Now the visas criticized as "green cards feor cash" face a questionable future, with some members of Congress refusing to reauthorize the program, which expires Friday, unless there is significant reform.
Proponents of the program argue that the investor visas provide capital for economic development. Critics say it encourages a two-tier immigration system favouring the rich over those fleeing wars, persecution and poverty.
"These are wealthy investors whose main goal is to
secure the visa as quickly as possible," said Gary Friedland, an
investments and capital markets scholar in residence at
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Some lawmakers, as well as the White House, say lax government oversight has resulted in a visa program that's rife with abuse.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary
Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy,
Some members of Congress have threatened to let the program expire in its current form on Friday if their colleagues do not agree to immediate changes.
Industry observers say the program is likely to be reauthorized under a short-term budget bill, separate from large-scale immigration reforms being hashed out with industry and the Trump administration.
The deadline presents a tricky political test for President Donald Trump. Both he and Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, have benefited directly from the visa program. Trump, who last week signed an executive order calling for an overhaul of high-skilled worker visas, has not spoken out much on EB-5 visas.
"It's a third-rail issue for the White House. They don't want to be seen as obstructionists to reform," said William Cook, former general counsel of the US Immigration and Naturalisation Services in the George H.W. Bush administration when the EB-5 program was created. His law practice, Global Migration Law Group, represents foreign investors.
"There are serious concerns held by the administration regarding the EB-5 visa program, in part because it is not being used as it was primarily intended," said Michael Short, a White House spokesman.
The guidelines require aspiring immigrants to invest $1 million in a new business anywhere in the country that would create at least 10 full-time jobs or put $500 000 into projects in needy areas, such as rural or urban communities with unemployment rates well above the national average. In exchange, the investor and immediate family members receive two-year conditional green cards.
The law does not define economically needy areas, and developers often draw the boundaries, resulting in "gerrymandered" areas in which their projects are located in affluent communities, researchers said.
This is how the Beverly Hills Waldorf Astoria ended up as an EB-5-funded project, with $150 million in foreign investment by 300 investors at $500 000 each, according to a report by Friedland for NYU Stern's Centre for Real Estate Finance Research.
It's also how
"The original intent was to establish an incentive for immigrants to invest in areas that can't otherwise attract conventional capital," Friedland said. "Instead, virtually all projects qualify. It's merely serving to enhance the returns for those developers."
About 99 percent of the visa holders invested only $500 000 and only a tiny fraction of projects, 3 percent, were in rural communities, according to Rebecca Gambler, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office.
About 10 000 EB-5 visas are issued each year; 85 percent go
to Chinese nationals, according to federal data compiled by Invest in the
The foreign investment dollars are concentrated most heavily
A portion of EB-5 visas would be reserved for rural areas. And the bill would impose stricter criteria for defining needy areas. But some industry representatives say the changes would hurt projects already underway.
More than half of that money has gone into the NoMa neighbourhood north of Union Station, she said, where previously there was nothing but warehouses lining railroad tracks. An REI flagship store has sprung from the former Uline Arena."None of these projects would qualify under the proposed changes," Brunner said.