How long does I-526 take? (Part II)

This post considers factors behind the wide variation in individual I-526 processing times. In my previous I-526 post, I discussed processing time on average as a function of volume and capacity. Given historical data on number of I-526 receipts, approvals, and pending petitions, we can calculate an average I-526 processing time of about two years — an estimate corroborated by IPO Processing Time reports. But we know that in fact, some petitions get approved relatively quickly, and not in order by filing date.

  • The USCIS Processing Time Information page is updated monthly with a report on IPO’s progress with EB-5 petitions, and I log the reports (here for all petitions and in my I-526 master file).  If we take the reports literally, IPO processed only a few weeks of I-526 filings in all of 2017 (from January 2017 working on petitions filed 9/27/2015 to December 2017 working on petitions filed 10/18/2015). But processing volume data tells us that IPO processed around 12,000 I-526 in 2017 — at least double and probably triple the number of petitions filed in September/October 2015. And the monthly processing time reports themselves jump around — briefly reporting progress to December 2015 before falling back again to October in the latest report. Whatever’s really happening at IPO, it’s not well captured in processing time reports.
  • In October 2017 IPO claimed to be working on I-526 filed in 2015, but Department of State reported having over 1,500 pending visa applications based on I-526 petitions filed in 2016 and 2017. That reflects at least 500 I-526 petitions adjudicated out of date order — and that’s only for pending applications and only for five countries, not counting all applications for the year.
  • Investors who track their own petitions plus a group of petitions filed at the same time report wide variation in completion rates within those cohorts.  (Adding and subtracting to the number at the end of one’s receipt number yields receipt numbers for concurrently-filed petitions that can be tracked individually using the USCIS case status system.) The EB5 Forum I set up includes reports from people tracking groups of I-526 petitions.
  • I’ve started collecting anecdotal evidence from investors, and those who’ve responded so far report recent I-526 processing times ranging from 3 months to 30 months. If you’ve been through the I-526 process recently, please help the community by entering your processing dates in this form, and share the form link (https://goo.gl/forms/uIdXGYMYVBc4bVHo1). The form results can be reviewed on this spreadsheet.  If we collect more individual experience, we can get a better sense of what IPO is actually doing, and which factors (Exemplar approval, project size, regional center sponsorship, investor origin, etc.) best explain variation in actual processing times.

Here is a summary of what IPO has said about I-526 time variation (summarized from communications copied in my log of IPO communications on processing times).

  • DHS estimates that the average Form I-526 gets 6.5 hours of touch time.  That means an adjudicator spends less than a day handling the case —  the remaining (and most variable) processing time is queue time and time spent waiting for additional evidence or supervisory approval.
  • IPO has at least three queues going for I-526 petitions: (1) a queue for direct EB-5 petitions; (2) a queue for regional center petitions based on investment in projects that haven’t yet been reviewed; (3) a queue for regional center petitions based on investment in projects that have Exemplar I-526 approval or at least two previous I-526 approvals.  The following chart illustrates my understanding of IPO Deputy Chief Julia Harrison’s description of the process.IPO indicates that each queue has dedicated staff working on it. Petitions within each queue are ordered by earliest filing date. A regional center petition for a project not previously reviewed must wait in Queue 2 (for project-specific adjudication) and then again in Queue 3 (for investor-specific adjudication). RC petitions for previously-approved projects advance straight to Queue 3. IPO encourages communication between team leaders on the Queue 1 and Queue 2/3 side to ensure that direct and RC petitions filed at the same time move forward concurrently. [My commentary: With these various queues, how close can IPO possibly get to First-Come-First-Served service by filing date, and to which queue do the IPO processing times reports refer?  My working hypothesis is that “we’re working on petitions filed October 2015” reflects mainly the status of Queue 2 (the major bottleneck, I suspect), that Queue 1 is constrained by IPO’s attempt to keep it consistent with the Queue 2, and that petitions assigned straight to Queue 3 get relatively quick processing.  Please use my form to share your experience and help disprove or not my hypothesis!]
  • Factors that can speed I-526 processing per IPO:
    • Investing in a project with an approved Exemplar and/or two previously-approved I-526
    • Having a clear, high-quality petition (this is important when evidence requests and supervisory approval are the major variables — besides queue time — in overall processing time)
    • Having an approved expedite request (this shortens the queue time, not the adjudicator touch time)
  • Factors that can slow I-526 processing per IPO:
    • Having a petition that’s poor-quality, unclear, problematic, or otherwise inspires IPO to request additional evidence
    • Filing with/after a surge of other people who filed poor-quality petitions
  • Factors that don’t affect I-526 processing time per IPO:
    • The investor’s nationality. (IPO does not currently sort petitions by nationality. There is no hold-up for China-born petitioners at the I-526 stage, as there is at the visa stage. However, IPO asks whether they should change that — considering that fast I-526 approval doesn’t help China-born investors facing a long visa wait regardless. Stats show that I-526 denial rates are much higher for some countries than others, which makes me suspect that IPO finds some countries’ source of funds and background checks more challenging than others – which could naturally be associated with longer processing times. So even if the process is FCFS for all nationalities, it’s probably not FIFO for all nationalities.)
    • Whether the petition is for a direct or regional center investment. (IPO claims that they try to move direct and RC petitions forward concurrently. However there may be some regional center advantage in practice since direct petitions are often the first in a project and cannot take advantage of Exemplar approval.)
    • Project size. (IPO reports that they do not privilege petitions for big projects with many investors. But some anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.)
    • TEA status. (Some legislative reform proposals have suggested offering quicker processing to petitions based on investment in a Targeted Employment Area, but IPO does not report having any such policy now.)

—–
In other news, note that I updated my at-risk post with a link to Chiayu Chang, et. al., v USCIS, a recent court decision that pulverizes the argument that a call option necessarily constitutes an impermissible debt arrangement. Judge John D. Bates points out that “Unlike a sell option—or a note, bond, or similar arrangement—a buy option provides the investor with no security that she will ever see her money again,” and concludes that “In the end, USCIS has acted in a manner that conflicts with the plain language of its regulations, that is not compelled by statutory or regulatory purpose, that unreasonably stretches the rationale of Matter of Izummi, and that runs counter to the evidence in the record.”

Updates (CR to 3/23, AAO sustained appeals, RC List)

EB-5 Legislation and Regulations
I’ve started a Washington Updates page off the Resources tab to keep track of what’s going on with legislation and regulations, and will revise it regularly as I hear about changes, in lieu of endless update posts. The page has details of regional center authorization (currently extended through March 23, 2018) and the immigration debate and new bills as they relate (or mostly do not relate) to EB-5.

AAO decisions: troubled RCs/projects

Do investor petitions fail when the project and/or regional center runs into trouble? Not necessarily, according to recent AAO decisions on EB-5 appeals.

  • In August 2015, the SEC filed a complaint against Path America companies including Path America Kingco LLC and Path America Snoco LLC. The case was settled in August 2017, with the former Path America principal receiving four years in prison. In the meantime, USCIS terminated Path America Kingco in March 2016, denied and revoked a bunch of Path America Kingco I-526 petitions starting in April 2016, and terminated Path America Snoco LLC in November 2016. Path America Kingco appealed its termination and was dismissed (JUN092017_01K2610), the PAK investors appealed their denials and were dismissed (e.g. DEC052016_01B7203, MAY112017_01B7203, JUL192017_01B7203), but Path America Snoco appealed its termination and was sustained (DEC212017_01K1610). PAK and PAS were terminated for malfeasance by the same former principal, but in the PAK case “he diverted proportionally more of the investors’ funds and the comparatively new management has only recently begun the process of renewing the project after its time in receivership.” AAO decided that PAS deserved to keep its designation because “the near completion of the project as proposed and the existence of a new owner committed to promoting future economic growth in the aggregate warrant maintenance of the regional center.” PAK has the same new owner, and the PAK and PAS situations appear to differ in degree more than substance, but at least AAO shows that it can give positive factors some weight. The PAS decision states that “There may be cases where, to maintain program integrity, the nature or degree of bad acts cannot be ameliorated or counter-balanced by positive factors of job creation and economic growth. For the foregoing reasons, this is not such a case.” (But I notice that despite AAO sustaining the appeal in December, USCIS still lists Path America Snoco LLC on the list of terminated RCs as of February.)
  • The PhoenixMart project by Central Arizona Regional Center has seen considerable drama and lengthy project delays. In 2017, USCIS denied a bunch of I-526 in the project, finding that “the business plan was not credible because construction did not substantively commence until years after the initially-forecasted completion date.” However, AAO just posted several decisions in the 2018 folder (JAN172018_02B7203, JAN172018_05B7203, JAN172018_06B7203, JAN172018_07B7203) that withdraw those denials, remanding the matter for further proceedings. AAO was impressed by evidence that the project has recently made substantial progress, and “Therefore, we withdraw the Chiefs finding that the business plan was not credible with regard to the construction portion of the plan.” (Reflecting its new sensitivity to return provisions, however, AAO takes the opportunity to bring up an issue not included in the USCIS denial: “whether the granting of first right of refusal to EB-5 investors for the purchase of up to 1,500 shops in ___ constitutes an impermissible redemption agreement.”)
  • The Palm House Hotel project has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and went into receivership in 2015. In 2016, EB-5 investors sued sponsor South Atlantic Regional Center and associated entities, alleging that the project was, in reality, nothing more than a façade pursuant to which their funds were stolen and distributed among the conspirators. However, the project has made some progress under the receiver, and at least two investors appealed their I-526 denials to the AAO (JUN132017_01B7203, JAN172018_03B7203). AAO denied the motions, but in a way that leaves open the possibility that the outcome might have been different had the petitioners presented better documentation regarding availability of funds to complete the project.

LucidText in the news
Suzanne Lazicki is featured in the latest EB5 Investors Magazine as one of the Top 5 Business Plan Writers of 2017, and in a podcast with Mona Shah discussing business plans and the current EB-5 landscape.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 12/05/2017 to 02/02/2018

  • Awesome American Regional Center LLC (California, Nevada)
  • Commuter Center Regional Center, LLC (Washington)
  • Florida Capital Group Regional Center (Florida)
  • Grand Commonwealth Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Hawaii Investment Funds, LLC (Hawaii): www.hawaiieb5.com
  • Live in America – Louisiana Regional Center, LLC (Louisiana): www.liveinamerica.us
  • Midtown NYC Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • Mugo Regional Center LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • North American Asset Management Regional Center, LLC (Washington)
  • Polaris Regional Center (Guam)
  • Stonehenge Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • TS Pacific Regional Center (California)
  • Texo Capital, LLC (Ohio, Pennsylvania): www.texoeb5.com

Additions to the Regional Center Terminations page, 12/05/2017 to 02/02/2018

  • Greater Houston Investment Center, LLC (Texas)
  • Lansing Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) Regional Center (Michigan)
  • Maryland Area Regional Center, LLC (Maryland)
  • Liberty South Regional Center (Arkansas, Mississippi)
  • Southeastern Higher Education Regional Center (South Carolina)
  • EB-5 Fund CA, Inc. (California)
  • EB-5 Regional Center Florida, LLC (Florida)
  • America Development Investment Center Regional Center (Alabama, Georgia)
  • Florida East Coast Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Lakewood Regional Center a/k/a American Life, Inc. – Lakewood Regional Center (Washington)
  • American Logistics [International] Regional Center (California)
  • South East Los Angeles RC (SELARC) California (California)
  • Southwest Florida Regional Center, LLC (Florida) (terminated 5/25/2017 but not listed until 1/30/2018)

Previously listed as terminated, but now restored to the list of approved regional centers:

  • ON Regional Center, LLC (California)

At-risk with call option and preferred return? — updated

— UPDATE 2/9/2018 —
I’ve been alerted to a couple district court decisions that rule against USCIS in favor of EB-5 petitioners in cases involving call options.

Chiayu Chang, et. al., v USCIS Civil Action No. 16-1740 (JDB) Filed 02/07/2018
…The question in this case is whether United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when it declared plaintiffs ineligible for visas because their investments came with a “call option,” which gave the company in which they invested the choice to buy plaintiffs out. Because the call option at issue here does not provide the investors with any right to repayment, the Court answers this question in the affirmative and grants partial summary judgment to plaintiffs… Unlike a sell option—or a note, bond, or similar arrangement—a buy option provides the investor with no security that she will ever see her money again. …A call option alone does not a debt arrangement make….

DOE v. USCIS 239 F.Supp.3d 297 (2017) Filed 03/10/2017
…Importantly, the Call Option was a right exercisable by Quartzburg Gold or its general partner, not the Plaintiff-investors, and the Quartzburg Gold documents made clear that there was no guarantee that it would be exercised. Despite statements that the general partner would strive to be able to exercise this option and buy out the Plaintiff-investors, both the LPA and the Offering Memorandum made clear that “[t]here [was] no guarantee regarding when the Partnership shall exercise such call option, or if such call option shall ever be exercised at all.” …. The Call Option accordingly did not guarantee Plaintiff-investors anything, nor did it have any effect on the risk that the Plaintiff-investors faced that they might lose their capital contributions if the underlying mining projects were not successful…

— ORIGINAL POST 1/26/2018 —
Every EB-5 offering is a balance between natural investor desire for a return and exit strategy, and EB-5 policy prohibiting debt arrangements between the immigrant investor and new commercial enterprise. (As a reminder, there’s no problem with debt between the NCE and job-creating entities in regional center offerings. The restriction is between the EB-5 investor and NCE.) People who prepare offering documents have to walk a fine line, and should note recent cases that help define where USCIS thinks that line lies.

A number of recently-posted cases in the 2017 and 2018 folders I-526 appeals deal with investors in a regional center project who were denied due to a provision in their Limited Partnership Agreement.  (See DEC222017_03B7203 as a representative example. Other decisions for the same offering: DEC192017_01B7203, DEC192017_02B7203, DEC222017_01B7203, DEC222017_02B7203, JAN172018_01B7203, JAN172018_04B7203, JAN172018_08B7203, JAN172018_09B7203, JAN172018_10B7203.) Here’s the targeted provision:

Article 9.1 of the partnership agreement provides that at any time on or after the date that a foreign investor’s Form I-829 has been adjudicated, the NCE’s general partner may, in its sole discretion, notify the investor of its desire to purchase (i.e. redeem) his or her interest. The purchase price will include 100 percent of his or her capital contribution ($500.000) plus all accrued and unpaid preferred returns. ….Preferred return is one half of one percent (0.5%) per annum on the total unreturned Capital Contributions [$500.000] of an investor.

Considering the USCIS Policy Manual policy on guaranteed returns and Matter of Izummi, one might think this provision would be acceptable because (1) this provision doesn’t give the investor a right to demand the return (since only the general partner can initiate the buyout), (2) the NCE general partner is not guaranteed to be a willing buyer (since the purchase “may” happen at its sole discretion), and (3) a certain price is not assured (since the purchase itself is not assured). But one would be wrong, according to the analysis by USCIS and the AAO.  They found that,

The fact that the general partner has the right to purchase or redeem, which the partnership agreement references as a “buyout right,” rather than the Petitioner having a right to sell his interest is not determinative. We previously found that a sell option was an impermissible debt arrangement regardless of whether it was enforceable.

AAO admits that Matter of Izummi treated a different kind of redemption agreement that gave the Petitioner a sell right, but “the language of the decision goes beyond those facts, explaining not only that the enforceability of the arrangement is immaterial but that an investor may not be assured of receiving a certain price.”

The “certain price” issue is the main leg to stand on for the December 2017 denials. (One wonders about the difference a profit-contingent preferred return would’ve made. Also, the leg still looks pretty weak, considering that the offering apparently lacks the defining feature of debt: fixed obligation to pay.)  But the AAO appears to question debt-like elements generally.

A review of the record as a whole reveals an arrangement where once the conditions on the Petitioner’s resident status have been removed, the NCE would likely redeem the Petitioner’s original capital contribution and pay him or her a modest “preferred return,” similar to an interest payment. Such an arrangement, though not characterized as a loan in the offering documents, contains the same elements (principal, interest, repayment period) that one would find in a debt agreement.

AAO concludes,

Considering the partnership agreement and offering memorandum together, we find that the Petitioner did enter into an impermissible debt arrangement with an understanding that the general partner intended to repay the full investment plus preferred returns. This arrangement is not permitted under the broad language at 8 C.F.R. § 204.6(e) (definition of “invest”).

As another example, consider APR182017_01B7203, a 2017 decision that challenges a “Priority Return” in a direct EB-5 offering.

Page 4 of the business plan states that “the NCE will pay the limited partners, if funds are available, a preferred return on their investment, beginning after the EB-5 funds are invested in the project.” As we discussed in our second NOID, Izummi, 22 I&N Dec. at 183-88, provides that if an investor is guaranteed a specific rate of return or the return of his or her investment, then the capital is not at risk, because in essence, the investor has loaned funds to, rather than invested in, the business. See 6 USCIS Policy Manual, supra, at G.2(A)(2).”

Preferred returns on equity investment and buyout provisions are common in EB-5 offerings, and have mostly passed without challenge. I’d be happy to hear analysis of the above non-precedent decisions by someone who can help define (or criticize) the line that USCIS and AAO took in these particular cases. (Thank you, commenters.)

Quotes for reference:

6 USCIS Policy Manual G.2(A)(2)

An arrangement under which funds have been contributed in exchange for an equity interest subject to a redemption agreement which provides that the investor may demand a return of some portion of his or her investment funds, including after obtaining conditional permanent resident status, is an impermissible debt arrangement, no different from the risk any business creditor incurs.

Matter of Izummi

For the alien’s money truly to be at risk, the alien cannot enter into a partnership knowing that he already has a willing buyer in a certain number of years, nor can he be assured that he will receive a certain price. Otherwise, the arrangement is nothing more than a loan, albeit an unsecured one.

FY2017 EB-5 Visas by Country

The US Department of State has published Table V Part 3 of the Report of the Visa Office 2017, which gives a tally of visas issued by country for the Employment Fifth preference (EB-5) in FY2017. If we believe USCIS processing times reports, these should be visas based on investments/petitions from 2015 or earlier. A few points to note:

  • Having issued slightly fewer than the annual EB-5 visa quota last year, DOS compensated by going slightly over the quota this year.
  • Vietnam and Brazil are the countries with greatest increase in EB-5 visas issued between 2016 and 2017. South Korea showed the largest drop.
  • South America is the region with the greatest increase in number of EB-5 visas issued in 2017, and Europe the region with the greatest increase in number of nationalities receiving EB-5 visas.
  • Compared with 2016, the 2017 report has more countries taking at least one visa, but fewer countries taking over 20 visas. Kudos to the brave lone souls from Angola, Cameroon, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Tajikistan, and Suriname who immigrated last year though EB-5.
  • Countries besides China claimed 25% of the 2017 EB-5 visas (compared with 24% in 2016).
  • There were 160 fewer visas based on direct EB-5 investments in 2017 than 2016.
  • In addition to the Visa Office Report data on EB-5 visas issued during FY2017, we also have data on applications pending at the National Visa Center at the end of FY2017. (I’ve copied a couple charts below, and you can consult the Visas tab in my master visa/backlog spreadsheet for additional detail and source links.) It’s puzzling to look at the different reports together. For example, one wonders why the drop in visas issued to South Koreans in 2017, when there were 278 visa applications for South Koreans left pending at the end of the year. Or why people from Hong Kong got only 81 EB-5 visas in 2017, when there were 447 Hong Kong applications pending in November 2016 and 423 still pending in November 2017. Vietnamese received a hefty 335 EB-5 visas in 2017, just behind China, but 649 Vietnamese applications were still left pending. In total, DOS issued 2,523 visas in 2017 to applicants from countries other than China, but that still left 3,524 applications from countries other than China pending at NVC as of November 2017. Anyone know the story behind the non-China backlogs at NVC?

For reference, here are my posts on the Visa Office Reports from 2016, 2015, and 2014.

RC Reauthorization to 2/8/2018

February 2
See my Washington Updates page for ongoing updates.

January 23
The President has signed H.R. 195: Extension of Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018, which puts the federal government generally, and the regional center program, back in business through February 8, 2018. The bill text was amended over the weekend, but no additions that would decouple RC program authorization from government funding. However, this extension just gives a couple weeks to breathe before the same issues need to be re-fought. Congressional leaders have vowed to use the time to come up with their long-promised immigration legislation. I hope that this will happen and include EB-5 (though EB-5 is still absent from all debate). Ideally legislation should precede and preempt the EB-5 regulations threatened in February.

IIUSA has posted a helpful EB-5 Advocacy Announcement that includes this information: “While Republican negotiators on EB-5 are closer than ever to finding agreement internally, there are still bipartisan negotiations that need to occur. With pending regulations that could raise investment levels by over 100% and a current potential posted final action date in February, Congressional leaders would likely be left with only 60 days after that final action date to produce a legislative solution in place of the regulations.”

January 22

Update: Congress has cleared legislation to extend government funding to February 8, 2018. The vehicle is “Senate amendment to the House amendment to the Senate amendment to H.R. 195,” and I’ll link the text here when available.

As we wait for Washington to reach an agreement that would fund the government and reauthorize programs including the regional center program, here’s a post from Carolyn Lee on what the shutdown does and does not mean for EB-5.

January 20
The USCIS website announces:

The current lapse in annual appropriated funding for the U.S. government does not affect USCIS’ fee-funded activities. Our offices will remain open, and all applicants should attend interviews and appointments as scheduled. However, several USCIS programs will either expire or suspend operations, or be otherwise affected, until they receive appropriated funds or are reauthorized by Congress.

The list of programs to be affected until reauthorized by Congress includes the regional center program.

January 19
Congress lost its bet and failed to pass a new funding bill by midnight. But “lawmakers are believed to be negotiating a days-long extension that could be approved quickly.” In the meantime, the regional center program is on hold, and regional center-associated petitions and applications won’t advance until Congress takes action.

January 18-19
The Hill has a new article every few minutes on the likelihood that Congress will or won’t agree on time to the CR extending current funding and associated authorities (including RC program authorization) into February. So much drama. I expect that the CR will pass by 11:59 pm on Friday, assuming that our lawmakers have much to gain from speaking out against the CR, and more lose from the shutdown that would result from not voting for it in the end. But we shall see. Just in case, Klasko Law comments on effects of a potential government shutdown on immigration processing and programs and IIUSA explains Possible Government Shutdown: What it Means for the EB-5 Regional Center Program.

January 16
House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen today introduced legislation (H.J.Res 125) to maintain current funding for federal operations and prevent a government shutdown. The Continuing Resolution (CR) is a stop-gap measure that will extend government funding through February 16, 2018.
There’s nothing in the text of H.J.Res 125 to prevent regional center program authorization from being extended with other authorities tied to current funding. But we’ll see whether Congress can manage to agree long enough to pass the CR and avoid a shutdown. The White House supports the CR, at least.

January 15
No indication yet that Washington is near compromise on new immigration legislation. A Continuing Resolution of current funding and authorities to February 16 continues to look likely. In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, I quote President Trump making an important point:

Today, we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God.

This is not the belief evident in the current immigration reform discussion, which looks more like this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are not created equal, that they are endowed by their nationalities with certain inalienable characteristics, that among these are propensity to violence, noxious ideology, inability to assimilate, and failure in the pursuit of property. — That to secure against such characteristics inherent in certain nations and their nationals, immigration policy is instituted among Us, to effect Our Safety and Happiness by erecting barriers against threats embodied in Them, and screening Them by the color of their passports in lieu of the content of their character.

Dr. King’s genealogy of racial segregation from his How Long Not Long speech in 1965 could also be recast to explain how and why our current populist movement has been co-opted into an anti-immigrant movement with such violent sentiment against DACA. It may be said of the new economy that the donor class took the world and gave the poor white man legal status. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate legal status, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a citizen, better than the Illegals.

We miss you, Dr. King!

January 11 post
Some dates to keep in mind as we wonder what will happen next with EB-5:

  • January 19, 2018: The next regional center program sunset date (and the deadline for a new funding bill that some hoped to make a vehicle for sweeping new immigration legislation). It’s looking likely that this deadline will be pushed back a few weeks, however, with another continuing resolution.
  • February 2018: The date indicated for final action on new EB-5 regulations (with provisions including drastic increase to the EB-5 investment amount)
  • February 16, 2018: Possible next regional center program sunset date, if Congress fails to pass a new funding bill in January, and instead defers the funding and immigration fight with a continuing resolution  (or some speculate the CR could go into March)
  • March 5, 2018: The date DACA protections are slated to end, and thus the date Congress is pushing to beat in passing a big immigration bill
  • April 2018: The possible effective date for new EB-5 regulations, assuming that the rule is finalized in February with an effective date after 60 days (as ILW rumors)

The race is on for EB-5 legislation, with pressure from sunset dates and the need to forestall unwelcome regulations. Washington is actually talking about comprehensive immigration reform, including reshuffling visa numbers. But I haven’t heard EB-5 mentioned once, for good or ill, anywhere, by anyone, in recent immigration discussion. The left is for DACA; the right is for border security and against diversity visas and chain migration. Immigrant investment doesn’t fit with any side’s talking points. I hope that Congress privately remembers EB-5, because we really need action from them: to give the regional center program a longer-term authorization, to enact program changes better than what would come with new regulations, and to realize program potential by freeing up more visas for EB-5.

If broad-based immigration legislation happens soon, what will it include and how will it affect EB-5? We have a few hints, but nothing definitive yet. This week President Trump hosted a bipartisan and bicameral meeting on immigration reform that concluded (reportedly) with “an agreement to negotiate legislation that accomplishes critically needed reforms in four high-priority areas: border security, chain migration, the visa lottery, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.”  (As an aside, I recommend the White House transcript of the meeting. It’s not especially informative, but an amazing artifact. If Aristophanes or Alexievich set out to write Washington today, I doubt they could beat this straight record of the January 9 Cabinet Room scene.)  Yesterday House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte introduced H.R. 4760 Securing America’s Future Act, which proposes sweeping changes in line with President Trump’s immigration priorities. The bill includes nothing that would directly affect EB-5, so far as I can tell. (The Immigrant Investor Pilot Program gets a name check, but only in context of a technical amendment that renumbers a subsection. No mention of program authorization or any EB-5 changes. H.R. 4760 proposes to increase employment-based visa numbers, but EB-5 wouldn’t benefit because the bill would change its allocation from 7.1% of the total to a flat 9,940 visas annually, regardless of the worldwide level. The bill fiddles with per-country limits for family-based visas, but not for employment-based visas.)  Meanwhile, the Senate is still trying to come up with a competitive immigration deal that’s more passable by Congress while still signable by the President. I’ll report on details when available, and also hope that advocacy people will eventually share what’s happening with EB-5 on the ground. (Update: IIUSA has published an Industry Special Report, and Senator Graham has posted summary provisions of the Senate’s Immigration Reform Act of 2018. The summary mentions nothing that would affect EB-5.)

 

I-526 processing time (Part I)

Update: See also my followup post How long does I-526 take? (Part II)

Every month USCIS publishes Processing Time Information for the Immigrant Investor Program Office. The update just published indicates that as of October 31, 2017, IPO was processing I-526 filed on  November 21, 2015, I-829 filed on September 2, 2015, and I-924 filed on October 18, 2015. This is bad news, considering that previous reports indicated that IPO had progressed passed those dates months ago.  USCIS only publishes one month at a time, but I log the reports to track trends. Here’s a clip from my IPO Times Log showing the current report compared with recent reports.

I think the bouncing dates reflect two facts: (1) that the IPO processing report dates are never very exact, because IPO has a complex multi-step multi-track process that prevents keeping petitions in strict FIFO order; (2) that the Q4 2015 filing surge has been difficult to process (due to quantity and quality problems). I’ll guess that IPO issued a lot of RFEs earlier in the year on October/November 2015 petitions, moved on to December 2015 petitions while waiting for responses, and has now updated the processing report to reflect the fact that they’re again occupied with earlier petitions that received RFE responses. Or maybe the report update just means “oops, we recalculated our mysterious processing times report formula and concluded that we aren’t actually as far along as we said before.” This has happened several times before, according my report log.

In her published remarks for the 11/7/2017 EB-5 stakeholder meeting, IPO Deputy Chief Julia Harrison discussed the wait time for I-526 petitions filed in 2015.

Q: What is USCIS’s best estimate of the wait times for form I-526 petitions filed in 2015?

Response: The posted processing time is the best indication of a petitioner’s position in the queue. The actual adjudication time for any individual petition can vary based on: its position in the queue, the quality (and hence the adjudication time required) for prior petitions in the queue, and the quality and clarity (i.e. credibility of the evidence presented) in the individual’s petition. If RFEs or NOIDs are required they can significantly add to the time required to adjudicate a petition.

Also, if the investment project is first presented to USCIS on an I-526, the adjudication may have additional due diligence needs pertaining to the investment project which may require an RFE and any additional processing time will vary depending on the facts and complexity of each case.

Ms. Harrison’s answer focuses on case-specific factors that contribute to individual processing times. For general predictions about I-526, I think it’s helpful to step away from individual detail and think about processing as a capacity question. Petition data indicates that there were an average of 19,700 I-526 petitions pending at IPO in Q4 2015, and IPO has processed an average of 2,700 petitions per quarter since then.  Dividing inventory by flow rate gives an estimate for the time to push all inventory through the system. 19,700 petitions / 2,700 petitions per quarter = 7.3 quarters. If it takes 7.3 quarters or 22 months to adjudicate all petitions that were at IPO in Q4 2015, then we’d expect petitions filed that quarter to have a processing time around 22 months on average. That’s consistent with the IPO times reports (19 to 23 months for Q4 2015 petitions so far).  You can download my I-526 Times spreadsheet (Happy Christmas dear blog readers from Suzanne) for a model that compiles relevant data and allows entering a priority date to get a rough processing time prediction. According to the model, I-526 petitions filed in 2016 and 2017 can expect to wait about 20 months for processing, on average, assuming basically first-come-first-served processing. (But note that anecdotal evidence suggests huge variation in actual times from a few weeks to many years, so IPO’s process apparently isn’t as orderly as it tries to be. I didn’t make a prediction model for I-829 because the recent volume trends have been too erratic for a simple waiting line formula, and didn’t make a model for I-924 because USCIS doesn’t publish data for I-924 pending or processed petitions. And if someone assembles a better version of the I-526 model, please share.)

In addition to the spreadsheet model, I also keep updating my IPO Times Quotes document with communications from USCIS regarding processing times. Consult this if you want to see what IPO has said recently about how they organize petition processing, and factors that affect petition processing times. If you have personal experience to share, please enter it in this Google form.

EB-5 Regulations (2/2018?)

While we have our eye on the legislation ball, the Office of Management and Budget has given us a new EB-5 deadline to think about. The Spring 2017 Unified Agenda had mentioned April 00, 2018 as a “Final Action Date” for regulations dealing with EB-5 investment amounts and TEAs (RIN 1615-AC07), but now the Fall 2017 agenda has advanced that prediction to February 00, 2018. I’d doubted the April date because so many factors seemed likely to delay regulations (the prospect of legislation instead, the fact that Congressional intent as expressed in draft legislation looks so different from what DHS put in the proposed regulations, the administration’s coolness to regulation in general, government inertia in general), but advancing the date to February looks like positive intent to really get the EB-5 regulations done.

We don’t know yet what will be in the final Rule 1615-AC07, since it may have been revised significantly since the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. But as a reminder, here’s what the NPRM proposed:

  • Increase the standard minimum EB-5 investment amount to $1,800,000, or $1,350,000 in a TEA.
  • A TEA is based on high unemployment and incentivized with 25% reduction to the investment amount (not other factors or incentives as proposed by Congress).
  • A TEA can only be designated for a high-unemployment MSA, county, city, single census tract, or limited group of census tracts. DHS, not the states, is responsible for TEA designation.
  • Give priority date protection (an investor with an approved I-526 could choose to file a new I-526 while keeping the original priority date, subject to certain restrictions)
  • Spouse and children may be able to file I-829 even if not included on the principal investor’s petition.
  • Other technical changes.

The federal rulemaking process requires that “At the end of the process, the agency must base its reasoning and conclusions on the rulemaking record, consisting of the comments, scientific data, expert opinions, and facts accumulated during the pre‐rule and proposed rule stages.” In April 2017, the public responded to the NPRM with challenging questions and criticism, and some persuasive data and policy arguments. The agency must take these into account. If USCIS revised the proposed rule in response to public comment, they might have modified the proposed investment amount increases (nearly all commenters argued strongly for this), either narrowed or expanded the gap between TEA and non-TEA investment (there were spirited arguments on both sides), modified the restrictions on census tract TEAs, or reconsidered giving DHS the burden of issuing TEA designations. On the other hand, USCIS is not well known for changing track in response to evidence and arguments presented by the public. The Fall 2017 OMB notice reiterates USCIS thinking about the potential costs and benefits of the proposed regulations:

The proposal to raise the investment amounts and reform the targeted employment area (TEA) geography could deter some investors from participating in the EB-5 program. The increase in investment could reduce the number of investors as they may be unable or unwilling to invest at the higher proposed levels of investment. On the other hand, raising the investment amounts increases the amount invested by each investor and thereby potentially increases the total economic benefits of U.S. investment under this program. The proposed TEA provision would rule out TEA configurations that rely on a large number of census tracts indirectly linked to the actual project tract by numerous degrees of separation, and may better target investment capital to areas where unemployment rates are the highest.

If a final rule were published in the Federal Register in February 2018, it could go into effect as early as March 2018, and apply to petitions filed on or after the effective date. (See A Guide to the Rulemaking Process for an explanation of the typical process.)

On the other hand, the threat of immanent regulations may inspire Congress/industry to finalize EB-5 legislation ASAP instead.

Meanwhile, the OMB Unified Agenda has pushed back the estimated date for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for RIN: 1615-AC11, the EB-5 rule dealing with regional center designation, the exemplar filing process, continued regional center participation, and regional center termination. The Spring agenda had estimated April 2018; the Fall agenda has October 2018. We previously responded to this as a Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The agenda’s cost/benefit comment notes that:

DHS is still in the process of reviewing potential changes it would propose to the regional center process. DHS may propose to implement an exemplar filing requirement for all designated regional centers that would require regional centers to file exemplar project requests. An exemplar filing requirement could cause some projects to not go forward, but DHS is still in the process of assessing the impacts on the number of projects that may be affected. DHS anticipates that any proposed changes to the regional center program would increase overall program efficiency and predictability for both USCIS and EB-5 stakeholders.

RC Reauthorization to 1/19/2018, visa numbers, legal actions, RC list changes

Countdown to Regional Center Program Reauthorization

  • 12/22: President Trump has signed the continuing resolution H.R. 1370, which means that the regional center program is now extended together with other authorities to January 19, 2018. (See Congress.gov for the text of the enrolled bill H.R.1370, now Public Law No 115-96.) I also notice that the White House website has been reorganized to highlight immigration as a key issue. The new White House immigration page emphasizes these priorities for the administration: constructing a border wall, ensuring the swift removal of unlawful entrants, ending chain migration, eliminating the Visa Lottery, and moving the country to a merit-based entry system.
  • 12/21: The House and Senate have passed a Continuing Resolution that replaces the expiration date in previous legislation with “January 19, 2018,” and doesn’t include any language that would exclude regional center program authorization. See the House Appropriations Committee news release for the text of House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 1370.
  • 12/20: The content of a Continuing Resolution through 1/19 is still under negotiation.
  • 12/18: Nothing settled yet on the next stopgap funding measure, which will have to fight with tax reform for attention this week. The Senate Appropriations Committee may come up with its own proposal to compete with the House proposal. Senator Cornyn indicates that the Senate bill would also be through January 19, but may include some different provisions.
  • 12/13: Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee introduced H.J.Res 124 – a Continuing Resolution that would temporarily extend federal funding and maintain current federal operations (currently authorized to December 22) until January 19, 2018. Basically, it’s a clean extension that just switches out expiration dates: “SEC. 101. The Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018 6 (division D of Public Law 115–56) is further amended—7 (1) by striking the date specified in section 8 106(3) and inserting ‘‘January 19, 2018.’’ The 250 pages of miscellaneous additional provisions (defense appropriations, CHIP extension, etc.) do not mention EB-5 or move to separate RC program authorization from continued government funding. This bill is just barely out of committee, not enacted yet, but I’ll add updates as I hear news ahead of the 12/22 deadline.
  • 12/8: IIUSA members will be happy to note that the association has decided to tell us its 2017 Policy Platform and comments on the draft legislative framework. Now to see if we’ll be asked for our opinion on the policy positions someone has formulated. Probably not, since the hard-won industry unity depends on a narrow base. UPDATE: IIUSA has sent an email to members with the invitation “Please contact advocacy@iiusa.org with any comments or questions” on the IIUSA policy framework.
  • 12/8: IIUSA did the right thing with a stern statement on Marketing Hypothetical EB-5 Reform Outcomes as Certainties. Prospective investors take note: do not rest your current EB-5 decision on the possibility of visa set-asides in hypothetical future legislation. We have no assurance that a set-aside proposal will ever be enacted, or to whom/what a set-aside proposal would apply, if enacted. Even if set-asides became available, the size of the visa backlog and volume of I-526 filings mean that they may disappear too quickly to have an appreciable incentive effect. Their main function appears to be now, in hypothetical form, as a phantom concession to help get what industry negotiators really want (low investment difference between TEA and non-TEA areas) and a phantom carrot to encourage new investors.

Visa Backlog Update

The backlog of EB-5 visa applications at the National Visa Center continues to grow, as one would expect with I-526 filing surges reaching the visa application stage. The Annual Report of Immigrant Visa Applicants in the Family-sponsored and Employment-based preferences Registered at the National Visa Center as of November 1, 2017 reveals that the EB-5 visa application backlog is 23% longer this year than last year, with 17% increase in pending applications from mainland China and a 106% increase in pending applications from other countries. I’ve added these numbers to my master backlog calculation spreadsheet, which has a projection tab to estimate how statistics translate into wait times.

Legal Actions

Additional reading for those interested in following litigation in the EB-5 space, and learning from the actions and statements that got other people in trouble.

Other Helpful Articles

McKee, Curylo, Parrington: Considerations for Independent Third Parties to Assist With EB-5 Investments (December 12, 2017)

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 11/08/2017 to 12/05/2017:

  • American Dream Fund Seattle Regional Center, LLC (Washington): www.adreamfund.com
  • American EB5 Regional Center (Florida)
  • Cactus21 LLC (California)
  • Chicago Real Estate Development Regional Center, LLC (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin)
  • Great North Regional Center, LLC (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont): www.peakresorts.com
  • Hawaii Regional Fortune Center LLC (Hawaii)
  • M5 Venture Southern California RC, LLC (California): www.m5venture.com
  • Manhattan Empire State Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • NCP Regional Center (California)
  • North Carolina EB5 Regional Center, LLC (North Carolina, South Carolina): eb5affiliatenetwork.com/regional-centers-access/eb5-regional-center-north-carolina
  • SRC NY, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)

One regional center was removed from the approved list, but not added to the terminated list:

  • Bart Investment Group, LLC (Florida)

 

Q4 2017 EB-5 Petition Stats

The USCIS Immigration Forms Data Page has posted EB-5 petition processing data for the 4th quarter of FY2017 (July to September 2017).

The good news is that in FY2017, IPO finally – for the first time since FY2009 – adjudicated more EB-5 petitions than it received during the year. That’s what needs to happen for the backlog to shrink and processing times to fall.

In FY2017, I-526 receipts were down 14% and I-526 adjudications up 31% from the previous year. I-829 receipts were down 24% and adjudications up 42% from the previous year.

Although I-526 receipts fell slightly in FY2017, they were still unsustainably high – enough to claim nearly four years of visa numbers if the annual EB-5 visa cap stays at 10,000. As before, the quarterly receipt trend shows filing surges around regional center program sunset dates.

I-829 receipts fell every quarter in FY2017, which is troubling. The State Department has issued the maximum number of EB-5 visas annually since FY2014, so I would expect a steady stream of petitions to remove conditions. Instead, it seems that an increasing number of people who received conditional permanent residence are failing to complete the EB-5 process. I-829 denial rates remain very low, however.

The most dramatic processing improvement in FY2017 came for I-829 petitions, particularly in the fourth quarter. I-526 processing has improved year-over-year, but not consistently by quarter.

IPO has steadily increased their processing capacity since 2013, and I hope that the trend will continue into 2018. IPO has committed to reducing processing times in 2018, and continues to hire new staff. (Last month USAjobs.gov posted a job announcement recruiting for “many vacancies” as Adjudications Officer at IPO. Fortunately for the poor pending petitions, I decided not to apply.)

USCIS apparently continues to refine its record-keeping system. The Q4 data report not only provides Q4 numbers but some revised figures for previous quarters and years (with variation by several hundred from previously-reported figures). The pending petition count remains a mystery. (One would expect quarter-end pending petitions to equal previous quarter-end pending plus current quarter receipts minus current-quarter adjudications, but that’s not the case.)

RC Program Reauthorization (CR to 12/22/2017)

Updates:

  • 12/8: H.J. Res 123 has been signed by the President and is now P.L. 115-90. Now we wait for legislation that will authorize the regional center program past December 22, 2017.
  • 12/7: A continuing resolution through December 22 passed the House and Senate today, and the President is expected to sign it. H.J. Res 123 is a “clean” extension, meaning that it simply extends the deadline for previous funding and authorities (including the regional center program) without changes.
  • 12/7: Regional center program authorization is still waiting on Congress to manage a Continuing Resolution that would extend current government funding and associated authorities past December 8. Washington continues to fight and risk shutdown. If by chance current government funding and the regional center program sunset on 12/8, what will happen to EB-5 investors? The impact will not be too painful so long as the lapse is temporary. Judging from past history, the Department of State will change EB-5 regional center visa categories from “Current” to “Unavailable” in the Visa Bulletin, and pause issuing visas to RC investors until the RC program is authorized again, returning to business as usual.  USCIS has reportedly prepared “what if” guidance for two sunset scenarios: if the Regional Center program lapses but Congress apparently intends to reauthorize it, or if Congress indicates its desire to end the program. I’m guessing that if the lapse appears temporary/unintentional, then IPO will probably also just hold off on new RC petition approvals until the program regains authorization. And as another reminder: EB-5 itself is a permanent program and not facing a sunset; direct EB-5 petitions and applications can continue as usual regardless of RC program authorization.
  • 12/5: Senator Grassley and Senator Cornyn — two people who have worked on EB-5 legislation in the past — today announced a new bill that would address a number of immigration issues but apparently not EB-5.  S.2192 “The Security, Enforcement, and Compassion United in Reform Efforts (SECURE) Act of 2017” is about security and enforcement, not about compassion or unity, and not concerned with EB-5 (though it would give permanent status to E-Verify, a temporary program historically reauthorized with the regional center program).
  • 12/5: The Hill notes that immigration is in the spotlight as discussions continue over a series of continuing resolutions that would extend current government funding to 12/22/2017, and then again to January or February next year. But the contentious issues are Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals and border security; no one’s arguing about EB-5 so far.
  • 12/4: It looks as if there will be an extension to December 22 (or possibly into January), to give Congress more time to come up with a new funding bill.

Original 11/29 post: EB-5 is permanent, but the EB-5 regional center program faces another sunset date. The RC program’s current authorization is tied to a continuing appropriations act that expires next week Friday, December 8. Sabers are rattling in Washington over the next funding bill, and we may be in for another short-term resolution while our representatives get things figured out. EB-5 hardly rates in the scheme of significant and controversial issues facing Congress now, and I don’t hear anyone speaking out about it. I expect we’ll see (1) a new appropriations bill or continuing resolution next week that includes clean extension to the RC program for the bill’s duration (since that’s been the pattern for two years, and the default option for a Congress busy with other matters); or (2) limited EB-5 program changes crafted by/for the few people who spend most on EB-5 lobbying, slipped quietly and at the last minute into a larger bill to facilitate passage and forestall review and criticism from a broader base of interests. I do not think the regional center program will be terminated, or omitted on purpose from the next appropriations bill. Termination calls have never been very loud or widespread, and termination would also take time and attention from Congress. However, the reauthorization picture is not pretty. The RC program has received seven short-term extensions in the past two years. Congress hasn’t taken positive action on EB-5 since 2012. A program with billions of dollars on the line deserves more stability, attention, and enthusiasm.

Chart notes: The PL numbers identify the public laws that contain regional center program authorization. Each opaque blue bar begins with the date of PL enactment and ends with the end of RC authorization in that PL. The light blue shading reflects the fact that the first three reauthorizations just extended the original authorization (from five years to seven, then ten, then fifteen years). If anyone knows how to fill in the authorization gaps in my chart before 2008, please email me the missing PL numbers.

11/7 and 11/10 IPO Updates (processing, bridge financing, more), Baruch College Conference, RC List Updates

IPO staff met with EB-5 stakeholders twice this week, at an official Stakeholder Engagement on November 7 and at an EB-5 Conference hosted by Baruch College on November 10.

I’ve uploaded voice recordings of both presentations (11/7 here and 11/10 here), and you can watch the Baruch College presentation on YouTube here (advance the video to time 1:58:24 for the IPO panel). Official remarks from the 11/7 engagement are posted on the invitation page. Hot topics included petition processing, Form I-924A, redeployment, bridge financing, and material change. I summarize a few highlights below.

EB-5 Program Introduction
At the 11/10 conference, IPO Senior Advisor for Economics Jan Lyons provided a basic yet substantive introduction to the EB-5 program and how it works. Agents and potential investors, this is an excellent source of reliable information straight from USCIS. Advance the conference video to time 2:02:10 to start watching the presentation.

Processing Information
On 11/7, IPO Deputy Chief Julia Harrison generously spoke at length about processing issues, including staff allocation and petition workflow. Here’s my best effort to summarize the content (with time references to the 11/7 recording FYI).

  • Petition adjudication at IPO is divided across several teams, including a team handling I-829 and customer service, a team handling direct EB-5 I-526, and a group of teams handling regional center I-526. I-924 is also a separate workflow. Each team is staffed by adjudicators and economists.
  • IPO is working to increase capacity by cross-training personnel. Previously, adjudicators and economists had specialist roles, with economists reviewing project-related documents for I-526 and economic issues at I-829, while adjudicators looked at source of funds at I-526 and sustainment at I-829. Now economists and adjudicators are each being trained to handle a single petition from start to finish. The I-829 team is now fully-cross trained, and performing well. One of the I-526 teams is already cross-trained, and the effort will continue until all officers can individually handle any part of I-526 petition review. Ms. Harrison anticipates that this new approach will increase capacity, promote flexibility, and help IPO more nearly reach the goal of processing petitions in first-come-first-serve order.
  • Ms. Harrison described the workflow for I-526 petitions. Previously, IPO would assign all I-526 for one project to a dedicated team for that project. IPO did not intend to prioritize adjudication for big projects, but Ms. Harrison acknowledged the difficulty of keeping petitions in first-in-first-out order when they were grouped in multiple workflows by project. Today, IPO is working with a two-stage process that separates adjudication of project-specific issues from investor specific issues. For regional center projects with multiple investors, IPO waits to receive two I-526 for the project (unless exemplar approval is in place). Those two I-526 are then assigned to a an economist or cross-trained team that reviews the project portion of the petitions. This process may involve issuing an RFC (request for clarification) email or RFE asking project-specific questions. When project issues have been adjudicated, the first two I-526s are released to the general queue for all regional center petitions. Petitions in that queue get assigned to adjudicators in more-or-less first-come-first-served order for investor-specific review. New petitions for a previously-reviewed project would go directly to the adjudication queue, and the project-related aspects of those petitions shouldn’t have to be reviewed anew. A petitioner who already responded to an RFC or RFE at the project-review stage may get another RFE at the investor-review stage, however. The petitions in the adjudication queue are in order by date but may not be finished in first-in-first-out order, due to case-specific issues. (How does the strategy to combine project-specific and investor-specific issues in officer training harmonize with the strategy to separate project-specific and investor-specific issues the adjudication workflow? That question did not come up.) Time references in the recording: 10:59 – 15:15, 17:46 – 22:32, 01:19:37 – 01:22:00
  • Ms. Harrison points to posted processing times as the best estimate for when petitions filed in 2015 will be adjudicated.  (26:22) She also noted that completion rate improvement in the past few months is not yet reflected in the Processing Times report.
  • Direct EB-5 petitions have a separate queue from regional center petitions. The leader on the regional center side communicates about progress with his counterpart on the direct EB-5 side to help ensure that petitions filed at the same time are moved forward concurrently. (01:21:00)
  • IPO lacks an automated system to match an I-924 exemplar request with previously-filed I-526 petitions for the same project. (When the matching happens, it’s by means such as office-wide emails asking “has anybody done a review of this project?”) Therefore, IPO requests that exemplar requests be filed with a cover letter that identifies receipt numbers for I-526 in the same project. In case an I-526 is approved before then I-924 is adjudicated, then the I-924 should also be approved, but ideally IPO wants to have the I-924 exemplar request and any concurrent I-526 adjudicated together by one person. This raises the question of whether the first approved I-526 couldn’t itself serve as exemplar approval, with no need for the I-924, but Ms. Harrison did not answer that question. It also makes us wonder how any Exemplar ever gets matched to associated I-526, even if they are filed subsequently. Ms. Harrison did indicate that IPO welcomes help in the matching process – a cover letter on the petition indexing it to related Exemplar, or even follow-up emails to the IPO customer service mailbox providing lists of associated applications/petitions for IPO’s reference. (9:23 – 10:58, 01:27:10 – 01:28:45)
  • Currently, I-526 petitions are adjudicated more or less in first-come-first-served order by filing date, regardless of nationality. However, IPO is considering the suggestion to prioritize adjudicating petitions of countries that are not backlogged. IPO invites stakeholder feedback on this idea. (32:05 – 33:30, 01:19:37 – 01:22:04, 01:29:12)
  • I-829 adjudications are making significant progress. Julia Harrison noted that the posted processing times don’t fully reflect the improvement yet, but she’s seeing much improved completion rates.

In the 11/10 presentation, IPO Senior Advisor for Economics Jan Lyons pointed out that IPO has finally cleared a huge hurdle – the surge of applications and petitions filed in advance of the December 2015 sunset date. That surge slowed down processing not only due to volume but to the poor quality of many petitions, apparently filed in a rush. I-526 and I-924 adjudications are proceeding more quickly and smoothly going forward. Mr. Lyons pointed out three factors that affect an individual’s processing time: place in the queue, the qualify of petitions before yours, and the quality of your petition.

Bridge Financing
This issue needs its own post, so I’ll just briefly mention the points at issue: whether bridge financing to be replaced by EB-5 must be “temporary” as in “a year or less” to qualify as a bridge and establish nexus, and whether EB-5 funds must pass through the job-creating enterprise account to repay the JCE’s bridge debt. IPO’s working answers are a tentative “yes” to the duration question and firm “yes” to the path question. Jan Lyons gave thoughtful discussion in the 11/7 call at time 01:01:28 – 01:10:11 and 01:40:01 – 01:42:11, and starting at time 12:55:24 of the 11/10 conference (I’ll let you listen for the details). And he welcomes feedback from the industry. That IPO hasn’t already received solid feedback demonstrates acute industry failure. In a healthy world, IIUSA would’ve shared bridge financing RFEs with membership months ago, and appropriate people would’ve gotten together to write and submit a constructive, well-footnoted article presenting reasonable guidelines for bridge financing in EB-5. As it is, I didn’t even hear about the RFEs ‘til very recently, and there hasn’t apparently been any industry collaboration except to whine about why the RFE creates problems (while putting the burden on IPO to solve a problem that our collective experience and industry sources are competent to address). For shame. (In case you weren’t informed either, see the RFE trends presentation at this link.)

Redeployment & Material Change
I lump these topics together because IPO’s answers to questions on both issues were the same: consult written policy. IPO did not clarify ambiguities in the redeployment policy, and did not fall into the trap of contradicting the clear material change policy. People who know better keep asking at meetings whether a petitioner can change projects or change regional centers before CPR — probably because they hope someday IPO might accidentally say the “yes” we’d like to hear. But investors beware: this is not a grey area. Policy and decisions are clear that material change before conditional permanent residence will derail a petition, and that project and regional center identity are material. Changing NCEs is not an option at any time. (I have a post detailing the material change policy and applications.)  The grey area comes at the I-829 stage. IPO said they’re working on policy specific to the question of how to treat regional center changes for an I-829 petitioner. (For sure the petitioner is protected from any changes that occur after I-829 filing, but the situation before that is less clear.)

I-924A
Most answers to I-924A questions likewise boiled down to “read the instructions,” but you can re-listen to the 11/7 recording for any nuances. In the 11/10 meeting, Julia Harrison made the welcome comment that “two to three years” is not a hard and fast requirement for the time during which a regional center must sponsor a project or face termination. “We do look at the totality of the evidence you submit,” and will consider evidence that the regional center is “making progress toward a project” or at least “has something on the horizon” (2:44:00)

Policy & Regulations
Julia Harrison reports having no information to indicate that the April 2018 target date for finalizing the EB-5 regulations will not be met, though this does not depend on IPO. Her team is “always working” on the Policy Manual, but doesn’t have specifics on future updates. Lori McKenzie is no longer the Policy Division Chief, and Ms. Harrison did not mention a replacement.

Baruch College Conference
The EB-5 Conference with USCIS IPO, Hosted by the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute – Baruch College (November 10, 2017) had a number of solid presentations besides the IPO panel. Here is the list of speakers, and video of the morning session and afternoon session. (Note that you need to advance the videos three to four minutes to get to the presentations.)

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 10/2/2017 to 11/08/2017:

  • 1 America Regional Center (California)
  • AHRC PA, LLC (Pennsylvania)
  • ARE Regional Center (MA), LLC (Massachusetts)
  • American Ace Development Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • American East Coast Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • American Fortune Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • American Real Estate Growth Regional Center, LLC (California): www.aregrc.com
  • City by City EB-5 Regional Center PR USA, LLC (Puerto Rico)
  • Fairhaven Capital Advisors American Samoa Regional Center Corp. (American Samoa)
  • Florida Opportunities Regional Center LLC (Florida)
  • Genesis Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Golden Shores Regional Center (California)
  • Gulf Coast SW Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Hawaiian Opportunities Regional Center, LLC (Hawaii)
  • LA Yucaipa Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Liberty Investment Center LLC (Illinois, Wisconsin)
  • MZH Capital Partners, Inc. (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Montana Real Estate EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Montana)
  • New Sun EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Paradise City Funding Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • Pocono EB-5 Regional Center LLC (New Jersey, Pennsylvania)
  • Related California Regional Center (California): www.relatedusa.com
  • Related Chicago Metro Regional Center (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin): www.relatedusa.com
  • Related Florida Regional Center (Florida): www.relatedusa.com
  • SRC LA, LLC (California)
  • South Carolina Global Regional Center (South Carolina)
  • United Land RC LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Vegas Regional Center, LLC (California, Nevada)
  • Wealth Global Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • A List Partners Regional Center, LLC (Texas): www.alistpartners.com
  • Inkstone States Regional Center LLC (Washington): www.inkstone-capital.com
  • Noblemen Regional Center (Washington)
  • Wasatch Front Regional Center, LLC (Utah)

This regional center was listed as terminated on 8/10/017, but restored to the approved list on 11/6/2017:

  • Civitas Rio Grande Regional Center (Texas)

New Terminations:

  • Charlotte Harbor Regional Center (Florida) Terminated 10/2/2017
  • California Development Regional Center (California) Terminated 10/23/2017

Visa Numbers Update (Vietnam, India), TEA Reform Proposal, RC Audit Change

Visa Numbers Update (Vietnam, India)

We heard some updated EB-5 numbers this week from Charles Oppenheim, the Chief of the Immigrant Visa Control and Reporting within the U.S. Department of State. Bernard Wolfsdorf gives highlights from the presentation in 5 Things I Learned from Charlie Oppenheim at the IIUSA 7th Annual EB-5 Industry Forum. The major news is Mr. Oppenheim’s prediction that Vietnam will have enough demand to be subject to a cut-off date in 2018, and India may need a cut-off date by 2020. Cut-off dates happen when a visa category is oversubscribed and a country demands more than its rightful 7% of available visas in that category. A cut-off date holds back applicants from oversubscribed countries long enough to let any other applicants from undersubscribed countries get first chance at available visa numbers.  China is so far over the limit that it’s in an indefinite cut-off date situation with slow forward movement. Vietnam and India are just barely approaching the limit, and don’t have that much competition from other countries, so their cut-off dates would likely be temporary and hardly perceptible unless demand explodes.

I most appreciated the slide from the Mr. Oppenheim’s IIUSA presentation that gives a breakdown of pending applicants at the National Visa Center by country of origin (for the top five countries) and priority date. I added data from the slide to my Excel file of EB-5 backlog-related info, and correlate it with per-country I-526 receipt data from USCIS. I’m copying below a couple tables that illustrate (1) how we might forecast future cut-off-date-countries from information on I-526 receipts and approvals, and (2) that life is not fair. (Note: see below for updated tables.)

Since the IPO Processing Times report indicates that USCIS has only gotten to processing I-526 filed in November 2015, one wouldn’t expect to see applicants with 2016 and 2017 priority dates already in the visa queue. But Department of State reports nearly 2,000 applicants from the top five countries with priority dates after 2015, which means that USCIS must have processed over 600 petitions out of date order. Of course the number of pending visa applicants with priority dates 2015-2017 is still very small compared with the number of I-526 receipts in those years, so a majority of petitioners are getting held up in slow I-526 processing. I am surprised at the number of applicants with early priority dates still pending at NVC, considering that the China cut-off date progressed to mid-2014 this year (per the Visa Bulletin) and the other countries don’t have a cut-off date.

12/11/2017 UPDATE: The Department of State has provided updated numbers for pending visas in its Annual Report of Immigrant Visa Applicants in the Family-sponsored and Employment-based preferences Registered at the National Visa Center as of November 1, 2017. Here are updated charts based on the new data.

TEA Reform Proposal

Industry discussion about potential legislation has focused on the House-Judiciary Chair EB-5 Reform Proposal, a one-page term sheet with notes for potential future legislation. The term sheet proposes replacing the current Targeted Employment Area (TEA) system with a R/UD system. R/UD stands for Rural or Urban Distressed – two areas that would be incentivized for EB-5 investment with a slightly lower investment amount and fees, reduced job creation requirement, and – most potent of all – set-aside visas.

A couple major questions to consider: which projects would qualify for incentives under the R/UD proposal, and who’d be the winners and losers, were the term sheet to become legislation and then law?

  • The term sheet briefly defines Urban Distressed criteria: “must meet 2 out of 3 of the New Market Tax Credit Criteria.” The NMTC program has several sets of criteria, but we’ll assume the staffers mean the NMTC criteria for “severe distress” (since that’s the criteria referenced in previous EB-5 draft legislation): Poverty rate greater than 30 percent; median family income not exceeding 60 percent of statewide median; unemployment rates at least 1.5 times the national average. The term sheet gives this cryptic description of Rural criteria: “Base law + census tracts that would qualify under base law except for the fact that they are located in the outlying counties of MSA’s with population densities of less than 400 psm + Hatch fix.” I believe that means: Rural is an area with a population under 20,000 that is outside a Metropolitan Statistical Area (or a low population/low density area within the outskirts of an MSA). With those definitions in mind, you can get a sense of whether a project location might qualify for R/UD incentives using the CDFI Fund Mapping page provided by the US Department of the Treasury. For urban projects, select the NMTC mapping tool. When you enter the project address, the NMTC tool will bring up a map of census tracts around that address, with relevant NMTC data for poverty rate, income, and unemployment for each census tract. Check these numbers against the NMTC Severe Distress threshold, recalling that the EB-5 proposal would require 2 of 3 criteria to qualify. For rural projects, choose the BEA tool on the CDFI Fund Mapping page. This will bring up a map that lets you search by address and discover whether the address is in a non-metropolitan area, and the local area population. (To be sure of R/UD qualification, you’d need some additional guidance: whether and to what extent it’s allowable to group and average data across more and less distressed urban census tracts, what it means to be “outlying” in the rural context, and what source and date of data would be accepted. The term sheet doesn’t specify this.)
  • To judge winners and losers, we look at proposed incentives for R/UD investment. The term sheet suggests that investments in R/UD areas would be incentivized in these ways: 1,500 annual set-aside visas each for R and UD (with any unused visas rolling over from year to year in the same category), $925,000 minimum investment, reduced job creation requirement (5 indirect), option for exemplar somewhat-premium processing (one year), and exemption from an extra visa fee. Investments outside R/UD areas would have a $1,025,000 minimum investment, compete for the 6,940 annual visas remaining after set-asides, and would be subject to a visa fee of $50,000. The R/UD definitions and visa set-asides would become available on the date of enactment, affecting everyone with a visa pending at that time. The term sheet specifies that people with pending petitions and applications wouldn’t need to increase their investment amount, but they would find themselves in a line suddenly made about 40% longer by set-asides that reduce the generally available visa pool. The term sheet offers this limited relief: “For 1 year after DOE, any unused set-aside visas may be used by investors who had filed petitions pending as of DOE that meet the new definitions of R/UD.” However, I guess that few pending petitions fall in that category. This means that the #1 loser in this proposal is the past investor still waiting on conditional permanent residence. Congressional staffers don’t cry over the past investor, because they’re annoyed by the filing surges that happened in recent years (while they failed to act) and have wanted retroactivity. Self-interested RC lobbyists may also have few tears for past investors, whose money is in the bank and whose presence in the backlog represents the major drag on recruitment of new investors. A small negotiating table could see a win-win in a proposal that could discourage past applicants into clearing out the backlog and smooth the way for new rural/urban distressed investment (effectively incentivized with set-asides) and new prosperous urban investment (still competitive thanks to minor investment amount difference). Industry players who care about past investors and clients exist, and I hope their concern will signify.

Audit and Inspection Change
The page on the USCIS website that formerly explained Regional Center Compliance “Audits” and Site “Inspections” now describes Regional Center Compliance “Review” and Site “Assessments.” It’s interesting that USCIS revised the titles to sound less threatening, though the promised content of the audit/review or inspection/assessment remains almost unchanged.  The one content change I notice on the page is an additional bullet point for Regional Center Compliance Review: “Assess the effectiveness of internal controls related to the regional center’s administration, oversight, and management functions.”

EB-5 Timing Issues and Visa Wait: Process and Data

How long does it take to get an EB-5 visa? Before we look at numbers, consider this picture illustrating variables in the EB-5 process from initial application to conditional permanent residence.

The investor files an I-526 and receives a priority date, goes through I-526 adjudication, and proceeds along with family members to I-485 status adjustment (if already in the US) or consular processing (if outside the US) in order to get EB-5 visas. The system has two major constraints: USCIS capacity to process petitions, and the annual quota on EB-5 visa numbers. These constraints have produced pile-ups of pending petitions and applications, illustrated by the green bins in the picture.

We have data for many parts of this picture, such as how many people are in each of the pending bins, the historical rate of receipts and approvals and denials, and the annual visa quota. The simplest way to estimate the visa wait line (the time from priority date to green card) is to add up the pending bins and divide that number by the annual quota. As there are currently 90,000+ people associated with the pending bins, and the annual EB-5 visa quota is about 10,000, the current total waiting line is 9+ years long. (Maybe longer, depending on assumptions about the other variables). As recently as mid-2014, the line was only about three years long (as we know from the Visa Bulletin, which indicates that China-born investors with June 2014 priority dates started getting visas in May 2017).

Calculating the actual visa wait time for any given person is complicated. Where is that person in line, relative to other pending petitioners and applicants? Is that person from China (which is oversubscribed and subject to a per-country limit) or from an undersubscribed country that’s free to take the first available visas? How have/will other process variables such as per-country receipts and approval rates change over time and affect calculations?

If I were someone born outside China considering EB-5 now, I’d feel good about the per-country limit that allows me to skip ahead of most China-born applicants in line (i.e. about 87% of the line). For me, the time IPO takes to process I-526 is the major factor in my total wait time. If I were a China-born prospective investor, I’d look at everyone in line ahead of me, and also try to estimate how many queue-jumping non-Chinese may enter from behind in the time I have to wait. That calculation could add years to the potential wait time, if the number of non-Chinese investors increases dramatically in the future and IPO processing speeds up. Or future circumstances could quell new EB-5 demand, encourage existing applicants to drop out, or apply the per-country limit to other countries, improving the wait time for China-born investors who stay in the system.

All past investors should consider the significance of the visa quota constraint and the possibility that it will change. Indeed, it could change for the better. For example, if the State Department recognizes that Congress intended the 10,000 visa quota to apply to 10,000 investors, not investors plus family members, this would loosen the constraint and cut about six years from the current visa wait time. Unfortunately, quota reduction is also a live possibility. Industry lobbyists are reportedly considering legislation with visa set-asides that would reduce the generally-available annual EB-5 quota from 10,000 to 7,000. This could be disastrous for past EB-5 applicants, adding about four years to the wait time. Visa set-asides have emerged as a compromise between the Senator Grassley camp, which wants to incentivize rural/urban-distressed investment somehow, and certain regional centers, who resist an incentive based on a significant investment differential that would make their future prosperous urban projects uncompetitive.  Tying the TEA incentive to visa set-asides rather than reduced investment would allow regional centers to keep attractive terms and options for future investors. Their past investors would suffer, but that cost seems not much counted. (My impression of the current legislation discussion comes from this webinar and this article.) Of course, maybe protections for past investors will be added to the legislation, or maybe there won’t be any deal and we’ll get new regulations instead. The regulations could significantly reduce new EB-5 demand, which would hurt the industry but benefit people who stay in the current visa queue.

And now, let’s get to the numbers. I’ve expanded and improved my backlog calculation spreadsheet, which now has multiple tabs that compile all the data I can find on each variable influencing the visa wait time for an EB-5 conditional green card. Keep the spreadsheet link, as I will update it whenever new inputs become available. (For those who don’t face backlog issues, see my I-526 time calculation spreadsheet to help estimate the time between you and conditional permanent residence.)

Summary of EB-5 Visa Wait Time Variables

  1. I-526 petition variables
    • Number of petitions currently pending
    • Future petition filings
    • Number of petitions by country (how many China-born, how many born outside China)
    • Percent of petitions that will be denied or withdrawn
    • Number of family members to be associated with each petition
    • Time USCIS takes to adjudicate petitions
    • Investor’s priority date relative to others with pending petitions
    • The extent to which USCIS follows its first-in-first-out policy when adjudicating petitions
  2. Visa application variables
    • Number of I-485 adjustment of status applications for EB-5 pending at USCIS
    • Number of EB-5 visa applications pending at the National Visa Center
    • Number of pending applications by country (how many China-born, how many other)
    • Percent of applications that will be denied or withdrawn
  3. Political factors
    • Whether the rules and interpretation for the EB-5 visa quota remain unchanged
    • Whether new legislation introduces visa-set-asides that would reduce the annual visa quota generally available
    • Whether the regional center program remains authorized, and the impact of a sunset on investors in line for a visa
    • Whether new regulations or legislation include features that would change demand and/or affect past applications

Additional Reading

Direct EB-5 FAQ, White House Immigration Principles

Direct EB-5 FAQ
The regional center program dominates EB-5, but the alternate direct EB-5 track remains significant. 846 EB-5 visas went to direct EB-5 investors plus family in FY2016, and this number will likely climb as petitions from the past couple years finally reach the visa stage. Direct EB-5 can be an attractive option for foreign investors and U.S. business owners who wish to avoid the uncertainty surrounding the regional center program. About half the business plans I write these days are for direct EB-5.

There remain, however, lingering misunderstandings about how EB-5 works outside the regional center program. I’ve prepared a new page, Direct EB-5 FAQ, that addresses questions about the nature and practical uses of direct EB-5.

Test your direct EB-5 knowledge.

  1. True or False? The direct EB-5 program will sunset unless re-authorized by Congress.
  2. True or False? A direct EB-5 investor must invest at the $1 million level.
  3. True or False? Real estate developments are the most common direct EB-5 project type.
  4. True or False? A majority of direct EB-5 investors have come from China.
  5. True or False? The direct EB-5 investor must majority-own the enterprise receiving investment.
  6. True or False? The direct EB-5 investor must have day-to-day managerial responsibilities in the enterprise receiving investment.
  7. True or False? If a direct EB-5 investor buys a business, that business and its employees will qualify as new for EB-5 by virtue of the new ownership.
  8. True or False? A new commercial enterprise can use direct EB-5 capital to invest in a separate job-creating enterprise.
  9. True or False? A direct EB-5 investor can count full-time equivalent jobs created by the enterprise.

Each of these statements is false. If you were surprised, then check out the Direct EB-5 FAQ page for direct EB-5 information, policy references, and case citations.

White House Immigration Principles & Policies

Just in time for Columbus Day, President Trump has sent Congress a list of Immigration Principles & Policies that 15th-century Americans could wish they’d had. The White House principles focus on border security and interior enforcement, and repeat the idea that legal immigration should feature a skills-based points system while reducing admissions for relatives, asylum seekers, and refugees. We shall see how Congress reacts to this guidance from the White House. The White House principles look positive for immigrant investment, but the points system would be fatal (at least in the scenario proposed by Tom Cotton, which would eliminate EB-5 and would not allow immigrant investment to support US entrepreneurs, but only immigrant-controlled business).

In the meantime, in honor of voyagers who continue to build our great nation as they bridge continents and pursue their dreams in face of doubt and adversity, I will quote the first paragraph of President Trump’s Columbus Day proclamation.

Five hundred and twenty-five years ago, Christopher Columbus completed an ambitious and daring voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.  The voyage was a remarkable and then-unparalleled feat that helped launch the age of exploration and discovery.  The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation.  Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions — even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.

Washington Updates, Articles, SEC Actions, RC List Changes

Washington Updates
We’re entering FY2018 with another RC program sunset date coming up on December 8, 2017, and new EB-5 regulations waiting for final clearance by the Office of Management and Budget. In a September 28 podcast with Mona Shah, Peter Joseph of IIUSA reports that “Congressional leadership including Senator Cornyn, Majority Leader McConnell, and Speaker Ryan has spent time working with judiciary committee leadership in coming to an agreement. The fact that these parties continue to dedicate time to a legislative solution is a very good sign.” However, “We don’t know the details of what might come out of a Congressional agreement. Investment amounts and other key issues are part of a fluid conversation, and negotiation will continue until there is enough agreement to move to the next stage.” I’m glad to hear that conversations are on-going, with IIUSA taking an active part. I’m also inclined to agree with Mintz Levin’s conclusions in the thoughtful article Lawmakers May Not Spend Political Capital on Standalone EB-5 Bill (September 28, 2017). It’s hard to imagine that Congress will prioritize EB-5 legislation when issues like health care and tax reform are pending, and easy to imagine them deferring responsibility with another content-free short-term RC program extension, or waiting for regulations. If DHS finalizes new EB-5 regulations before Congress gets around to legislation, then Congress doesn’t have to touch donation-losing issues like investment amount increases and TEA reform. Congress must act eventually, because only Congress can authorize the RC program and deal with visa numbers, but we’ll see. Prior to the last couple sunsets I heard whispers that certain lobbyists had secured a gentleman’s agreement with staffers for new legislation that would protect the status quo. (Senator Grassley heard the whispers too, and was not pleased). I’m hearing similar reports this time around, together with protests from other people in communication with the same offices who say no, Congressional leadership is not on board with the status quo proposals (to minimize the investment differential, protect the natural advantage of big-city projects, and generally avoid painful disruption). I’m not sure what to expect. I look forward to listening in to EB-5 Legislation: Where Are We? a free webinar to be hosted on October 4 by Kurt Reuss of EB5 Diligence, with an all-star cast including Stephen Yale-Loehr, Robert Divine, Robert Cornish, Laura Reiff, H. Ronald Klasko, Carolyn Lee, and Douglas Hauer. (10/12 Update: Mona Shah reports on a possible new legislative compromise.)

Interesting Articles

  • NES Financial has published another white paper with EB-5 Trends & Insights based on data from the many regional center transactions they facilitate. NES comments on 2017 trends in EB-5 capital structure, investor markets, escrow terms, and size and location of EB-5 projects.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek recently featured EB-5 in How Rich Chinese Use Visa Fixers to Move to the U.S. (September 14, 2017). I appreciate the article for its clever graphic, and for its old-fashioned vision of Chinese flocking to the smooth path of EB-5, not sweating at home over backlog calculations and the question of whether an EB-5 green card is worth a decade wait on top of investment risk and political uncertainty and capital control complications. CNN Money seems closer to the current situation with its article America’s ‘golden visa’ is losing its luster in China (September 29, 2017). The changing role of Chinese investors in EB-5 will likely define our experience in 2018. Unless, of course, we get good news on legislation and visa numbers.
  • Those involved with EB-5 investors from Iran, and people of conscience generally, will want to keep an eye on the emerging situation with President Trump’s new Presidential Proclamation on Visas. The State Department summarizes the revised travel ban, and how it affects nationals of Chad (?), Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, and Somalia. (10/24 update: the Supreme Court has dismissed a final attempt to block the ban.)

SEC Actions
The Securities and Exchange Commission continues to highlight the need for investor vigilance. This month brought two new complaints, against Ronald Van Den Heuvel and Green Box NA Detroit (filed September 19, 2017) and Edward and Jean Chen and Home Paradise Investment Center LLC (filed September 20, 2017). I’ve added select details to my log of all SEC actions in EB-5. If we believe the SEC’s version of events, these cases did not involve complex or sophisticated schemes, just daylight theft and open lies enabled by related-party transactions and weak diligence. USCIS wasn’t necessarily taken in (the briefly-posted list of I-526 and I-829 adjudications by RC showed 0 petition approvals for Home Paradise), but quite a few investors were. The market needs to be more careful. The good actors who account for a majority of EB-5 players need to go the extra mile with transparency and account controls to demonstrate their good faith. Meanwhile, we appreciate the SEC putting bad actors on notice that EB-5 is not a free lunch.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 8/28/2017 to 10/02/2017

  • American Real Estate Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • American Stone Energy EB5, LLC (Texas)
  • Broadway Regional Center, LLC (California)

(Additionally Live in America – Carolinas Regional Center LLC, previously removed in error, has been restored to the list of approved regional centers)

New Terminations

  • California Blue Sky Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated August 29, 2017
  • Arundel Capital Partners (Massachusetts) Terminated August 29, 2017
  • California Economic Development Fund, LLC (California) Terminated September 25, 2017
  • Global Medical Center of Southern California (California) Terminated September 25, 2017

Q3 2017 EB-5 Petition Processing Data

The USCIS Immigration and Citizenship Data page has been updated with data from FY2017 Q3 (April to June 2017) for petitions including I-526 and I-829.

In the third quarter we see IPO making wonderful improvement to I-829 processing volume (likely thanks to the new I-829 team announced in March). Meanwhile, I-526 processing fell another step back (possibly due to resources diverted to I-829). We see another pre-sunset-date filing surge, though less dramatic than previous surges. The total number of pending EB-5 petitions increased again in Q3.

Here’s a bonus chart for people involved in advocacy. Notice how I-526 receipt numbers reflect the destabilizing effect of frequent regional center program sunset dates, with each threatened sunset preceded by a surge of EB-5 investors rushing to file. Notice also how much EB-5 demand has exceeded the EB-5 visa quota as currently interpreted. If about 10,000 EB-5 visas need to be divided by four quarters and three visas per investor, then the program can only afford about 800 new I-526 per quarter on average before facing a backlog situation. If Congress intended to accommodate 10,000 EB-5 investments annually, then an average of 2,500 investor I-526 per quarter would sustainable — and reasonable considering actual demonstrated demand.

EB-5 investors watching processing times should also keep the I-526 receipts chart in mind. IPO has spent a whole year processing I-526 petitions filed from July to December 2015, and is still stuck on November 22, 2015 as of the last two IPO processing time reports. But that’s no wonder considering the huge number of petitions filed July-December 2015. Once IPO finishes that mouthful, dates should advance quickly through the next two relatively light quarters.

For China-born investors trying to figure out what the I-526 numbers mean for the visa backlog, here are bonus charts with historical approvals and receipts by country in recent years. These numbers can help you guess how many non-China investors are among the currently-reported pending I-526 petitions, and how many of recent approvals went to non-China investors. (In other words, guess how many people will get priority in the visa queue.) I summarized these numbers from a complete dataset of I-526 receipts, approvals, and denials by country for every year since 1991 — a dataset you can purchase from IIUSA for the full detail. (For whatever reason these figures released in response to FOIA request don’t exactly match the totals published on the USCIS website, but still  meaningful I think.)  (For more detail, download my spreadsheets on statistics related to the visa backlog, and statistics related to I-526 processing times.)

 

11/7 EB-5 Engagement Invite

EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program: Stakeholder Engagement from New York City
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) invites you to participate in a stakeholder engagement on Tuesday, November 7, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern to discuss the Immigrant Investor Program, also known as the EB-5 program.

RC reauthorization to 12/8/2017, I-924A tips, SEC request denied (Kameli)

Regional Center Program Reauthorization

The EB-5 Regional Center Program authorization is now extended to December 8, 2017 thanks to H.R.601, which the President signed into law yesterday. Washington worked with admirable dispatch this time, cutting and finalizing the deal all within one week and nearly a month ahead of the September 30th deadline.

The law is hard to read, but for those who like to confirm things personally here’s the relevant language for regional center program extension. H.R. 601 “Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018 and Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act, 2017”  Division D Section 101 (PDF page 11) provides appropriations for “continuing projects or activities…for which appropriations, funds, or other authority were made available in the following appropriations Acts: … (6) The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2017 (division F of Public Law 115–31), except section 310.” The previous regional center program authorization is in Public Law 115-31 Division F Section 542 (PDF page 298), so it’s one of the continuing activities that’s extended by H.R. 601 Division D Section 101. (And to go back another step, the language in PL 115-31(F)542 refers back to Section 610(b) of the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1993 (Public Law 102-395) page 47, which established the regional center program.) H.R. 601 Division D Section 106 (PDF page 13) further specifies that:

Unless otherwise provided for in this Act or in the applicable appropriations Act for fiscal year 2018, appropriations and funds made available and authority granted pursuant to this Act shall be available until whichever of the following first occurs:
(1) the enactment into law of an appropriation for any project or activity provided for in this Act;
(2) the enactment into law of the applicable appropriations Act for fiscal year 2018 without any provision for such project or activity; or
(3) December 8, 2017.

The language in Section 106 is a good reminder that “extended to December 8” doesn’t mean “guaranteed to remain unchanged until December 8.” Congress will reportedly turn its attention to immigration issues in the next couple months, and they could come up with legislation before December that affects multiple visa categories including EB-5.

I-924A Filing Tips
I’m not sure what changed, since I don’t work directly with I-924A, but yesterday USCIS published a new version of the Form I-924A Filing Tips page.

SEC Request Denied (Kameli)
When the SEC files a complaint, it’s easy for the public to just assume that the defendant is guilty as charged and there won’t be any more to the story but determining punishment. Even worse, USCIS tends to assume this and has been known to deny and revoke investor petitions and terminate regional centers before the SEC cases are concluded. We all need to remember that sometimes the defendant might have a compelling other side of the story, and might not be found guilty. The district court judge overseeing a recent EB-5 case filed by the SEC just found that the SEC “in numerous instances has not presented fully developed arguments to show why defendants’ actions violated securities laws.” The judge’s memorandum opinion, which considers the defendants’ side of the story, is linked at the end of the article Senior living developer avoids EB-5 ban, receivership (September 7, 2017). For the SEC’s version of events see SEC v. Seyed Taher Kameli, et al., Civil Action No. 17-cv-04686 (June 22, 2017). The article SEC Suffers One of its First Major Losses in EB-5 Realm (September 12, 2017) summarizes the issues.

Redeployment, Reauthorization, I-485, AAO Decisions, RC List Changes

Redeployment
Julia Harrison’s published statement for the July 19 engagement in San Jose has been updated with cautious answers to two important questions about how redeployment policy applies to pending I-526 petitions. Specifically, whether adding redeployment language to filed documents would constitute material change, and what process and documents are required if redeployment occurs while I-526 is pending. The answers aren’t direct and substantial enough to provide comforting guidance, but on the other hand they’re so open-ended as to potentially offer a lot of flexibility for compliance. I’ll let you consult the link to read for yourself. You needn’t return to my recording to check whether these topics were discussed in more detail in person on July 19, because they were not. Maybe these redeployment questions came up in follow-up emails to the Public Engagement mailbox, and now kindly being shared with everyone. Though it’s lucky I’m so vigilant, or we might never have noticed that the USCIS website replaced one version of the July 19 talking points with another.

Speaking of redeployment, here’s another helpful article. Fiduciary Duties of General Partners and Managers in Connection with Redeployment of EB-5 Capital (August 28, 2017) By Catherine DeBono Holmes

EB-5 Engagements
USCIS posted an official recording of the 8/24 I-924A webinar very promptly, and also sent a “Save the Date” announcement. “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will hold the next EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program national stakeholder engagement on Tuesday, November 7, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern. This event will take place at the USCIS New York City Field Office with in-person and telephone participation and the option to submit questions in advance. We will send an invitation with more details in the coming weeks.”

Reauthorization
The next sunset date for the Regional Center Program comes in just a few days, on September 30. Since dropping or substantially extending the RC program would require attention and discussion, and no one seems to have time or interest for that, I’m guessing we’re in for another series of uncomfortable and inconclusive short extensions with spending bills, as in 2015 and 2016. (9/8 update: the Regional Center Program is now extended as part of a Continuing Resolution to December 8, 2017.)

EB-5 has an awkward position, politically. When the right likes investment but is queasy about immigrants, and the left is just the opposite, what’s the future of immigrant investment? EB-5 is a visa category that demonstrably creates rather than takes U.S. jobs, supports U.S. business development and American products, and brings in a small number of legal immigrants likely to generate a lot of tax dollars and not strain the welfare system. That should make it a favorite visa category, especially for economic nationalists. But a Congressman who’s actively working against the immigration prospects of US-raised kids and overseas grandmas is already getting some flack, and may hear criticism from all sides if he’s seen to simultaneously support wealth-related immigration. On the other hand, people concerned to protect visa opportunities get more political credit for focusing on kids and grandmothers and tech talent than on a small category of legal immigrants associated in the press with luxury real estate. So far as I know, no one in Congress has been interested enough in EB-5 recently to even criticize it, must less speak in support of it. The Senate Judiciary Committee is reportedly about to hold a hearing on immigrant visas, but EB-5 probably won’t be on the agenda. The hearing is designed to scrutinize visas that conflict with the administration’s “Buy American Hire American” policy, and EB-5 doesn’t conflict with that policy. Since EB-5 isn’t in the cross hairs, it may not even be on the radar. But I’ll keep looking for news, and please tell me if you have insights into what’s likely to happen between now and December. Maybe USCIS’s threat to possibly finalize EB-5 regulations by 4/00/2018 will incentivize lobbyists to push for substantial EB-5 legislation sooner rather than later, but we’ll see. A lot of good EB-5 projects and good faith investors depend on smooth seas ahead.

I-485 Interviews
Immigrants who apply for an EB-5 visa through the adjustment of status (I-485) rather than consular process should note the announcement that USCIS to Expand In-Person Interview Requirements for Certain Permanent Residency Applicants (August 28, 2017). These interviews are designed to provide USCIS officers with the opportunity to verify the information provided in an individual’s application, to discover new information that may be relevant to the adjudication process, and to determine the credibility of the individual seeking permanent residence in the United States. Miller Mayer comments on practical implications.

AAO Decisions (geography, material change, RC termination)
The 2017 folder of AAO decisions on I-526 appeals has already posted 177 decisions – or 26 decisions, if we exclude near duplicates (different petitioners, same decision). I read all the decisions and keep a log of points that are significant to my work with EB-5 business plans. A few comments on decisions that interested me.

  • JAN132017_03B7203 (Matter of WX) and AUG152017_01B7203 (Matter of SL) deal with the same business model: a proposal to open and operate three franchise hair salons, of which the first two have identified TEA locations and the third is a plan for the future, with location to be determined. The AAO decisions confirm what I’ve always said: that only the identified locations can be considered for the total EB-5 investment and employment eligibility requirements. A petition can’t depend on applying TEA investment to a prospective location, since the TEA status of that unidentified location can’t be determined at the time of investment or filing.
  • AUG152017_01B7203 (Matter of SL) has the additional wrinkle that the salons funded by qualifying investment had already gone out of business (after having operated 1.5 years) by the time USCIS got around to adjudicating SL’s I-526 petition. SL expressed her intention to make additional investment and resume operations in the same locations. Interestingly, AAO did not say that such a situation would automatically lead to denial or the need to file a new I-526 petition. AAO challenged the practical feasibility of restarting the business (based on minute analysis of the business plan), but does not challenge the very idea of funding a new business after the previously-funded business failed. The decision implies that business failure and need for new investment would not be, in themselves, a material change. The decision specifically states that opening new salons in the same TEA with different management and different staffing plan is not a material change.
  • JUN302017_01B7203 (Matter of WL) gives another rare example of a change NOT found to be material. WL filed Form I-526 with a business plan that anticipated that the NCE would provide shuttle and tour services, with auto accessories sale as a sideline (about 10% of business). A site visit subsequently found little evidence of shuttle/tour service, and auto accessories sale accounting for far more than 10% of the business. But AAO judged that “Merely shifting the percentages of the types of services the Petitioner said the NCE would offer is not, by itself, a sufficient basis to deny the petition.”
  • APR262017_02B7203 (Matter of YL) and JUL062017_01B7203 (Matter of YY) identify material changes and explain what makes the changes material. In Matter of YL, a change in business focus and location are judged to be “predictably capable of affecting” and “have a tendency to influence” determinations of whether the Petitioner invested at the required capital investment threshold and will prospectively create the requisite qualifying jobs. In Matter of YL, the petitioner filed a series of plans for different types of food service business. AAO judged that in this case “The NCE’s business plans two and three constitute a material change to the original one because they represent far more than a change in food styles. …In addition to the type of food, business plans two and three include changes to the NCE’s nature of business, services offered, location, start-up costs, and staffing needs. These changes are material and are made to correct a deficiency in the original submission.”  (By the way I add these examples as they come to my master post on material change.)
  • JUN222017_01B7203 (Matter of LPT) shows how real-life business development after I-526 can help the petitioner, so long as it’s successful. USCIS questioned the reasonableness and credibility of LPT’s business plan, and LPT responded not by revisiting the projections but by documenting actual successful business performance since I-526 filing. On the other hand, JUN132017_01B7203 (Matter of MYA) explains why disastrous developments after I-526 filing (in this case, the Palm House Hotel woes) justify judging the original business plan not credible in hindsight.
  • APR182017_01B7203 is good reading for anyone intending to set up a direct EB-5 investment with elements of a debt model, such as preferred return.
  • The cases from JUL192017_01B7203 to JUL282017_11B7203 are denials of appeals or motions to reopen/reconsider filed by Path America investors whose petitions were denied or revoked following the termination of Path America Regional Center. All are nearly identical to one or the other of the linked decisions, and dismiss the petitioners’ attempts to claim some due process protection.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 8/23/2017 to 8/28/2017

  • Guardian Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • NationSure, LLC (New York)
  • State of Maine EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Maine)

New Terminations

  • Live in America – Georgia Regional Center LLC (Georgia) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Boston Regional Center LLC (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Florida, LLC (Florida) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Nevada Regional Center, LLC (Nevada) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Louisiana Regional Center, LLC (Louisiana) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – U.S. Virgin Islands Regional Center LLC (U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Arizona Regional Center, LLC (Arizona) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Indiana, Michigan, Ohio Regional Center (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America Chicago Regional Center, LLC (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Midwest Regional Center, LLC (Minnesota, Wisconsin) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • SoCal Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/18/2017

I-924A webinar, EB-5 regs, Articles, RC list changes

I-924A Webinar

Today USCIS held a webinar to discuss the latest version of Form I-924A, Annual Certification of Regional Center. USCIS has linked an official recording to the webinar page. (I previously posted a folder with my recording.)

The webinar was technical and specifically focused on Form I-924A — what’s new in the December 23, 2016 version of the form, and how to complete it. A couple points of general interest came out in the presentation.

  • The presenter highlighted the expanded definition of regional center “principal” in the new I-924A and additional information requested about principals. The presenter confirmed that the IPO Compliance Division plans to use this information to conduct background checks of everyone in a position to control, influence, or direct the management or policies of the regional center, and that the results of such background checks are material to the regional center’s ongoing designation.
  • USCIS instructed that petitions that were withdrawn should be reported as “denied” on I-924A. This categorization could explain the petition approval and denial statistics published last month by USCIS, which reported a surprisingly high number of denied petitions. A caller encouraged USCIS to consider recording withdrawn and denied petitions as separate categories, and the call presenters said they’d consider the suggestion. The presenters also indicated that regional centers can add a note to I-924A explaining how many of the “denied” petitions were in fact denied, and how many withdrawn.

EB-5 Regulations

The Semiannual Regulatory Agenda published today by DHS lists regulation 1615-AC07 (the EB-5 regulation concerning TEAs and investment amount increases) as being in the “Final Rule” stage. The timetable on the rule’s summary page gives an estimated date of 04/00/2018 for Final Action. I’m not sure how seriously to take the agenda or the date estimate.

Articles

Developer FAQ: Jim Butler of JMBM Global Hospitality Group has put together a booklet titled The Developer’s EB-5 Handbook for EB-5 Construction Financing. Although targeted to hotel developers, this free booklet provides experienced answers to a range of practical questions common to businesses as they first consider EB-5 financing.

Large-Scale EB-5 Real Etate Projects: Gary Friedland and Jeanne Calderon of the NYU Stern Center for Real Estate Finance Research have released a new paper featuring a database of large-scale real estate projects that incorporate EB-5 into the capital stack. See EB-5 Projects Database: 2017 Supplement with Trends and Observations (August 16, 2017 Draft).  This 2017 database collects publicly-available information on 26 projects in major metro areas with current/recent EB-5 raises. The authors previously published a 2016 database with 27 projects and a 2015 database with 25 projects.  These large-scale projects are significant for the industry because they target such a large number of investors. The 26 projects in Friedland & Calderon’s 2017 database aim to attract 6,736 EB-5 investors, which means that they alone could use up over two years of available EB-5 visas. Megaprojects take a large piece of a small pie, are too big to fail, can offer attractive and well-managed investment opportunities, and present a public relations challenge. A high-profile luxury development in a Tier 1 city is not typical of the EB-5 program overall, but it is typical of the few projects that seek and find hundreds of EB-5 investors.

Vermont: Speaking of too-big-to-fail, I continue to follow the efforts of Vermont Regional Center to clean up from fraud charges against a couple of its project managers. The regional center has worked hard to recover from the disaster and (at least recently) to protect and compensate investors, but now faces having to respond to a NOIT from USCIS. A Notice of Intent to Terminate is not the same as a termination notice (the RC has a chance to respond to a NOIT, and not all NOITs are followed by termination), but it is a significant development. This news story discusses the whole situation, and this story gives detail of NOIT content. “What level of oversight are regional centers responsible to provide?” is a grey area question in EB-5, and a question that USCIS addresses in its assessment of Vermont Regional Center.

Regional Center List Updates

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 08/01/2017 to 8/23/2017

  • Liberty Regional Investment Center (Georgia)
  • Nevada First National Regional Center, LLC (Arizona, Nevada)
  • Pass2NY Regional Center, LLC (New York)
  • USA New York Liberty EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)

New Terminations

  • IZON, LLC (South Carolina) Terminated 8/17/2017
  • America’s Regional Center, LLC (Florida) Terminated 8/15/2017
  • First American Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/14/2017
  • Civitas Rio Grande Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 8/10/2017
  • Illinois Valley Regional Center (Illinois) Terminated 8/10/2017
  • Southern California Investment Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/10/2017
  • Powerdyne Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/2/2017