By Senator Dianne Feinstein
Originally appeared in Roll Call
The EB-5 regional center program allows foreign nationals to purchase visas and eventually become U.S. citizens. The program will expire in December, and I believe Congress should allow it to end.
At its most basic, the EB-5 program allows a foreigner to invest $500,000 in a U.S. business, in return receive a visa that puts them and their direct family on a special path toward citizenship.
At the same time, individuals unable to buy their way into the country remain trapped in seemingly endless visa backlogs that often last more than 20 years.
I believe the program is deeply unfair, sends the wrong message about this country’s values and is prone to fraud and abuse.
As of February 2015, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services was still processing family-related visa applications filed in 1992 — 23 years ago. The backlog for employment-related visas stretches back to 2004.
As a result, 4.4 million people are waiting in line to come to this country. More than 97 percent of these are family members of American citizens or lawful permanent residents who have been approved to enter the country but are unable to secure a visa due to the backlog.
Others are seeking employment-based visas. In one example, a software engineer who has lived in California since 2006 has been waiting more than five years to become a permanent resident. He has renewed his H-1B visa six times and must be interviewed every time he wants to visit family in his home country.
Simply put, EB-5 sends a terrible message to the millions of immigrants patiently waiting their turn to enter the United States legally to be reunited with their families or for legitimate employment.
It says that American citizenship is for sale, and that’s not what our country stands for.
The program is also susceptible to fraud and abuse.
To qualify for the program, an individual must invest $500,000 in an enterprise in the United States that will create at least 10 jobs. The regional centers are the middlemen, connecting investors with projects in need of financing.
Confirming where those funds come from, however, is difficult.
A recent Government Accountability Officer eport confirms the difficulty of substantiating sources of investors’ funds, which may come from illegal activities in their home countries. The report says these difficulties pose a significant risk of fraud, particularly since the number of visas issued under the program increased from 3,000 to 9,000 between 2011 and 2014.
USCIS must also judge whether business plans are legitimate and would actually create jobs. This task is made more difficult because the rules of the program include “indirect” job creation in the count.
These determinations — which could be worth billions of dollars in foreign investment — would be difficult for an agency dedicated to the task, let alone an agency that specializes in immigration.
We have seen in recent years that the program is particularly vulnerable to securities fraud. According to legal complaints, applicants for some projects were swindled out of their investment, and jobs were never created.
For example, an individual in Illinois was indicted in 2014 on charges of abusing the EB-5 program to fraudulently raise close to $160 million.
The Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges in July against individuals for raising $68 million for oil and gas operations. The complaint states that some money was spent for personal use and lavish trips, commingled with other assets and distributed as profits in a manner similar to a Ponzi scheme.
The agency also brought charges in August against an individual and several entities contending that they had illegally raised $125 million and collected $11 million in fees. The complaint asserts that some money was misspent to buy a house and withdraw cash at casinos.
Some charges have been filed by investors themselves. Earlier this year, eight investors, who are Chinese citizens, sued in federal court. They claimed securities fraud related to a project in California. The EB-5 center that proposed the project has filed for bankruptcy and is subject to other legal claims.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson also acknowledged in his response to a March 2015 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General that officials are regularly lobbied by various interested parties to influence the outcome of EB-5 applications.
While Secretary Johnson and Deputy Secretary Mayorkas, both of whom I greatly respect, have taken laudable steps to reduce fraud, I believe the program should not continue.
The bottom line is that the EB-5 regional center program sends a message that American citizenship is for sale, and the program is characterized by frequent fraud and abuse.
When the program comes up for renewal in December, Congress should allow the program to die.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat from California.