U.S. Visas for Sale

Program allows foreigners — mostly Chinese — to buy residency if they 'invest' in America

Congress is poised to renew a program that gives wealthy foreigners and their families permanent residency if they make hefty investments, which critics argue are magnets for fraud.

Created in 1990 by Congress, the EB-5 visa is available to any foreigner who invests $1 million in a government-approved project.

“In essence, it’s American citizenship for sale, and people are making a lot of money off it,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism for NumbersUSA. “It’s not doing what it was intended to do.”

It has become popular, though. In fiscal year 2014, for the first time, the government reached its annual cap of 10,000 EB-5 visas. Some 85 percent went to Chinese applicants.

It was little-used until Congress in 1993 added another option. Foreigners with a minimum of $500,000 can pool their money with other investors on projects controlled by regional authorities created by the federal government.

Investments have to create or preserve at least 10 jobs and are supposed to benefit depressed rural areas or high-unemployment urban zones. The investor and his spouse and children younger than 21 can get green cards and — eventually — citizenship.

Chmielenski called the program “corporate welfare” that helps wealthy developers build projects for the rich that could be financed in other ways. He said in practice, it does little to help distressed areas, but offers an easy way into the country for well-connected foreigners who do not want to endure waiting lists that come with traditional immigration.

The most heavily used part of the law expires Wednesday when funding for the federal government runs out. Some lawmakers — including, notably Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. — want to kill it. Others, like Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have suggested reforms.

“Our bill strengthens oversight, ensures greater accountability and transparency, discourages fraud, and provides a higher priority for national security,” Grassley said in a statement in June.

Reforms included in a draft of the spending bill now under consideration in Congress would raise the minimum investment from $500,000 to $800,000, and would add new restrictions on the location of the projects in an attempt to focus the impact more squarely on distressed areas.

The major selling point of the visa program was to attract investment to the United States. A study by the pro-immigration Bipartisan Policy Center estimates the program has brought in $4.2 billion and created 77,150 jobs. A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services study in July painted a rosier picture — between $11 billion and $12 billion — by counting projects on the drawing board that have not been completed.

Critics argue even those optimistic estimates represent a drop in the bucket compared to an $18-trillion economy or overall foreign investment totally $200 billion a year.

A roster of approved EB-5 projects includes a casino in Las Vegas, high-end restaurants in Los Angeles, luxury hotels in Washington and a ski lodge in Vermont.

David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said such projects do little to help impoverished areas.

The General Accountability Office in August cited “unique fraud risks” related to the program

He said the EB-5 regional centers, usually privately owned, achieve this by creating investment zones that tie in distressed neighborhoods with investment targets that share a common map but otherwise have little in common. He demonstrated this by creating a hypothetical regional center that includes the White House and poor areas east of the Anacostia River in Washington.

That perfectly legal map would allow a developer to use EB-5 investment funds to build a luxury hotel across from the White House.

“If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere,” he said.

And those are just the legitimate projects. Many have ended in fraud. The General Accountability Office in August cited “unique fraud risks” and raised questions about whether an agency in charge of immigration enforcement is equipped to verify whether investment funds are lawfully obtained or spent.

Recent investigations of EB-5 related projects include:

  • The Securities and Exchange Commission last month accused a woman in Florida of swindling 17 investors out of $8.5 million since March 2011.
  • A grand jury in August 2014 indicted a Chicago EB-5 regional center operator on charges of conning 290 Chinese investors who contributed $160 million toward a hotel and convention center that had no building permits or construction plans. Anshoo Sethi is scheduled to plead guilty in January.
  • The SEC in 2013 opened an investigation into the electric car company GreenTech, co-founded by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and a sister firm funded by Democrat Hillary Clinton’s brother, Anthony Rodham. The companies, according to allegations, guaranteed a return on investments made by foreigners seeking EB-5 visas. The SEC has taken no actions against the companies.