Recession Fuels Spike In Foreign Investor Visas

Hands counting out cash i i

Critics of foreign investor visas see the program as the equivalent of the government selling green cards. Alex Kalina/iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Kalina/iStockphoto.com
Hands counting out cash

Critics of foreign investor visas see the program as the equivalent of the government selling green cards.

Alex Kalina/iStockphoto.com

News of job creation programs has been widely reported lately, but there's one program that many people have never heard about: Under U.S. immigration law, foreigners can invest in an American business and, in exchange, receive a green card.

This has long been a small, obscure program, but as domestic sources of financing have dried up, the number of EB-5 visas issued this way has tripled in the past year.

For investor Brian Thompson and his wife, the motivation was to leave England for a place with better weather. A few years ago they put $500,000 into the redevelopment of a Seattle warehouse that is being turned into a hotel. Once it opens, Thompson hopes to make his money back and then some. But the immigrant investor program requires a certain degree of risk, and if the business venture falls through, so do the green cards.

"That would be the worst-case scenario," Thompson says. "We'd be stuck in England, left without the pot of money that we'd worked all our lives for."

But so far the hotel project is on track. And since you don't have to live where you put your money, Thompson and his wife are happily retired in Florida.

Half a million dollars is the minimum required — an investment in a more competitive area must be $1 million — and across the country, government-approved consultants have popped up to help match this foreign money with American companies.

Ron Drinkard runs one such group, the Alabama Center for Foreign Investment, which recently expanded to include neighboring states. Drinkard says companies have grown desperate for funding during the economic downturn, and many are using the EB-5 program not to create new jobs but to preserve existing ones.

"To qualify for that, a company needs to show loss of a minimum of 20 percent of its net worth in the past 12 to 24 months," he says. "There's virtually not a company out there that couldn't show that right now."

In the past few years, Drinkard has funneled foreign money to a modular home manufacturer, a synthetic-fuels venture, and high-tech and auto companies. He has even had inquiries from banks that need capital.

Two years after an investment is made an economic analysis must show that it has created 10 jobs, directly or indirectly, before the investor can be granted permanent U.S. residence.

"This is a program where we can enhance economic development across the country, and create jobs, at no cost to the taxpayer," Drinkard says.

But not everyone is supportive.

"I'm really disturbed by the idea of selling green cards," says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration. He says there were allegations of fraud in the immigrant investor program in the 1990s. Federal officials say there's more oversight now, and they point out that all the requisite background checks for any green card still apply. But Krikorian's worries are not assuaged.

"You think a wealthy, sophisticated Russian mobster or a Nigerian scammer couldn't pull it off?" he says. "Of course they could."

Immigration attorneys say a big motivation for many investors is to educate their children in the U.S., since a participant's entire immediate family also qualifies for a green card.

Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute sees another reason. Most visas approved in the past year have been for investors from Asia, predominantly China — places where regular immigration routes have backlogs six and seven years long.

"So this is a way to circumvent that if you have a certain amount of money," Chishti says.

Thompson, the British man now in Florida, says that if the U.S. wants more foreigners to invest here it should do a better job of publicizing the program. He heard about it by chance and says that when he tells fellow expatriates he's here on an EB-5 visa, they just give him a blank look.

In fact, there's lots of room for growth. Every year, 10,000 EB-5 visas are available, yet even with this recent spike in applicants, fewer than half of those were used.

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