A 25-year-old Japanese woman was forced to take a pregnancy test before she was allowed to board a flight from Hong Kong to Saipan, a US island in the Pacific, where she was traveling to visit her parents, according to a report.
Midori Nishida filled out a questionnaire that included a question about pregnancy, but a rep for Hong Kong Express Airways then told her she had been picked for a random “fit-to-fly” check, she told the Wall Street Journal.
She was ushered to a restroom and told to urinate on a strip — part of the airline’s efforts to address “birth tourism” concerns on Saipan, which has become a destination for expectant women to make their babies eligible for US citizenship.
In 2018, more tourists than residents gave birth in the Northern Mariana Islands, in which Saipan is the largest island, according to the newspaper.
Pregnant foreigners aren’t prohibited from entering the US, or from giving birth in US territory, but authorities can turn away visitors if they are found to be lying about the reason for their travel, or if they can’t prove they have the funds to pay for medical procedures, including giving birth.
Airlines must take back passengers who are denied entry, a requirement that makes them eager to make sure that their customers are likely to be deemed admissible to the US.
“I wanted to make sure that this was really mandatory, so I asked them, ‘Do I really have to take this test, is this necessary?’” Nishida told the Washington Post.
“They said, ‘You can opt-out for the test,’ but that means they would deny me boarding the flight. I felt like my hands were tied, so I had no choice,” she added.
She said the test was negative and she boarded the November flight.
The airline — also known as HK Express, a budget carrier recently acquired by Cathay Pacific — said it had adopted the measures “on flights to Saipan from February 2019 to help ensure US immigration laws were not being undermined.”
“We would like to apologize unreservedly to anyone who has been affected by this. We have immediately suspended the practice while we review it,” it said.
There have been 3,023 live births by Chinese tourists in the Northern Mariana Islands since 2009. Last year, tourists gave birth to 582 babies, while residents delivered 492, according to the commonwealth’s data.
US Customs and Border Protection has not asked airlines that fly to the Northern Mariana Islands to take measures such as requiring pregnancy tests, the Washington Post reported.
Local officials have raised the problem with birth tourism with the Obama and Trump administrations, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, Kevin Bautista, press secretary for the office of the commonwealth’s governor, told the paper in a statement.
In October, CBP said Chinese visitors without a visa would be limited to a maximum 14-day stay, compared with 45 days before.
“Those discussions were fruitful in achieving greater collaboration to effectively enforce our borders, while making sure our tourism industry remains viable,” Bautista said. “Birth tourism poses health risks for mothers and their children, and it hurts our reputation as a tourism destination.”
Nishida said she eventually got an apology from the airline but only after the Wall Street Journal’s report.
“They just told me that they were doing this as a response to immigration concerns to the US and that they have decided to discontinue the policy after reviewing it,” she said.