Midori Nishida, a Japanese citizen, had an unexpected extra hurdle when trying to board her flight from Hong Kong to Saipan, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean: she had to take a pregnancy test.
Prior to boarding, Nishida was escorted to the restroom and and handed a pregnancy test. If she wanted to board the flight, she had to urinate on it.
The problem, if you want to call it that, is birthright citizenship in the USA. Saipan is part of the Northern Mariana Islands and in 2018 more babies were born to tourists than to residents. Saipan is open to Chinese citizens without a visa. Many are using that visa-free loophole to gain U.S. citizenship for their children. The number of babies born to Chinese tourists has risen from 12 in 2009 to 575 in 2018.
Pregnant foreigners are allowed in the USA, even if they deliberately intend to travel to the USA to give birth. But they cannot lie to immigration officials about it and they must show they have sufficient funds to pay for the birth and a return ticket. Visa-free stays in Saipan for Chinese citizens is limited to 14 days (reduced in 2017 from 45 days). The problem thus also becomes the health risk of a woman traveling so late in her pregnancy.
So why did Hong Kong Express check Nishida? Because if passengers are denied entry into the USA, airlines are fined and must pay for transport back to the city of origin.
Nishida was chosen for additional screening because she had indicated she was not pregnant in a check-in questionnaire, but appeared—to staff at least—to resemble a pregnant in woman in body shape.
The test was negative, Nishida was embarrassed, and she boarded her flight as planned.
HK Express defended its general policy of screening potentially pregnant passengers last fall, stating:
“In response to concerns raised by authorities in Saipan, we took actions on flights to Saipan from February 2019 to help ensure U.S. immigration laws were not being undermined.”
But after the uproar from the incident, has immediately suspended the practice of requiring pregnant-looking female passengers to submit to screening.
This is a tough issue, that affects airlines but implicates a deeper political discussion. Should foreigners be allowed to take advantage of birthright citizenship in the USA by deliberately traveling to the USA to give birth? How can airlines be more sensitive to U.S. immigration concerns while respecting the privacy and dignity of passengers like Nishida?