CHICAGO — Seven weeks old, with a thoughtful expression and a full head of silky black hair, Zane is a much-wanted baby.
His parents, an attorney and social worker who live in southern China, experienced a series of miscarriages before a doctor advised them to seek out a surrogate — a woman who agrees to carry someone else's biological child. Surrogacy is illegal in China, but seeking out surrogates in the handful of nations that openly allow such arrangements is permitted, so Zane's parents turned to an agency halfway across the world, in Illinois. Their U.S. surrogate got pregnant via in vitro fertilization, and on May 29 the couple became the proud parents of a boy.
There's only one problem: Zane's parents can't hold him, feed him or even see him in person.
From 8,000 miles away, they watch him via a Wi-Fi baby monitor.
Due to travel and visa issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, Zane is stuck in North Aurora, where a former employee from his parents' Chicago surrogacy agency, Vicky Li, has agreed to take care of him and another stranded Chinese infant, Ryder.
The boys are among an estimated 200 to 400 international babies born to American surrogates who have been stranded in the U.S. in recent months due to COVID-19, unable to go home to their biological parents in countries such as France, Britain, Israel and China, according to Robin Pope, a Portland lawyer who represents international parents seeking surrogacy in the U.S.
The babies are being cared for by an impromptu collection of surrogates, agency employees, baby nurses, family friends and relatives.
The parents of these children, who have spent $100,000 to $200,000 for international surrogacy and endured the emotionally grueling process of following a long-awaited pregnancy long-distance, are now faced with weeks or, in some cases, even months of separation from their newborns.
"The feeling is like I have one new arm in (the U.S.) and this arm is waiting for me to pick it up," Ryder's father, who lives in Shanghai, said via a text in which he described dreaming that his son was near him but they could not touch each other.
"I am missing this kid every minute because he has the same blood as me," Ryder's father wrote.
COVID-19 travel restrictions were initially the chief barrier to uniting the babies with their parents, but since March, a partial shutdown at U.S. passport services has played a major role, according to Pope. Passports are currently available in cases of life-or-death emergency, making it harder for babies to leave the U.S., either with their parents or a trusted caretaker, she said.
Surrogacy lawyers have been pressing for the U.S. State Department to issue the stranded babies passports on an emergency basis, but with no success, Pope said.
"It's pretty phenomenal the people who are stepping up and helping, but it still means that parents and babies aren't together, and that's the heartbreaking part," she said.
She said she and a colleague proposed to the State Department that the babies' caretakers use an established passport-visa service to deliver the stranded babies' applications in batches to passport offices on a weekly basis, reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for caretakers and government employees.
In response to questions from the Tribune, the U.S. State Department released a written statement that did not directly address the babies' predicament.
"Our dedicated team of passport professionals has begun to return to our facilities in substantial numbers, and we have surged staffing and resources from other consular operations," the statement said.
"We ask for your patience as we work hard to resume normal operations and to aggressively address COVID-19 related processing delays."
Chinese parents have been turning to U.S. surrogates since 2015, when China lifted its one-child policy. Paid international surrogacy is explicitly allowed only in a handful of places worldwide, including Russia, Ukraine and some states in the U.S.
India, which used to be a popular choice, banned international surrogacy in 2015.
California is the most popular destination for surrogacy, due in part to its proximity to China, but some parents find services in other surrogacy-friendly states, including Illinois. Having a baby via international surrogacy costs about $100,000 to $200,000, according to Zara Griswold, co-founder of the Shining Light Baby surrogacy agency in Schaumburg.
In the past, parents have come to the U.S. for medical screenings and to provide sperm, eggs or both for in vitro fertilization, in which a fertilized egg is implanted in the surrogate's womb. With COVID, some clinics now allow frozen sperm to be shipped, but egg retrieval is still done in person.
When Vicky Li left her job at a Chicago surrogacy agency in February, her Chinese clients were concerned. They'd grown close to Li, the one person at the agency who spoke their language fluently.
Li, 48, of North Aurora told them not to worry: "I'm still here if you ever need me."
That commitment was tested when Zane and Ryder's parents realized that they might not be able to attend their babies' births and bring them home immediately, due to COVID-19 travel issues. The parents asked that they only use parts of their sons' names to preserve their privacy. Zane and Ryder are the boys' real English names, but they also have Chinese names.
Very concerned, the parents reached out to Li with a request: Would she take their newborns home and care for them?
"I knew the parents so well, and they didn't trust anyone else," Li recalled. But as the mother of two teenagers, she also understood the life-upending impact of caring for newborns.
Li, co-founder of the Shining Light Baby surrogacy agency in Schaumburg, had a family meeting with her husband, Jerry Wu, who has been extremely supportive of her career, and their two children, Annie, 19, and Raymond, 17.
The decision didn't take long.
"They said, 'OK, let's help them,'" Li recalled.
The parents offered to pay for their babies' care, but Li declined. She told the Tribune she loves kids and saw helping as an act of friendship. The parents are reimbursing her for baby supplies.
Li and Wu turned her office into a nursery with two handsome ebony-stained wood cribs, mobiles and a changing station. Zane was born first, a 4-pound, 13-ounce preemie, and Li and Wu would drive four hours round trip to the neonatal ICU in Normal where Li would cuddle Zane, using skin-to-skin contact to establish a bond.
Wu had to stay in the car due to COVID-19 health restrictions. After 10 days Zane came home, an easy, quiet baby. Ryder is a different story: loud, fussier, in a bigger rush. He has chubby cheeks and adores Li, who has had to cancel online meetings due to his outbursts.
During a recent visit, Wu, who works in information technology, chuckled about being awakened in the middle of the night by Li, who always hears the babies when they cry. Li and Wu are losing sleep, working at home and juggling demanding jobs with the all-hands-on-deck requirements of caring for two infants.
"Sometimes I'm on a conference call, and they start crying," Wu said with a mischievous smile. "(My co-workers) know I don't have a baby — how do I explain it?"
At least one Chinese baby born via surrogacy has been able to go home to China, Pope said, but the lack of a U.S. passport makes the process more difficult.
Ryder's father said that he planned to be in the U.S. before his baby's birth, but due to issues related to COVID-19, he couldn't enter the U.S. until now. He arrived in Chicago on Monday and will be able to meet his child in person after a 14-day quarantine. Li said Ryder's dad will likely spend some time in the U.S., getting to know his baby, before returning home with the boy.
Zane's parents, who faced U.S. visa and immigration issues due to the pandemic, expect to be united with their son by the end of August, either in the U.S. or China, according to a text from Zane's father translated by Li.
Asked about Li's role in his family's surrogacy saga, Zane's father responded with a single sentence.