourism.”
That, in fact, it has. Data are scarce, but the Center for Immigration Studies has estimated more than 30,000 women tap it every year. Some nationalities prefer certain metropolitan areas, with the Chinese, for instance, favoring Los Angeles, while Nigerians tend to choose cities in the Northeast and Texas. For women with roots in the former Soviet Union, it’s Miami; if they’re affluent, it’s Sunny Isles Beach, called Little Russia because so many of its 22,000 residents hail from that part of the world.
And these women’s numbers, by all accounts, are growing. The weakness of the ruble, the tense relations between Russia and the U.S., the hurdles that have to be scaled to get a visa — none of that is slowing down the flow.
On every flight to Miami from Moscow there’s at least one pregnant woman, said Konstantin Lubnevskiy, the owner of an agency called Miami-mama, whose logo is the silhouette of an expectant mother in front of a big American flag. On some, there are more than five, he said. “What they’re doing is perfectly legal.”
True enough. But honestly, is it for the passports?
Absolutely not, Solomentseva said from the marble-laden lobby of one of the Trump Towers in Sunny Isles Beach, where she’d rented a 39th-floor unit for a few months. “I wanted to give birth in the place that has the best medical service and is comfortable and relaxing,” she said, as her husband, who owns a business in Russia, looked after the baby upstairs. Not incidentally, the weather is a lot more pleasant in Miami than Moscow in the winter. “But I can’t wait to get back to Russia.”
Like everyone else, she did, of course, fill out the necessary paperwork for Emily. It’s not as if citizenship isn’t viewed as something that might one day come in handy. Maybe it could help a kid get into a U.S. college, or set up a business in New York, or buy a house in Sunny Isles Beach, said Moscow resident Anna Bessolnova, 42, who had a girl in Miami in 2014, days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea triggered waves of international sanctions.
“I don't know whether my daughter will end up using the passport or not, but it's good to have different options,” she said.
Maria Khromova, whose son was born last month in Miami, has the same attitude. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen 20 years from now.”
Like all the rest, though, Khromova said she chose to have her baby in the U.S. mainly because of the superior medical care. She pointed to two C-section scars under her shirt, one from the birth of a daughter in Russia and another from the same procedure for her son. The first one is so ugly she can’t look at it without crying, she said.
Khromova, 36, also stayed in the Trump-branded condo complex. She was there for three months, assisted by a nanny, an interpreter, a driver, a yoga tutor and a massage therapist. A native of Siberia, she lives with her husband in Phuket, Thailand, where they run a company that helps foreigners buy property.
“I came here with a lot of money to spend,” she said. “I don’t cost the U.S. taxpayers a thing.”
Being a birth tourist in Sunny Isles Beach isn’t cheap, with agencies charging as much as $50,000 to set up housing, hire interpreters, find doctors and deal with paperwork. Those who can’t afford that level of service buy smaller packages and rent apartments in far-flung suburbs, sometimes teaming up to share lodgings and expenses.
The phenomenon has, over the years, attracted bad actors. Federal agents have raided so-called maternity hotels in California catering to women from China and Taiwan; some were coached to disguise their pregnancies when they arrived in the U.S. and lied about why they were in the country, according to federal officials. Miami-mama was raided once, too, and a notary public was indicted for making a false statement in a passport application and conspiring to commit an offense against the U.S. (That employee was immediately terminated, Lubnevskiy said.)
The focus of Trump’s criticism hasn’t been the abuse of the system but the fact that it exists. One of his arguments against birthright citizenship is that when the babies born on U.S. soil become adults, they can petition for their parents to live permanently in the country.
But to many of the Russians in Sunny Isles, at least, this idea sounded unappealing. The biggest deterrent: They’d have to start paying personal income taxes that are more than double what they are in Russia. “There’s this feeling among some that it’s cool to be a U.S. citizen,” said Victoria Parshkova, who had a son in September. “It’s not cool at all.”
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