Foreign Investors Trade Dollars For U.S. Residency Obtaining a U.S. visa can be pretty straightforward if you have $500,000. The EB-5 program grants foreigners permanent residency if they invest $500,000 in an American business and create at least 10 jobs. Despite its success, critics say the program pushes the rich to the front of the immigration line.
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Foreign Investors Trade Dollars For U.S. Residency

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Foreign Investors Trade Dollars For U.S. Residency

Foreign Investors Trade Dollars For U.S. Residency

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Republicans and Democrats alike are now talking of changes to the immigration system. Yet there is one part of the rules considered unlikely to change, even though something about it makes some immigration officials uneasy. It's called the EB-5 Visa. This visa grants a Green Card to a person in return for a half million dollar investment in an American business that creates at least 10 jobs.

Jennifer Wing, of member station KPLU, reports on a program that lets global elites go to the front of the line.

JENNIFER WING, BYLINE: Svetlana Anikeeva grew up in Vladivostok on the eastern edge of Russia. When she was 15 years old in the early '90s, she came to America as an exchange student.

SVETLANA ANIKEEVA: And it was a completely different place in every imaginable aspect.

WING: She studied in Savannah, Georgia. The experience changed her life.

ANIKEEVA: The people were different. The culture was different. The weather, the food, the school, everything was fascinating. I knew that I wanted to come here.

WING: Today, Anikeeva is in the U.S. on a temporary visa and runs a successful luxury car exporting business with her husband. She's within spitting distance of getting a permanent U.S. Green Card for herself and her entire family through the EB-5 Visa program. Anikeeva was one of about 1,000 people who applied back in 2009.

ANIKEEVA: It's a pretty rigorous selection process.

WING: And instead of settling down in sunny Savannah, Georgia, Anikeeva is in Seattle. The building we're talking in has a lot to do with why she's here. It's a hotel in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood that was built by American Life Incorporated with EB-5 money. American Life is pooling Anikeeva's half million with other investments to develop this area, which will generate the new jobs the visa demands.

Henry Liebman, a former immigration lawyer, is American Life's president. He says EB-5 money is a source of funding more and more real estate development companies are relying on.

HENRY LIEBMAN: And Since in 2008, the bust, it's even a more important source of capital. At least in real estate. There's some lending, but not near what it was. So this is more important than it used to be.

WING: EB-5 is credited with creating more than 50,000 jobs since it began in 1990 and has poured more than $6 billion into the U.S. economy. But it doesn't have the best reputation within U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. This was something Jim Ziglar noticed when he headed up Immigration under George W. Bush.

JIM ZIGLAR: There's a general aversion to the idea that people can buy their way into legal status in the United States, particularly when INS is dealing with so many people that have other reasons for being here - family and refugees and asylum seekers.

WING: Fraud has also been a problem with EB-5. Companies promise to create the jobs but instead they run off with the money.

Back at the hotel, Svetlana Anikeeva says she hopes to find out within the next six months if her permanent visa is approved. For now, she's enjoying watching her 13-year-old daughter, Nina, soak up life in the U.S.

ANIKEEVA: She's a sports person. She's in synchronized swimming.

WING: Nina is about the same age as her mother was when she came here to study all those years ago.

ANIKEEVA: She's actually just been accepted to the gifted student program for summer in Princeton University, which would be unbelievable for me at the age of 13.


ANIKEEVA: I'm very proud of her.

WING: For Anikeeva and other globally well-to-do from China to India, an American education alone is worth the half million dollar price-tag.

For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Wing in Seattle.

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