The JR Motel in Orange has no sign, takes no reservations and hasn’t paid any city hotel taxes.
The motel openly caters to Chinese nationals as a maternity facility, a practice known as birth tourism. But that’s not the use permitted for the site, at 428 E. Lincoln Avenue. City officials in Orange are looking to revoke the motel’s permit, something the motel’s owner says is driven by discrimination.
The dispute, coming nearly five years after federal agents cracked down on three birth tourism operators in Southern California, suggests the practice of companies selling well-to-do foreigners on the idea of traveling to the United States and giving birth to American babies has not been stopped.
On Monday night, the Orange Planning Commission voted to schedule a public hearing sometime early next year to decide whether they should revoke the conditional use permit for JR Motel.
The vote came on the same day of a high profile birth tourism case in California, when the federal government won its first prison term against an operator of a birth tourism company in Irvine. The operator admitted to violating federal law by helping her customers to mislead federal officials on visa applications. The underlying business model is not illegal.
In Orange, where city officials have been reviewing the JR Motel for months, planning commissioners mostly stayed away from specific talk about the controversial birth tourism business. Typically, operators charge tens of thousands of dollars to pregnant foreigners, many in China, for travel package to the U.S., which under the 14th Amendment guarantees birthright citizenship to anyone born on American soil.
A woman walks around the JR Motel on E. Lincoln Ave in Orange, CA on Tuesday, December 17, 2019. The location has been operating as a maternity hotel for Chinese women who want to give birth in California. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The JR Motel on E. Lincoln Ave in Orange, CA has been operating as a maternity hotel for Chinese women who want to give birth in California. Photographed on Tuesday, December 17, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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The JR Motel on E. Lincoln Ave in Orange, CA has been operating as a maternity hotel for Chinese women who want to give birth in California, according to Orange city officials who say the facility is not operating as a motel under its conditional use permit.
Photographed on Tuesday, December 17, 2019. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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Instead, commissioners in Orange have focused on possible violations of building codes, fire codes and other regulations.
Inspectors, for example, found unpermitted construction at the JR Motel, including rooms that had been subdivided to increase the number of guest rooms beyond the 28 that were approved in 2015. Also, while the motel was approved to have some rooms with kitchenettes, inspectors found a large industrial kitchen on site, and other alterations that apparently were done without permits.
“We got played,” Commissioner Doug Willits said.
The motel was not operating as a motel, commissioners noted. There’s no hotel sign. It’s not listed online in English. And when various city officials finally found a phone number to call, they got an unexpected response.
“I tried… to make a reservation,” said Planning Commission Chairman Ernie Glasgow. “I got hung up on.”
“Calling yourself a hotel doesn’t make you a hotel,” Glasgow added.
Since a planning commission meeting in October, the motel’s owner has corrected structural violations. But when asked on Monday, Dec. 16, to comply with additional conditions, an attorney for the JR Motel balked.
“Adopting these conditions is basically a death sentence for my client,” said attorney Tony Lu of Diamond Bar.
New conditions include a demand that the motel pay the 10 % city hotel tax for every stay under 30 days dating back to April 18, 2017, the date the motel received its final inspection. The city, to date, has not received any transient occupancy tax from the JR, officials said.
The new conditions also would limit to 10% the number of motel rooms at the JR that could be rented out for longer than 30 days, and allow inspections once every 30 days by the heads of various city departments, including the police. The new conditions also would require the motel to provide English-language records about their customers, including the dates that they stayed at the motel and their contact information.
The motel’s attorney, Lu, said some of the requests were reasonable – like posting a sign outside the building with the hotel’s name. But others, he said, were not. He called the request for tenants’ information a violation of privacy and labeled as arbitrary demands that 90% of the building be for short-term tenants. He also objected to monthly inspections as “unduly invasive.”
“I think it’s a very sensitive topic,” Lu said. “These are not criminals.”
After the meeting, motel owner Chih Huang said he believes the commissioners are discriminating against the facility because they don’t approve of its maternity mission.
A website and video, in Chinese, markets the Orange motel as a good place for prospective moms to visit, showing a modern facility with clean rooms that’s located near local medical centers, parks and an “authentic food shopping district” including an In-N-Out burger.
A website for the JR Motel cites it as safer than other maternity homes because it must meet fire and safety standards and “is regularly inspected by the government to bring you maximum housing safety.” It also cites the motel’s “professional central commercial kitchen” where all the meals are prepared using seasonal ingredients. The menu, the site notes, includes traditional Chinese soups, including a “postpartum warm tonic confinement soup (that) will help Mommy recover and breastfeed.”
A handful of residents complained about the motel to city officials and in online neighborhood chat rooms.
“If they’re going to have something like that, they need to say so. To flat out lie is wrong,” said Orange resident Elaine Bissonnette, who snapped photos of pregnant women going in and out of the motel and turned them over to the city.
“I know I would be shut down in a heartbeat if my beauty shop wasn’t a beauty shop,” Bissonnette said Tuesday.
Southern California, with its large Asian population, is a popular spot for Chinese birth tourism. Travel packages typically include accommodations, meals, excursions and sometimes medical costs. In the 2015 federal crackdown on three birth tourism in Southern California, some operators were accused of immigration fraud, by helping their customers lie on visa applications, and for stiffing hospitals on medical bills.
In the federal case settled Monday in Santa Ana, Dongyuan Li, 42, a Chinese national living in Irvine, was sentenced to 10 months, the time she’d already served in local jail. She was released Monday but is expected to be deported. She ran You Win USA Vacation Services Corp, one of three companies targeted in 2015.
In Orange, a date has not yet been set for the JR Motel revocation hearing.
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