Visa investment program lures few
Foreigners unwilling to set up businesses in U.S.
(Updated Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 6:38 AM)
WASHINGTON Immigrant investors were going to help bring jobs to needy regions like California's Central Valley.
At least, that's what Congress believed a dozen years ago when it created a visa for foreign investors. Immigrants subsequently used the new visas to establish almond farms and open hotels, among other ventures.
But mostly, federal investigators now say, the high hopes have been dashed by red tape, cumbersome bureaucracies and the fear of fraud.
"It's so difficult," San Francisco immigration attorney Brenda Boudreaux said Monday. "I think Congress intended it to be a lot easier than it is."
While 10,000 visas annually were set aside for immigrant investors, only 126 were used last year, the Government Accountability Office declared in its critical and timely audit issued Monday. That low showing was consistent with previous years.
Out of 100,000 immigrant investor visas available over the past decade, 6,024 were issued. And while Congress designed the program as a smooth path to permanent U.S. residency, only 653 investors so far have secured this status.
"Many potential immigrants may have other options to achieve lawful permanent resident status that are less difficult to qualify for, less expensive, and more certain," the GAO noted.
Modesto immigration attorney Solange Altman agreed.
"They've made it so difficult for people to qualify," Altman said Monday. "There are hurdles that have to be overcome, and they are all but impossible."
Coming just as Congress considers new immigration revisions, the audit illustrates the failure of legislative expectations. These expectations can be particularly acute in the immigration field, where congressional goals have previously proven elusive in everything from employer sanctions to amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The proposals now under debate range from establishing an agricultural guest-worker program to blocking illegal immigrants from obtaining drivers licenses. The next two weeks could be crucial on this front. Lawmakers will consider whether to use an $81.4 billion supplemental Iraq funding measure as a vehicle for unrelated get-tough immigration provisions, including the new asylum and drivers license standards.
The so-called EB-5 visa, likewise, began with high expectations.
Sidestepping critics who said Congress was shamelessly selling off U.S. access, lawmakers established the new visas for immigrants who agreed to invest at least $1 million and create a minimum of 10 jobs.
"We want to attract entrepreneurs and job creators into the U.S. economy," then-Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., explained during 1990 Senate debate.
Lawmakers set aside 3,000 of the special visas for immigrants who created jobs in high-unemployment regions. The Central Valley counts, as the area chronically posts double-digit unemployment rates. In such areas, the immigrants would have to invest only $500,000 to be eligible for the visas.
In some ways, the new visas did enrich California. Of the 653 immigrant investors who have become permanent legal residents under the 1990 law, 41% set up shop in California.
The immigrant investors put money into 58 farms, the GAO noted.
The immigrants, most of whom are from Asia, also have invested in nightclubs, nursing homes, hair salons and at least 123 hotels or motels, by the GAO's count.
Hundreds of other immigrant investors remain in limbo, though, because the federal government has not issued regulations necessary to resolve their applications. Some have been waiting for as long as 10 years, the GAO investigators noted.
In part, this is because immigration officials have struggled to get the regulations right in order to prevent fraud or slippery behavior. By the mid-1990s, controversy entangled the immigrant investors program.
The late Harold Ezell, the former Western regional commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, went into business as an investor visa consultant. So did one of the chief congressional authors of the law, and questions arose about the integrity of some investments.
"What we are doing in allowing this to continue is to cheapen U.S. citizenship," then-Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., said during Senate debate in May 1998. "It is a terrible, shameful thing. It is downright vulgar."
Bumpers tried unsuccessfully to end the visa provision.
California's Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both opposed him, voting to retain the immigrant investor visa.
Still, in 2002, frustrated lawmakers ordered the immigrant investor regulations to be done by March 2003. They still are not, and Department of Homeland Security officials say they don't know when they will be done.
Citing the "documented past abuses in the alien investor program and the complexity and sensitivity of the issues," the Department of Homeland Security said it was establishing more centralized monitoring of the visa program. Officials also said they were "working to resolve" the stalled regulations.
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