In late 2019, a pregnant Turkish woman obtained a tourist visa for American travel and told officials she’d stay at a New York City hotel. But instead, federal prosecutors say, she moved into a Long Island “birth house,” had her baby at a local hospital, and left the country after applying for a U.S. passport for her child.
The woman was one of about 100 Turkish nationals to fraudulently obtain citizenship for their babies through a Suffolk County “birth tourism” scheme, which authorities say bilked Medicaid out of $2.1 million in benefits.
On Wednesday, the feds arrested five Long Island residents accused of operating the citizenship mill: Ibrahim “Dennis” Aksakal, 48; Enes Burak Cakiroglu, 24; Sarah Kaplan, 46; Fiordalisa Marte, 41; and Edgar Rodriguez, 48. The alleged scammers were arraigned on Wednesday afternoon. It’s unclear whether a sixth person identified only as “Indicted Co-conspirator #1” would be arrested, too.
Aksakal, Cakiroglu, Kaplan and the “co-conspirator” are charged with conspiring to commit visa fraud, health care fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. Marte and Rogriguez face charges of conspiring to commit health care fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. If convicted, they face at least 10 years behind bars.
Prosecutors say the enterprise—which ran from January 2017 to September 2020—advertised on Turkish-language Facebook pages titled “My Baby Should be Born in America” and “Giving Birth in America.” The operation raked in more than $750,000, which authorities claim was funneled to bank accounts in Turkey so the U.S. government couldn’t seize the profits.
“If you believe your baby should be born in the USA and become an American citizen then you are at the right place,” one January 2018 Facebook post declared, adding that the business would “provide future mothers and fathers this opportunity, with minimal costs.” One of the group’s websites even claimed the service facilitated the births of more than 800 Turkish babies in America, prosecutors say.
A translated copy of one of the Facebook pages, filed as a court exhibit, boasted that the citizenship services were “in the comfort of our luxurious home” which included a piano for guests to play and a professional massage chair.
The page bragged that the service’s five-bedroom house was only 45 minutes from New York City. “There is a large pool in the backyard as well as green area to spend quality time,” the site noted. “The different rooms located inside the house are rented out to future mothers and fathers. We named each room [after] the famous boroughs of New York City.”
In a Dec. 2 letter to Judge Steven Locke, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said some of the defendants, who are Turkish citizens, pose a flight risk because Turkey does not extradite suspects and because Aksakal “stashed scheme proceeds in at least one unreachable Turkish bank account.”
The birth tourism scam “is likely to have untold reverberating effects as children born as a result of the scheme seek to claim the many rights and privileges of United States citizenship,” prosecutors said in the filing.
This letter detailed how expectant mothers paid about $7,500 in cash for the fraudulent service. It included transportation, health “insurance” (which was actually falsely obtained Medicaid benefits), and assistance in applying for U.S. citizenship on behalf of the newborn babies. As part of the ruse, the mothers hid their pregnancies and came to America using visas for tourism and business. When they applied for Medicaid, they claimed they were permanent New York state residents with no income.
“Using Internet ads, the defendants perpetrated an international fraud that relied upon a parade of women who paid them thousands of dollars in fees in order to enter the United States under false pretenses, to give birth here,” U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said in a statement. “The defendants cashed in on the desire for birthright citizenship, and the American taxpayer ultimately got stuck with the $2.1 million bill.”
A year-long probe found that 119 Turkish children received birthright citizenship through the scheme. And that the accused fraudsters operated seven “birth houses” with locations in Center Moriches, Dix Hills, East Northport, East Patchogue, Smithtown and West Babylon.
Prosecutors say Aksakal, Cakiroglu, and Kaplan advertised and facilitated the “birth tourism” network, while Marte and Rodriguez helped about 99 Turkish women apply for Medicaid coverage. As professionals who were certified to assist people applying for health care, Marte and Rodriguez fraudulently obtained benefits for “pre-natal, labor and delivery costs,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in the letter.
“Tellingly, many of the applications that Marte and Rodriguez submitted listed Aksakal or Kaplan’s phone numbers as purported contact information” for the Turkish women, prosecutors continued.
The letter also describes conversations undercover agents recorded with the alleged scammers. In May 2019, Aksakal told an undercover agent with the Department of Homeland Security that to enjoy his service, a Turkish woman would need to snag a “tourist visa” before the pregnancy became “obvious.”
Meanwhile, Indicted Co-conspirator #1 was recorded promoting the illegal business to the undercover DHS agent, who was posing as a woman’s spouse. “[I]f it was me, I would not want people come and get citizenship and not pay any taxes or live in the country ever, but still everyday hundreds, thousands people come to this country to give birth from all over the world. Because there are benefits that the country provides,” the co-conspirator said.
“Everything is private therefore healthcare is quite expensive here,” the co-conspirator added. “Also birth is expensive. I can tell you that the person, gentleman I know can provide you the cheapest birth here.” (The woman was referring to Aksakal, whom she described as her “boss,” the letter states.)
She told the spouse that the citizenship process would take two to four months and that a “full package” would cost $10,000 and include doctor’s appointments, “American style houses,” and assistance in obtaining a U.S. birth certificate and passport to ensure the “baby will be a U.S. citizen.”
In intercepted communications, Aksakal allegedly bragged that he had duped Medicaid at least 100 times. He also allegedly warned his co-defendants not to discuss the business with anyone calling from a U.S.-based phone number and instructed accomplices to deny they were helping Turkish women obtain Medicaid benefits.
“Whoever calls from US. From inside the US. Don’t talk,” Aksakal told Kaplan.