Thursday, October 2, 2003

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office has charged 23 Arab women with fraudulently using American social-service money to pay for childbirth before returning to their native countries of Lebanon, Syria and Yemen with a total of 34 babies.

The suspects, whose children are now U.S. citizens by virtue of being born here, have not been located and it is unlikely that their countries would allow extradition if they were.

“Each of the women had their babies and departed within two or three months,” said Sage Eastman, a spokesman for state Attorney General Mike Cox. “Three of these women did this more than once. We are not aware of where they are and it is possible that these women will never return to the U.S.”

“This was a very thought-out process, from the first step to the last step,” he said.

The total fraud in the case is estimated at $150,000.

Mr. Cox said the women falsified Medicaid documents before delivering babies at several Detroit-area hospitals from 1997 to February. More charges against more individuals may be filed as the investigation continues.

The women have been charged with fraud because they applied for emergency care, which required them to affirm they would seek permanent residency. Mr. Eastman said their visitor visas showed they would return to their homelands.

Visitor visas are good far varying periods, determined by immigration agents at ports of entry. Mr. Eastman said he did not know how long these women’s visas were good for.

For years, pregnant women from Mexico have come to U.S. hospitals to deliver, thus securing citizenship for their offspring. U.S. citizens, in turn, can sponsor family members for citizenship here when the child reaches 21 years of age.

Last month, there were reports of baby brokers in South Korea who arranged for pregnant women there to be brought to U.S. territories, including Guam, for birth.

In Michigan, though, such incidents are rare.

The FBI assisted with the initial investigation, which included a raid last fall of a local hospital and several doctors’ offices. Mr. Eastman said all of the women charged had contact with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), an umbrella organization that provides all kinds of help to recent immigrants.

ACCESS was asked at that time for its records regarding some referrals from doctors, said Ismael Ahmed, executive director of the 32-year-old agency.

“It was made clear to us that we were not the target of any sweep,” Mr. Ahmed said yesterday. “But because of the size and scope of our operation, we provide help to pretty much any Arab American who comes to us.”

The agency’s tax-exempt status, in fact, requires that it render services, from counseling to job placement to medical referrals. The agency last year received $6.8 million in government grants, according to its tax form.

Sixty percent of ACCESS service goes to Arabs, he said, in large part because the region has the largest Arab population in the United States. An estimated 300,000 Arab-Americans live in southeastern Michigan. The agency makes around 500,000 contacts a year, Mr. Ahmed said.

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