Chinese national sentenced to time served for 'maternity tourism' scheme in Irvine

IRVINE, Calif. (KABC) -- A Chinese national who lives in Irvine was sentenced Monday to 10 months in prison for what a U.S. attorney called the country's first case of "birth tourism."

"Her daughter thanked me. Her mother thanked me," defense attorney Tom O'Brien said. "They're ready to get on with their lives."

Dongyuan Li pleaded guilty in September to federal charges in connection with a business she ran that helped Chinese women lie in order to sneak past immigration officials. The women came to the U.S. to give birth so their babies would be granted U.S. citizenship.

The judges sentenced Li to time served, allowing her to go home Monday.

"My client has admitted her role in visa fraud," O'Brien said. "She didn't want to go to trial. She accepted an offer from the government and took it, accepted responsibility."

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An Irvine businesswoman who charged Chinese clients tens of thousands of dollars to help them give birth in the United States so their children would be U.S. citizens has pleaded guilty to immigration and visa fraud.

Prosecutors had recommended a sentence of nearly three years in prison in hopes of sending a stronger message.

"I'm obviously disappointed, very disappointed in the sentence," said U.S. Attorney Charles Pell. "What I can say is, I believe the judge carefully considered the evidence and did what he thought was right."

Pell said his team did what they could for an issue that had not previously been prosecuted in court. And although a lighter sentence than they expected was handed down, he said authorities were able to stop multiple operations across Southern California.

"I believe that as a result of the search warrants and the charging, the scheme has changed a little bit," Pell said, "and so far I do believe more people are being honest when they actually file with the State Department."

Prosecutors said Li took the scheme to a level of criminal sophistication, which her defense team continued to deny.

"If you really break down the evidence, it was, instead of staying for two weeks, I'm going to stay for a month," O'Brien said. "We call them overstays. And instead of staying at the Carlyle Apartments down in Irvine, I'm going to stay at the Howard Johnson -- that's not that sophisticated."

Now that the criminal case has reached its conclusion, Li faces immigration proceedings that could result in her possible deportation.
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