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A little known immigration program allows foreigners to invest in an American business and, in exchange, receive a green card. This past year, the number of visas approved this way has nearly tripled.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Brian Thompson and his wife wanted to leave England for a place with better weather. A few years ago, they put $500,000 into the redevelopment of a Seattle warehouse. It's being turned into a Marriott Hotel, and once it opens, Thompson hopes to make his money back and then some.

But one of the conditions of this Immigrant Investor Program is that there must be risk, and if the business venture fails, the green cards fall through.

Mr. BRIAN THOMPSON: That would be the worst-case scenario, we'd be stuck in England left without the pot of money that we've worked all our lives for.

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

$500,000 is the minimum required for this program known as the EB-5. An investment in a more competitive city or neighborhood must be a million dollars. And across the country, government-approved consultants have popped up to help match foreign money with American companies.

Consultants like Ron Drinkard at the Alabama Center for Foreign Investment. He says companies have grown desperate during the economic downturn as traditional funding has dried up. And this program isn't only about creating new jobs, it can also be used to help preserve jobs.

Mr. RON DRINKARD (Director, Alabama Center for Foreign Investment): To qualify for that, a company would need to show a loss of a minimum of 20 percent of its net worth in the past 12 to 24 months. There's virtually not a company out there that couldn't show that right now.

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

Two years after a foreign investment, Drinkard says an economic analysis must show that it's funded 10 jobs directly or indirectly.

Mr. DRINKARD: And the best thing about this, this is a program where we can enhance economic development across this country and create jobs at no cost to the taxpayer.

Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): I'm really disturbed by the idea of selling green cards.

LUDDEN: Mark Krikorian is with the Center for Immigration Studies which favors less immigration. He says in the 1990s there were allegations of fraud in the Immigrant Investor Program. Federal officials say there's more oversight now and that all the background checks for any green card are carried out here as well. But Krikorian's not convinced.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: You think a wealthy sophisticated Russian mobster or a Nigerian scammer or somebody else couldn't pull it off? Of course they could.

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

Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute says most visas approved in the past year have been for investors from Asia, predominately China, places where regular immigration routes have backlogs six and seven years long.

Mr. MUZAFFAR CHISHTI (Migration Policy Institute): So this is a way to circumvent that if you have certain amount of money and I think that's also creating an incentive for people to use the program.

LUDDEN: Brian Thompson, the British man who moved to Florida, says if the U.S. wants foreigners to invest here, it should publicize the EB-5 program more.

Mr. THOMPSON: He say what visa you're on and, you know, have you got your green card? And you say EB-5 and there's a blank face so they just haven't heard of it generally.

LUDDEN: In fact, there's lots of room for growth, $10,000 EB-5 visas are available every year. Yet, even with this recent wave of immigrant investors, fewer than half those visas were used.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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