Regulations update (Fall 2018)

The Fall 2018 OMB Unified Agenda has been published with updated timetables for two EB-5 regulations in progress, and notice of a third EB-5 regulation to come.

  • RIN1615-AC07 EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program Modernization, with proposed changes to TEAs and the minimum investment amount:
    • Timetable for Final Rule updated to November 2018 (The Spring 2018 agenda had anticipated August 2018)
  • RIN 1615-AC11  Regional Center Program Regulation, with proposed changes to regional center designation requirements and process:
    • Timetable for Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is still March 2019 (same as in the Spring 2018 agenda)
  • RIN 1615-AC26 EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program Realignment, which “will solicit public input on proposals that would increase monitoring and oversight, encourage investment in rural areas, redefine components of the job creation requirement, and define conditions for regional center designations and operations”
    • Timetable for Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking announced for September 2019

We’re most concerned about RIN 1615-AC07, since that’s the one at the Final Rule stage. If it does actually become a Final Rule next month, then it could potentially take effect before the end of the year. (I understand that the effective date for a Final Rule is usually at least 30 days after its finalized.) We won’t know the content of the Final Rule until it’s published, but here, as a reminder, is a summary of what the draft rule 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.

When DHS opened the draft for comment in 2017, the industry told DHS how disastrous some of the proposals could be as written. We’ll see whether DHS listened and revised the draft. (My May 2017 post New EB-5 Regulations: Comments Discussion reviews the industry response.)

It remains to be seen whether the Fall 2018 Unified Agenda action dates will be more reliable than previous deadlines. I believe that RIN 1615-AC07 is still at at Step 7 in the Rulemaking Process, since I haven’t yet seen it listed by the OMB as a Regulatory Action Currently Under Review for Department of Homeland Security. But we may really see action this time, after DHS missed the previously-predicted deadlines of February 2018 and August 2018. USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna testified at the June 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on EB-5 regarding the regulations that “USCIS is currently reviewing the comments and moving forward in the regulatory process with both of these items as expeditiously as possible.”

As for the third new regulation, with an Advance Notice foreseen for a year from now, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The vague and sweeping precis and long lead time makes me suspect that DHS itself does not know yet what will go into this regulation. To the extent that its promised content overlaps with the content of the two regulations already on the table, it seems to question and undermine those regs. (AC07 already proposes to modify TEAs and AC11 is already about conditions for regional center designation. Why would AC26 propose to cover the same areas, unless judging those other regs faulty? We agree that those regs are faulty, at least in draft form, but then why are they still going forward, with vague promise of future compensation? Is this about conflict among current/former policy staff at IPO and Office of Policy and Strategy?) AC26 apparently takes for granted that Congress will never act on EB-5, as it covers policy changes previously expected Congress. It also takes for granted that EB-5 will be a robust market to oversee into 2019 and beyond.

FY17 per-country I-526 data, SEC action (registration)

Per-Country I-526 Data
IIUSA has received another year of per-country data for I-526 filings through the Freedom of Information Act process, and prepared a report for IIUSA members. Being ambivalent about freedom of information, IIUSA has decided to share this much with the public.
The full FOIA data set for I-526 filings, approvals, and denials FY2016-FY2017 is being sold for $1,500 (discounted to $300 for IIUSA members).

People who seek EB-5 investors will be interested to note shifts in the top six countries for EB-5 demand. Data on I-526 filings gives a better demand indicator than visas issued, since visas are usually issued 2+ years after the investment.

Past Chinese investors will note with concern the rising number of I-526 filings from other countries that aren’t oversubscribed. But Chinese can also take heart that increased demand in FY16/17 was concentrated in two countries that have (Vietnam) or will (India) exceed their cap and receive a demand-dampening cut-off date since FY2017. Only applicants from undersubscribed countries with no cut-off date can advance ahead of Chinese in the visa waiting line.

Indians will appreciate the clue to future EB-5 visa demand and wait time. Table 1 shows that Indians filed 354+587=941 I-526 from FY16 to FY17. Let’s say 941 I-526 filed * 85% I-526 approval rate * 2.9 visas per I-526 approval = 2,320 visas demanded. (I’m using historical worldwide averages as variables for this estimate, though I guess Indian approval rates may be lower and family size higher than the China-dominated average.**) About 2,320 EB-5 visas demanded by Indians * 1 year/696 EB-5 visas available to India = about 3.3 years to issue the EB-5 visas demanded by India in FY16 and FY17. 3.3 years/2 years = 1.6 more demand than supply = backlog coming. Processing time information indicates that USCIS is only just now approving I-526 from 2016, so many of those I-526 filers haven’t reached the visas application stage yet. When they do, they’ll exceed the per-country cap and lead to a visa bulletin cut-off date for India. When that will happen depends on USCIS’s speed in adjudicating I-526. The length of the visa wait time will vary for people with different priority dates. If only we had FY2018 data as well! Charlie Oppenheim at Department of State probably has these numbers, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say at the AILA/IIUSA EB-5 Industry Forum in a few weeks. I also look forward to USCIS finally publishing FY2018 Q3 data for worldwide EB-5 petitions filings (which they’re very late in doing). Because good business decisions depend on information, I continue to update and share my spreadsheet of available data related to EB-5 visa availability.

**UPDATE: I’ve since realized that DOS publishes a report of Monthly Immigrant Visa Issuances that contradicts my assumption about family size. I logged the monthly reports of EB-5 visas issued to Indians and Vietnamese so far in FY2018 (See Tab 2 Column AS of my backlog spreadsheet), with this result:

  • India: 347 EB-5 visas issued Oct 2017-August 2018, of which 130 were to principal applicants (average 2.67 visas per principal)
  • Vietnam: 658 EB-5 visas issued Oct 2017-August 2018, of which 171 were to principal applicants (average 3.85 visas per principal)

SEC Action on Unregistered Sales of Securities
The SEC has set a gentle example to the EB-5 community in a recent enforcement action. The SEC targeted EB-5 giant CMB Export for violations of registration requirements and improper transaction-based compensation until 2015, and settled for $11.6 million in penalties (not much, considering the amount of investor funds involved) and compliments to CMB’s compliance efforts since 2015. In its press release, the SEC emphasizes the intended moral of the story: “All securities, including EB-5 securities, must comply with registration provisions, which are essential to protecting investors. In the EB-5 industry, strong compliance policies can help ensure that companies meet their registration obligations under the federal securities laws.” Other regional centers will be interested to read the SEC Order and consider their own past and future policies. Note that previous actions have made an issue of transaction-based compensation to unregistered broker-dealers, but this is the first SEC action to target offering partnership interests without first registering the offering, or having a valid exemption from registration.

RC program authorization (12/7/2018)

FY2018 is ending with a Continuing Resolution that defers the deadline for unmade decisions about government funding and programs, including the regional center program, to December 7, 2018. (The relevant language from H.R. 6157 is on my Washington Updates page.) The history of regional center program authorization since 1992 now looks like this.

The Continuing Resolution means that the regional center program remains authorized as-is until December 7, 2018, or until the enactment of a new law that reauthorizes or excludes the regional center program going forward. We can’t expect more legislation until mid November at earliest, however, since the House has gone on recess as of September 28 and will not reconvene until November 13.

Meanwhile, EB-5 regulations have still not proceeded to the OMB review stage.

I speculate that Washington will persevere in ignoring and avoiding EB-5 because immigrant investment presents an inconvenient reminder that immigrants can bring a wealth of resources – even hard-to-deny resources such as dollars, economic growth, and job creation. There’s a will to brand immigrants as dangerous takers, and EB-5 investors contradict that image. Unfortunately, the EB-5 program still suffers – ignored by the right, and castigated by the left for being ignored even as new policies particularly harass materially-poor immigrants. Recent op-eds are unfortunately wrong in claiming that the Trump administration has made more EB-5 visas available. (In fact there’s been increased demand but no visa supply increase, resulting in backlogs that make EB-5 a slow track.) It’s hard to imagine any EB-5 relief in current political conditions. Perhaps the strategy pioneered at our southern border can be applied to EB-5, only instead of keeping children while deporting the parents, we keep the billions of dollars in EB-5 investment while fostering indefinite delays to issuing visas to the investors.  Or maybe, we’ll wake up one day and remember who we are and why it’s a good idea to open the door to the many forms of wealth represented by immigrants.  In the meantime, IIUSA at least has not given up and has filed an Amicus Brief in Support of Visa Backlog Litigation.

(For those interested in the new policies related to inadmissibility, see the June 2018 Policy Memo on inadmissible and deportable aliens, an ANPRM on proposed changes to the public charge ground of inadmissibility, and notes from a 9/27 stakeholder meeting on the June policy memo. The EB5 Insights blog discusses implications for EB-5 investors, and Wolfsdorf critiques the policy.)

Preparing to file I-924A Annual Certification

It appears that a Continuing Resolution will extend regional center program authorization at least into December 2018. (I add detail and updates as available to my Washington Updates page.) Assuming business as usual, regional centers should think about preparing to file the Form I-924A annual report. Regional centers use Form I-924A to demonstrate continued eligibility for regional center designation. Regional centers that remain designated for participation in the program as of September 30 of a given year must submit Form I-924A with the required supporting documentation on or before December 29 of that same year.

FILING INSTRUCTIONS

Here are links to official information, instructions, and tips from USCIS:

CHOOSING TO TERMINATE

If a regional center does not file I-924A, or files I-924A that does not demonstrate eligibility for continued designation, then USCIS will respond with a Notice of Intent to Terminate, and eventually terminate the designation. The regulations at 8 CFR 204.6(m)(6)(vi) also offer a relatively tidy alternative for regional centers who do not wish to stay designated: “A regional center may elect to withdraw from the program and request a termination of the regional center designation. The regional center must notify USCIS of such election in the form of a letter or as otherwise requested by USCIS. USCIS will notify the regional center of its decision regarding the withdrawal request in writing.”

The active method (formal withdrawal request) and passive method (just don’t file I-924A) have the same outcome: termination of regional center designation. The active method has the advantage, for what it’s worth, of getting a relatively nice letter back from USCIS. (Representative letters for comparison:  termination based on withdrawal, and termination for failure to file I-924A.)  The word “fail” appears eight times in the no-I-924A termination letter, and not at all in the withdrawal termination letter. Only the withdrawal termination letter template points out that “the withdrawal and termination do not preclude the filing of a new regional center application” and  “the facts and circumstances of the prior designation, withdrawal, and termination may still be considered in the adjudication of future regional center applications.”

PRACTICAL ADVICE

The instructions and tips from USCIS (linked in the first section above) are quite practical and detailed, so do read those carefully. The following section has a few additional lessons derived from my reading of the 207 regional center termination letters posted so far by USCIS. (I also maintain and share an ongoing log of all terminations and associated letters – another bit of generous work for which I am not much thanked.)

Avoidable reasons that regional centers have been terminated despite filing I-924A

  • The I-924A was filed using the wrong edition of the form, to the wrong address, or missing the proper fee
  • The I-924A got lost, and the RC could not show proof of mailing to prove that this loss wasn’t its fault
  • The I-924A was not properly filed until after December 29

I-924A issues for active Regional Centers

  • If the regional center has experienced any changes for which an amendment is required (such as changes in name, ownership, or structure), file the I-924 amendment before filing I-924A.
  • Strive for clear consistency between the info provided in I-924A and the info reflected in the record of past filings, including past I-924A, I-924, and investor petitions. (I’ve seen multiple decisions that indicate that USCIS is cross-referencing I-924A with other filings, suspiciously watchful for any apparent inconsistencies. Of course projects and numbers change over time, but USCIS tends to see changes as aberrations and discrepancies that need explanation.)
  • Double-check that the regional center entity is still active in good standing, and with an active business license. Remind USCIS with which Secretary of State and municipality the regional center is registered, so USCIS doesn’t check in the wrong place.
  • Double-check the Regional Center website for any problematic material (such as images of the USCIS logo, any language that smells like a visa guarantee, or any apparent inconsistencies with the regional center information – e.g. name, ownership, managers – officially reported to USCIS)
  • Google the regional center name and project names, see if any negative media stories appear, and consider preemptively explaining those stories as part of the I-924A

I-924A issues for Regional Centers with no EB-5 investment yet

  • A regional center on its third year since initial designation with no EB-5 investment is in line for termination for failure to promote economic growth, unless it makes a compelling counterargument. (That three-year metric is not published anywhere, but evident in termination letters. USCIS takes 2-3 years just to adjudicate the application for initial designation – enough time in limbo for the RC to lose its originally-contemplated projects and partners – and then gives the RC only 2-3 years to start again from scratch before termination. Quite unreasonable, but the current practice.)
  • A compelling counter-argument requires project evidence. In termination letters, USCIS does not admit to being impressed by evidence of marketing and promotional activities for the regional center, by due diligence on potential projects, or by general industry involvement. USCIS most wants to see evidence of projects imminently likely to use EB-5 investment. They seem to want to see project evidence related to timing (such as registrations, licenses, permits) and evidence related to firm commitment to do the project and include the regional center and EB-5 investment (such as signed term sheets, signed purchase agreements, loan commitments). The goal is to avoid USCIS deciding that “the evidence submitted relate only to potential projects and future aspiration goals” and “thus these projects are not relevant examples of the regional center’s ability to continue to promote economic growth” (to quote language repeated in multiple termination letters).  USCIS seems particularly fixated on the idea of “binding contractual obligation” and to particularly like finalized contracts and signed term sheets as evidence. (Again this advanced-project evidence demand is hardly reasonable – calling for status and commitments not consistent with the fact that USCIS will likely delay projects with years-long I-526 processing times. But the injustice has yet to be recognized.) There’s some evidence that having filed an amendment (especially one with I-526 exemplar request) can help support the activity argument, in lieu of being able to report filed investor petitions.
  • These regional center termination letters discuss specific examples of project evidence provided to USCIS with Form I-924A, and why USCIS did not think the evidence of activity made for a compelling economic growth argument.

FORM I-924A REVISIONS

If you’d like to advise USCIS about how to make the next edition of Form I-924A less faulty, you have until 11/13/2018 to do so through the Federal Register rulemaking comment process.

PLUG

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I-924 exemplar appeal sustained (reserves, material change)

I read and log all Administrative Appeals Office decisions on EB-5 appeals, in an effort to keep up with EB-5 adjudication trends and be more than just another business plan writer with an English major and MBA. The AAO decisions illuminate and very occasionally question current thinking at USCIS about how to interpret and apply EB-5 requirements in practice.

AUG152018_01K1610 (Matter of A-C-R-C-) is a sustained appeal that challenges USCIS interpretation of the EB-5 at-risk requirement and material change policy. The appeal concerns an I-924 application to request approval of a proposed project as an exemplar.  The applicant filed the I-924 in 2015. When USCIS got around to adjudicating the application two years later, an adjudicator googled local media reports about the project, discovered changes (unsurprisingly) from the original plan, and sent the applicant a Notice of Intent to Deny. The applicant responded to the NOID by explaining the changes and submitting revised and amended documents. USCIS still denied the application for two reasons:

  • changes to the business plan and associated organizational and transactional documents represented impermissible material changes
  • the existence of a working capital reserve and interest reserve in the budget for the job-creating enterprise meant that the full amount of EB-5 investment capital was not available for job creation purposes, and therefore not at risk, and not reasonable as part of inputs to the economic model

AAO found fault with the USCIS analysis.

  • USCIS cited Matter of lzummi ‘s finding that “A petitioner may not make material changes to his petition in an effort to make his deficient petition conform to the Service requirements.” AAO found that Izummi is not apposite because the case in this appeal involved changes made in response to business reality, before USCIS even sent the NOID, and thus obviously not just in attempt to remedy a deficient petition. The changes in this case were significant but not material. (This is good news if it means AAO is tending toward the reasonably limited definition of material change suggested by Ron Klasko: “a change that makes an approvable project un-approvable, or makes an un-approvable project approvable.” This in contrast to the apparent general inclination by USCIS to treat any significant new set of facts as a material change.) At least in this case, AAO agreed with the applicant’s contention that its changes were not material because “while the location, the Borrower, and the JCE differ from the initial filing, these changes are permissible because the ____ hospital project is substantively similar to the management structure, construction and development entities, and economic analysis in the original 2015 business plan’s proposed project in _____,  and moreover, these changes were not an attempt to remedy a deficient petition.” (But this is a non-precedent decision, and thus sets no precedent for how USCIS or AAO will treat other cases.)
  • AAO points out that standards for an I-924 application with exemplar I-526 are not the same as those that apply to an investor I-526 petition. The USCIS Policy Manual, referencing Matter of Katigbak, says that an application cannot be approved with a different set of facts than those presented in the original filing. But this applies to visa petition proceedings, not applications filed by regional centers. The relevant Policy Manual guidance for regional center amendment applications and the Form 1-924 instructions recognize the evolving business realities that are reflected in regional center amendments, and require an amendment submission only for specific, limited changes. Furthermore, the fact that a change could be material for investor petitions already pending for the same project does not have implications for the exemplar I-526. The Form I-924 eligibility requirements are independent of future eligibility determinations for associated investor petitions.
  • USCIS saw a working capital reserve and an interest reserve in the budget for the job-creating enterprise, and determined that the Applicant had not established that the full amount of investor funds would be placed at risk for the purpose of job creation because a portion of the EB-5 capital could be placed in these reserve funds. USCIS cited Matter of lzummi’s findings that “Reserve funds that are not made available for purposes of job creation cannot be considered capital placed at risk for the purpose of generating a return on the capital being placed at risk” and “the full requisite amount of capital must be made available to the business(es) most closely responsible for creating the employment on which the petition is based.” AAO found that USCIS incorrectly interpreted Izummi and misapplied its findings. In Izummi, reserve funds were at the NCE level and created to satisfy the NCE’s potential future obligations and to return a portion of EB-5 capital. In the instant case, the reserve fund was owned by the JCE and for use by the job-creating project, not to facilitate any capital repayment to investors. “The record shows the JCE anticipates using these funds for its operations by the second year, and accordingly, has demonstrated that the full amount of the EB-5 capital would be made available for job creation purposes.” In Izummi, the requirement about capital available for job creation addressed a problem that EB-5 funds were being siphoned off by the NCE and subsidiaries even before reaching the job-creating entity. In the instant case, reserves were at the JCE level, and all EB-5 funds reached the JCE.  Furthermore, Izummi placed no limitations on how the entity most closely responsible for job creation used the funds. USCIS has historically agreed (in an engagement cited by AAO, and also in the Policy Manual 6(G)2(D))) that a JCE can use a portion of EB-5 funds for uses such as land purchase that aren’t in themselves job-creating activities. AAO concluded that “Thus, in the instant case, JCE’s use of EB-5 capital on business activities supported by the credible business plan, even where a portion of those expenditures do not directly result in job creation, does not violate Izummi.”
  • The USCIS denial contended, without explanation, that the record lacks sufficient verifiable details to support the job creation inputs. AAO reviewed the record and found a supporting letter from a major international construction company and a detailed feasibility study. AAO considered this significant documentation supporting the construction costs and operational revenues used as inputs into the RIMS II model. Therefore, “the Applicant has demonstrated that the revised business plan and economic analysis use acceptable inputs to support its job creation estimates.”

Ombudsman on new RFE and NOID policy, visa timing, RC list updates

New RFE and NOID Policy
Today is the effective date for the new USCIS policy memorandum on issuance of RFEs and NOIDs. Basically, the memo expands an adjudicator’s discretion to simply deny a petition, without first issuing an RFE or NOID to ask questions or request additional evidence. The policy since 2013 has been that straight denials were only allowed for statutory denials – i.e. when there was no possibility that the deficiency could be cured by submission of additional evidence. The new policy opens new ground for straight denial based on failure to establish eligibility based on lack of required initial evidence. The memo says that this is designed to “encourage applicants, petitioners, and requestors to be diligent in collecting and submitting required evidence,” and is “not intended to penalize filers for innocent mistakes or misunderstandings of evidentiary requirements.”

I listened into a Ombudsman’s teleconference on September 6, and heard representatives from USCIS answer questions about the memo. (UPDATE: Here are official notes from the engagement.) The answers indicated that the Office of Policy and Strategy, at least, seems fuzzy on what constitutes “required initial evidence” and “innocent mistakes or misunderstandings.” “Pages left on the copier” was the one example given of an innocent mistake. No examples of innocent misunderstandings – though USCIS clarified that having an attorney or not wouldn’t be a factor. In general, “required initial evidence” means evidence as required by statute, the regulations, and form instructions. But what does it mean specifically? Certainly in EB-5, we see a lot of variation among lawyers and adjudicators in their interpretation of the specific documents required in various situations to satisfy forms and regulations. Now adjudicators will be free to indulge their discretion to interpret requirements, with no chance for response before denial. Meanwhile, lawyers will likely start clogging the system with kitchen sink petitions that throw in every possible document and page in case it’s something that someone might want to see.

On the Ombudsman call, USCIS confusingly promised that they would be publishing “optional checklists of required initial evidence”(?) on September 11. If that’s happened for EB-5 yet, I can’t find it. Last year, USCIS published a suggested order of documentation for each EB-5 form, and two distinct sets of filing tips for each form. (These are on a phantom Resources page not linked to menus on the USCIS website.) The specific suggestions are helpful but not applicable to every case, so I hope they won’t end up getting treated as optionalrequired evidence. But who knows what adjudicators make of all this guidance. USCIS told the Ombudsman that adjudicators had received one day of training on the new policy, and may or may not have supervisory review for denials under the new policy. As before, adjudicators are supposed to fully explain the reasons for any denial in the denial notice, and petitioners have the same appeals recourse as before.

Response to Policy Manual Updates
Anyone not pleased about the August 24 Policy Manual update on Regional Center geographic area will appreciate the points made forcefully by AILA in its Comments on USCIS Policy Manual Guidance on the Geographic Area of Regional Centers (September 9, 2018). AILA dissects the policy itself and the suboptimal process behind it.

Gap between I-526 approval and visa allocation
I realize that my series of timing posts is missing an important piece: analysis of the steps and time factors (for countries with no cut-off date yet) between receiving the Form I-797, Approval Notice for the I-526 and claiming an EB-5 visa number. Especially Indians are trying to calculate: if I can count on receiving I-526 adjudication in the next few weeks, can I count on getting allocated a visa number in the advance of the Visa Bulletin giving a cut-off date for India? The point at which the visa number actually gets allocated, and the factors/timing between I-526 approval and that point, vary between I-485 and consular processing, and I don’t understand it all yet. But potential investors should include this in discussions with counsel, because delays can be considerable for consular processing anyway. I’m hearing reports of USCIS taking at least 3+ months and even 8+ months just to forward I-526 approvals to the National Visa Center. Ironically, it seems that the faster USCIS adjudicates I-526, the more it drags its feet on advancing that approval to the next stage. But this is a developing situation, and I have limited examples. Here is my background reading list so far FYI. Please email me any additional helpful articles and current timing information.

SEC Action
In recent years, the SEC has set examples by bringing complaints against people who misappropriated and misused EB-5 investor money. In its latest EB-5 action, the SEC reinforces a message that it’s also wrong to aid and abet fraud by others. SEC Charges Former Raymond James Branch Manager for Facilitating a Massive EB-5 Fraud (September 6, 2018)

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 08/21/2018 to 09/11/18

  • Regional Center of Washington State, LLC (Washington)

New Terminations

  • Encore Pennsylvania RC, LLC (EPRC) (Pennsylvania) Terminated 8/20/2018
  • Gulf Coast Funds Management, LLC (Mississippi) Terminated 8/30/2018
  • The Mid-American Regional Center, LLC (Indiana) Terminated 8/30/2018
  • Citizens Regional Center of Florida (Florida) Terminated 8/24/2018
  • Central Texas Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 8/21/2018
  • California Global Alliance Regional Center c/o Lewis C. Nelson & Sons, Inc. (California) Terminated 8/31/2018
  • Invest Midwest Regional Center (former name Civitas Indiana Regional Center) (Indiana) Terminated 8/21/2018
  • L Global Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/20/2018

WA Updates, Visa Numbers, Ombudsman, RC List Updates

Washington Updates

August passed with no final rule for EB-5 regulations. OMB has not even received the regulations for review. USCIS Director Cissna told Congress in June that he thought it would be tough to finalize the regs before Sept 30, 2018, and I don’t expect any action soon.

The Regional Center program is currently authorized through 9/30/2018, pursuant to Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, Division M—Extensions, Title II—Immigration Extensions (PDF p. 702). The RC program could be extended beyond 9/30 explicitly (if Congress passes a 2019 appropriations act that mentions RC program authorization) or implicitly (if Congresses passes a Continuing Resolution that would postpone the deadline for 2018 appropriations, including the program authorizations in Division M Title II). 9/13 Update: The House has introduced a Continuing Resolution that would extend a number of 2018 authorities and authorizations, including Division M Title II, to December 7, 2018. I’m adding status updates to my Washington Update page.

The 2019 appropriations could be a vehicle for other immigration changes as part of the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations segment. The version of the DHS Appropriations Act 2019 voted out of committee in the House includes the Yoder amendment, which would eliminate the per-country limit for EB-5 visas. The Senate version of 2019 DHS appropriations includes no such provision. It remains to be seen what final version will be negotiated by the House and Senate.

Here’s my understanding of the current status, based on this article: Congress faces September scramble on spending (September 3, 2018) The Hill.

  • Spending legislation comprises 12 individual appropriations bills for different agencies. In 2018 these were all packaged together in one “omnibus” with miscellaneous other content; this year, lawmakers want to avoid an omnibus, instead sending individual bills to the President.
  • Senators have passed 9 out of the 12 individual appropriations bills for 2019, but the House and Senate have yet to sort out in conference any of the differences in their bills.
  • One of the three appropriations bills that has not passed the Senate, and that lawmakers do not want to touch until after the midterm election, is the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act (which concerns border wall funding, among other contentious issues). A Continuing Resolution may be passed as a stopgap to defer votes on 2019 DHS appropriations (and likely at least two other spending bills) until after November. The stopgap is likely to go into December, but leadership hasn’t yet worked out the details of a short-term bill. If a CR is passed for DHS appropriations, what would defer a decision on the per-country cap to December. (A CR for DHS appropriations would not affect regional center authorization, since RC program authorization is not in the 2018 DHS appropriations act, but rather in a different part of the 2018 omnibus.)
  • In 2018 appropriations, regional center program authorization is not attached to any of the 12 individual appropriations bills, but is in a 13th section – Division M – devoted to program extensions/authorization. The Hill reports that “In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Shelby and Vice-Chair Patrick Leahy agreed to keep authorizing language out of the appropriations process.” I’m not sure what that means exactly. Could Division M be folded into a continuing resolution to December, which would also extend the RC program sunset date to December? I look forward to advocacy alerts from IIUSA.

Visa Numbers

USCIS has responded to the lawsuit by Chinese investors over the issue of family members in the EB-5 visa quota. This article discusses and analyses the USCIS response: The Government’s Poor Defense of Counting Derivatives against Immigration Quotas (August 27, 2018) Cato Institute

Meanwhile, people from India have an on-going challenge to try estimating the visa queue and cut-off date timing by tracking news on EB-5 visa demand among Indians. China models a hard lesson: do not wait to be surprised by the Visa Bulletin! The visa wait time for an Indian investor filing I-526 today does not depend on today’s Visa Bulletin but on future Visa Bulletins, which in turn depend on the number of other Indians currently filing and currently waiting for I-526 processing at USCIS. 700 visas/year * 1 investor petition/about 3 visas = about 233 investors that can be accommodated per year per country considering the 7% per-country limit. Two groups active in India — Can Am and LCR Partners – each report having over 200 Indian investors in 2018, which means about two-years-worth of EB-5 visas available to India claimed just this year through just two firms. Something to watch.  The timing for a Visa Bulletin cut-off date for India depends on USCIS’s speed in adjudicating Indian petitions and advancing them to the visa stage. (My post from June explains the process in more detail.)

New RFE and NOID Policy

I plan to listen in on an Ombudsman Teleconference on USCIS Policy Updates on the Issuance of RFEs and NOIDs  September 6, 2018, from 2:00pm to 3:00pm EDT. The policy updates are not specific to EB-5, but significant for those of us who help prepare I-526 paperwork. As background, see USCIS Issues Two New Policy Memoranda on Notices to Appear and Denials in Lieu of RFEs and NOIDs – What This Means for You (July 16, 2018) GT Alert

Due Diligence

I frequently get emails from investors asking for investment advice, which I can’t give. But I will say that I appreciated the points in this article How Transparent are EB-5 Project Managers (July 11, 2018). If I were a prospective EB-5 investor, account transparency, communication, and independent oversight would be major factors in my investment decision. See also Friedland & Calderon’s article EB-5 2.0: Can Account Transparency Save the Program? (Draft December 6, 2016).

Updates from USCIS

After having hosted EB-5 engagements almost quarterly since 2010, USCIS is now on track to go an entire year with no EB-5 stakeholder meeting. Does this relate to leadership turnover at IPO, I wonder? A wish not to discuss the unfinalized regs, unwritten redeployment policy, and fluctuating processing times? One suspects that no news isn’t good news. Please talk to us, IPO. Maybe we can help.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 08/02/2018 to 08/21/2018

  • APRC Mesa Verde, LLC (Colorado)

New Terminations

  • APIC Regional Center, LLC (Oregon) Terminated 8/8/2018
  • Build America Capital Partners Regional Center LLC (California) Terminated 7/31/2018
  • Washington State Regional Center (Washington) Terminated 7/31/2018
  • American Bridge Seattle Regional Center, LLC (Washington) Terminated 8/1/2018
  • Saipan Regional Investment Center, LLC (Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands) Terminated 8/8/2018
  • American Altin Regional Center (California) Terminated 8/8/2018
  • Great Ocean Regional Center (Washington) Terminated 7/30/2018
  • Future Resources, Inc. (California) Terminated 8/15/2018
  • North American Regional Center (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) Terminated 8/2/2018
  • Build America Fund 1, LLC (California) Terminated 8/9/2018
  • California International Regional Center LLC (California) Terminated 7/10/2018

Policy Manual update: Geographic Area

USCIS has now made its policy on geographic area amendments an official part of the USCIS Policy Manual. Before, to know the unofficial policy that’s been effective since February 2017, you needed to have been present at a March 2017 stakeholder meeting, noticed followup clarifications on the USCIS website, and been on the email list for a stakeholder alert. Now, at least the policy is set down in the Policy Manual where everyone can find it.

As usual, I copied the whole of today’s version of the Policy Manual EB-5 section, and saved it as a Word document in my folder of Policy Manual versions. I then did a document comparison with the previous version (current as of May 15, 2018) to see exactly what changed, and kindly share my redline.

In addition to adding language related to geographic amendments, the latest version of the PM clarifies the effective date for tenant occupancy guidance rescision, and specifies that changing regional centers after I-526 filing constitutes a material change.

For more in-depth analysis:

Here is the email from USCIS with links to the Policy Alert and feedback page.

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: Friday, August 24, 2018 9:13 AM
Subject: USCIS Policy Manual Update

USCIS is updating guidance in the USCIS Policy Manual regarding a regional center’s geographic area, requests to expand the geographic area, and how such requests impact the filing of Form I-526 petitions. The Policy Alert is available here:

Visit the Policy Manual for Comment page for more information on stakeholder review and comment.

RC Designation and Terminations, SEC (Palm House), RC List Updates

Regional Center Terminations

USCIS has now posted notices for regional centers terminated through March 2018, and I’ve added them to my termination log. Now we know the reasons behind about two thirds of the 250 regional center terminations to date.

USCIS has framed its activity in terminating regional centers as an integrity measure, but in fact only 11% of terminations so far have been due to integrity problems. The majority of terminations have been because (1) the regional center has not secured EB-5 investment in the past three or more years, and/or (2) USCIS did not receive the regional center’s Form I-924A annual report and fee on time for the most recent year.

The letters themselves are interesting for discussion of a topic not fully explained by the regulations or policy: what does it mean to promote economic growth? What must a regional center do, exactly, to justify its continued existence? How can the definition of “failure to promote economic growth” be stretched to cover the various reasons USCIS might want to terminate a regional center in practice?

A few noteworthy letters from the most recent batch posted on the USCIS website:

  • Some might see Lansing Economic Development Corporation Regional Center as a model of regional center worth: the economic development agency of a distressed city using EB-5 as a tool in its economic development toolkit. This development agency reported that it promoted the EB-5 option in multiple trips to India, China, Italy, and throughout Europe, and offered EB-5 as an option to all development projects in Lansing. However, USCIS found that “While these activities are necessary for the continued operation of any regional center in the EB-5 Program, it does not show that the Regional Center has engaged in activities that promote economic growth as understood under the EB-5 Program. Specifically, these actions have not resulted in increased export sales, improved regional productivity, job creation, or increased domestic capital investment in the Regional Center’s designated geographic area.” Whatever its promotional activities, the regional center had not yet secured any EB-5 investment, and its potential projects did not include a shovel-ready project certain to use EB-5 investment. Therefore “USClS concludes that the Regional Center no longer serves the purpose of promoting economic growth.”
  • Live in America-Midwest Regional Center is an example of an as-yet inactive regional center that’s part of an active network. USCIS issued the RC a Notice of Intent to Terminate for three years of I-924A that did not report any EB-5 investment. The Regional Center countered by pointing to successful projects sponsored by other regional centers in the Live in America network, arguing that this demonstrates LIA’s proven ability to get projects done, and potential to promote economic growth in the regional center geography. The RC indicated that is exploring and actively seeking investment opportunities,  has met with EB-5 project candidates, and has entered into strategic partnerships. USCIS responded that the RC cannot rely on evidence of projects outside its approved geographic area, and that the future plans described are merely “future aspirational goals,” and do not count as “actually engaged in the promotion of economic growth.”  Having an operator that’s been demonstrably successful in promoting economic growth did not save Live in America-Midwest Regional Center from termination. Sorry, Minnesota! The Midwest has had any regional centers at all thanks in part to serial regional center operators who can afford to give low-profile geographies a chance because they also have feet in New York and California. But USCIS appears less willing to give the Midwest a chance. Attract EB-5 investors within three years (or at least, get term sheets and file an I-924 amendment) or thy regional center designation shall be terminated.
  • Charlotte Harbor Regional Center is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a regional center does not have copies of documents submitted by its investors to USCIS in I-526 petitions.
  • USCIS terminated Greater Houston Investment Center, LLC for inactivity, and declined what seems to me a sensible request: the option to reactivate designation if a project opportunity presents itself in the future.
  • America’s Regional Center was terminated in 2017 for lack of activity (no investors in 3 years), but was restored on July 5, 2018 to the list of approved regional centers. No appeal has been published, so I don’t know how the RC overcame the termination decision.
  • Powerdyne Regional Center‘s mistake was to hire a President who turned out to be a wanted man in China.
  • These regional centers presented USCIS with evidence of EB-5 projects in the pipeline, but USCIS argued that the projects were insufficiently advanced or showed insufficient commitment to EB-5 financing. Liberty South Regional Center, EB5 Memphis Regional Center, LLC, North Country EB-5 Regional Center, LLC, Guam Strategic Development Regional Center, Immigration Funds, LLC
  • New Orleans Mayors Office of Economic Development got a 36-page termination notice that fits six termination reasons under the general umbrella of failure to serve the purpose of promoting economic growth. These are: lack of activity (only one project since 2008, and no new job creation/investment since 2013), lack of progress in the construction of the regional center’s one project, doubt about the legitimacy and viability of the portfolio business model used, material misrepresentations that cast doubt on the regional center’s legitimacy (Form I-924A reports that were inconsistent with each other and evidence that USCIS determined independently), improper use of EB-5 capital that casts doubt in investor’s ability with EB-5 requirements, and diversion of EB-5 funds (outside of the regional center geography, and inconsistent with the job creation purpose).  Generally the termination comes as no surprise, since the New Orleans Mayor’s Office made the mistake of hiring operators for their regional center who proceeded to loot investor funds (or so alleged investors as early as 2012 and the Department of Justice in 2018). USCIS did not consider the Mayor’s suggestion that her office might continue to use EB-5 as a tool for job creation and growth in New Orleans under a different operator. The decision includes this paragraph that reads like policy, though it’s not written elsewhere,
    • The reasons why a regional center may no longer serve the purpose of promoting economic growth are varied and “extend beyond inactivity on the part of a regional center.” 75 FR 58962. For example, depending on the facts, a regional center that takes actions that undermine investors’ ability to comply with EB-5 statutory and regulatory requirements such that investors cannot obtain EB-5 classification through investment in the regional center may no longer serve the purpose of promoting economic growth and may subvert a purpose of Section 610(a)-(b) of the Appropriations Act, which provides for regional centers as a vehicle to concentrate pooled investment in defined economic zones by setting aside visas for aliens classified under INA 203(b)(5). Likewise, a regional center that fails to engage in proper monitoring and oversight of the capital investment activities and jobs created or maintained under the sponsorship of the regional center may no longer serve the purpose of promoting economic growth in compliance with the Program and its authorities.

Most of the termination letters have little discussion, but appear to reflect a simple bright line: you didn’t attract an EB-5 investor in three years and thus are not promoting economic growth and lose your designation. This line can look reasonable, but I also see it threatening the regional center program’s basic potential as an economic tool. Consider that according to a list of investor petition approvals by regional center (briefly published by USCIS in June 2017), only 328 out of around a thousand regional centers had had one or more I-526 adjudicated from 2014 to 2017. Of those 328 regional centers, the majority were located in New York, California, Florida, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, or Texas. If USCIS keeps terminating every regional center that’s not immediately popular with investors and active projects, the program will soon be left with few regional centers (and thus little opportunity to use the program) outside New York, California, Florida, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, and Texas. That certainly wouldn’t match Congressional intent for economic impact. And how does it even benefit USCIS? How much would it cost USCIS to keep the generally blameless Economic Development Corporation of Lansing, Michigan on the list of regional centers, even if that RC doesn’t have EB-5 investors yet? (On the other hand, this position paper on regional center terminations makes the case that inactive RCs burden the system and are incompatible with the RC program as defined.)

SEC Action

The SEC has announced its first EB-5 fraud action this year: Securities and Exchange Commission v. Palm House Hotel LLLP, et al., No. 9:18-civ-81038 (S.D. Fla. filed August 3, 2018).  The SEC is rather late to the party, following United States of America v. Robert V. Matthews and Leslie R. Evans (3/14/2018) and a civil suit filed by EB-5 investors in 2016. (Though not as late as USCIS, which has not terminated the regional center involved even as it hustled to terminate Lansing EDC.) The allegations are familiar: misappropriation of investor funds by people who arranged to have unfettered access to those funds. I note that the SEC’s list of defendants is much shorter than the list of defendants in the complaint by investors. The SEC identifies the regional center principals as responsible for misrepresentations, while investors also felt misled by the consultants and service providers involved.

Processing Times

USCIS updated the Processing Times page on August 1, with improvements for all EB-5 forms (-23 days for I-526, -5 days for I-829, and -63 days for I-924).

Washington Updates

As I hear anything new on the Yoder amendment with potential to remove per-country limits for EB-5, I add it to my previous post. Not that I have heard much. Since the explosion of conflicting comment on my post, perhaps others in EB-5 have learned better than to make statements on this topic. (Update: IIUSA has finally made a comment.) I guess that response has also been complicated by the difficulty of reading the amendment text; it appears that even Yoder and the House appropriations committee may not have initially understood what was actually in it. I hear that my reader comments are being noticed and appreciated, and I hope that those comments help inform discussions among the powers that be.

I keep an eye on www.reginfo.gov just in case EB-5 regulations should proceed after all to the review stage in time to be finalized in August 2018. But nothing there yet.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 7/16/2018 to 08/02/2018

  • Cypress Regional Center LLC (California)
  • Liberty Harbor Regional Center LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Lighthouse Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • My Life Atlanta Regional Center, LLC (Georgia)
  • Rise Investment Management, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • Tinian EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands)

New Terminations

  • Northeast Ohio Regional Center (Ohio) Terminated 7/18/2018
  • Nevada Development Fund LLC (Nevada) Terminated 7/12/2018
  • Americas Green Card Regional Center (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire) Terminated 7/12/2018
  • Chicagoland Foreign Investment Group (CFIG) Regional Center (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin) Terminated 7/16/2018
  • EB5 United West Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 7/27/2018
  • Fairhaven Capital Advisors American Samoa Regional Center Corp. (American Samoa)
  • Cal Pacific RC LLC (California) Terminated 7/16/2018

Per-country limits in question?

I do not normally quote the Center for Immigration Studies, but for once I agree with David North. This is a concerning development:

An alarming bit of news – generally ignored by the press – is that the country of origin ceilings that try to diversify our immigration streams may be scrapped by congressional action.

The House Appropriations Committee, while marking up the Department of Homeland Security spending bill this week, inserted language that would eliminate the long-standing requirement that no more than 7 percent of any group of employment-based immigrants could come from a single nation. The same provision would ease the 7 percent rule on family migration as well, but not eliminate it. (See the amendment here, on pp. 23-28; it was introduced last year as a stand-alone bill, H.R. 392.)

This came about because the chair of the DHS Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan.), managed to persuade his colleagues on the full committee that the current system is unfair to the Indian nationals whose visa applications, notably in the EB-2 category, are backlogged for several years. The provision would also speed up the delivery of EB-5 (immigrant investors) to Chinese applicants, while slowing down their arrival for people elsewhere in the world.

This House amendment language may not get into a final bill (it’s not in the Senate version), but it’s still important for the community to be educated about what the per-country limit means for EB-5. Based on data for EB-5 usage to date, here is what I calculate would happen to EB-5 visa availability if the per-country cap were removed as part of the FY2019 funding bill in September:

  • The October 2018 Visa Bulletin would have a 2014 cut-off date for the EB-5 category for all countries.
  • From 2019 to 2027, Department of State would be issuing EB-5 visas to people already in the backlog as of 2018, with no visas left for contemporary demand. Here are my estimates for when visas would be available to investors from various dates, based on data about I-526 filings from 2014 to 2018 and assumptions about denials/dropouts, family size, and visas already issued. Investors from all countries would be in the same line in order by priority date, without regard to nationality.
    • 2014 priority date: visa issued in 2019 (5-year wait)
    • 2015 priority date: visa issued in 2020/2021 (6-year wait)
    • 2016 priority date: visa issued in 2022/2023 (7-year wait)
    • 2017 priority date: visa issued in 2024/2025 (8-year wait)
    • 2018 priority date: visa issued in 2026/2027  (9-year wait)
    • 2019 priority date: visa issued in 2027/2028
  • China-born applicants would dominate the front of the line for EB-5 visas, having the oldest priority dates. They would get 99% of EB-5 visas in 2019, and gradually reduce to about 80% of visas by 2027.

Pros and Cons

  • Removing the per-country limit for EB-5 would give past China-born investors a predictable visa wait of 5 to 10 years, mostly just competing with each other for visas. That would be better than the current hard-to-predict wait of 5 years to life that depends on the wild card of future incoming non-China demand. Removing the per-country limit would give the China-born investor filing today an estimated 9+ year wait rather than the currently-estimated 15+ year wait. This is a benefit for China, but not a solution even for China. 9 years is preferable to 15 years, but this difference becomes irrelevant if both times are unacceptably long.
  • Removing the per-country limit for EB-5 would be a pure disaster for non-China investors. All non-Chinese with pending I-526 or pending visa applications would find themselves in line behind the tens of thousands of Chinese with older priority dates, with many-year visa waits for everyone. Today’s China-born investor suffers, but at least it’s from policy that was in place when he invested, and an excess China demand situation knowable at that time. The non-China investor already in the system would suffer retroactively from new policy that didn’t exist when he invested.
  • Lacking the per-country limit to protect new investment from a variety of countries, the EB-5 program would be essentially dead as regards new investment for the next ten years. Interest might revive by 2030, when the backlog that piled up in 2011-2018 is out of the system, leaving visas available for new applicants. (Or earlier, if many people in the system are shocked at finding their visa timeline unexpectedly expanded by 5-10 years, and try to exit.)

There’s still room for lobbying on this issue, so judge where your interest lies and speak with your contacts.

Additional Reading:

Visa Numbers (FY2018 Q3 and conference update)

The 2018 eb5 investors Magazine EB-5 Convention in Los Angeles provided a platform to discuss a challenged industry. The dominant theme was EB-5 visa numbers, and the consequences of excess demand for a limited quota.  Panels and conversations discussed alternatives to China in view of untenable visa wait times, alternatives to EB-5 for investors and project companies and service providers, alternatives to the visa quota as currently interpreted, and options for deploying past investor funds during the visa wait. I learned that everyone is confused about redeployment and material change, with smart lawyers giving conflicting advice, and that many people are confused about visa availability.   I copy below the most important piece of solid information I learned at the conference – the latest DOS statistics on EB-5 visas issued – followed by my comments and predictions.

Information reported by Bernard Wolfsdorf at the EB-5 Waiting Line panel at the eb5 investors Magazine EB-5 Convention on July 24, 2018, based on information provided by Charlie Oppenheim at the Department of State Visa Controls Office [recording here]

As of the third quarter of FY2018 (June 2018), Department of State had issued the following number of visas:

  • Worldwide: 7,900
  • China: 4,049
  • Vietnam: 692
  • South Korea: 423
  • India: 375
  • Taiwan: 337

DOS China Predictions:

  • On October 2018, the cut-off date for China will move to August 8, 2014 (or maybe August 15).
  • China has received a large number of visas annually because it has been able to take visas unused by other countries. Increased marketing in the rest of the world means that the number of visas available for China is dropping. Charlie will allocate 4,675 visas to China in FY2018—much fewer than in previous years. (China received 7,567 visas in FY2017.) Charlie predicts that China will have 3,500 visas available in FY2019, and 3,000 in FY2020.

DOS Vietnam Predictions:

  • On October 1, 2018, the Vietnam cut-off date will move up to January 2016.
  • In March 2019, the Vietnam cut-off date is expected to retrogress.
  • [Suzanne’s note: In other words, the October Visa Bulletin date moves up so that Vietnamese can get the about 700 new visas available to them in the new fiscal year. These having been issued, the March Visa Bulletin will put Vietnam back to the same cut-off date as China — i.e. in the same line as China for any leftover visas.]

Notes on visa availability:

The China backlog has the oldest priority dates in the system and thus first claim on all visas left over after the up-to-700 per country allocation. The total allocation to China depends on number of leftover visas. Countries behind China are effectively limited to about 700 visas annually. Data on visas issued for FY2018 to date indicate that Vietnam has already reached its limit for the year, while South Korea, India, and Taiwan are closer than ever before to the 700 limit. (As a reminder, total visas issued to these countries in FY2017: Vietnam 471; South Korea 195; India 174; Taiwan 188.)  DOS predicts future visa wait times for investors from these countries. (No FY2018 Q3 numbers were provided for Brazil — don’t know if that means fewer FY2018 visa applications than expected from Brazil.)

Remember that investors from one country don’t all have the same wait time.  Individual wait times vary by priority date (date of I-526 receipt). Vietnamese investors who filed I-526 in January 2016 will likely have an almost 3-year wait for a conditional green card (per Charlie’s Visa Bulletin cut-off date prediction above), while Vietnamese who filed I-526 in April 2018 will likely have a 6-year wait (per Charlie’s prediction at the IIUSA conference in April). Each of those estimates is specific to a point in time – that is, to Vietnamese investors who filed on a certain date — not for all Vietnamese.  If the number of I-526 filings from Vietnam increased in a linear manner from 2015 to the present, then the visa wait time for Vietnamese investors over that time period is also linear. As a Vietnamese investor, I’d estimate my visa wait by plotting a line through the two wait-time estimates provided by Charlie, and see where my priority date would fall on that line. (i.e. I’d estimate about a 2-year wait if I filed in 2015 and a 4-5 year wait if I filed in 2017, since he estimated 3 years for early 2016 filers and 6 years for early 2018 filers.) The demand line often isn’t linear (e.g. I expect Vietnam I-526 filings to drop in 2019, thus changing the calculation for 2019 Vietnamese investors), but still plot-able given data.

In EB-5 some people have a false sense of panic (i.e. past Chinese investors thinking Charlie estimated a 15-year visa wait for all Chinese as of April 2018, when he just estimated a 15-year wait for new Chinese investors filing I-526 in April 2018), while others have a false sense of security (i.e. current Vietnamese investors thinking an October 2018 Visa Bulletin indicating 3-year wait applies to today’s new investors, when in fact it’s just specific to people who filed by January 2016 and at the visa application stage in October 2018.) The misunderstandings both result from forgetting to think of the visa wait as a waiting line problem, with the wait for any one investor as a function of that investor’s place in a priority-date-ordered queue (subject to country limits, but not in undifferentiated pools by country). Generally, the longer ago you filed I-526, the shorter your total wait for an EB-5 visa. Chinese investors who filed I-525 four years ago are receiving visas today (four year wait), while Chinese investors filing I-526 today will have longer to wait.  The EB-5 waiting line problem extremely complex but not impossible, considering the process we know and the fact that we have at least some data. (FYI my spreadsheet of backlog-related data is currently under revision as I try to think out a simpler presentation with clearer country-specific analysis. And I really wish we could get updated per-country I-526 data!)

Misconceptions about visa availability were evident in several promoters who spoke at the conference about demand  potential. The EB-5 quota and per-country limit mean that each non-China country can get only about 700 visas i.e. accommodate only about 230 investors annually.   (10,000 visa quota * 7% per country + 0 visas leftover after the China backlog) * 1 investor/3 visas = about 230 investors per country, sustainably. Meanwhile, thousands of investor I-526 * 3 visas/1 investor * 1 year/700 visas = many years visa wait for any country that falls for the siren song of big projects. India especially, take note.  CanAm alone boasts of securing 200 Indian investors this year – almost a year’s worth of visas to one regional center operator – and I hear about multiple other projects each seeking hundreds of Indians. Investors should be vigilant, and EB-5 promoters consider their long-term interests and watch the activity of other promoters.  No market can replace China; raising too much in any one market will simply spoil it. That is, unless the EB-5 visa quota changes.

Will the EB-5 visa quota change, and who will advocate for change? I was reminded at the conference that the industry has conflicting interests. On the one hand, we cannot keep raising money or creating jobs at historical levels without visa relief. Long wait times would ruin the market going forward. Either EB-5 visa numbers increase or EB-5 economic contributions fall.  On the other hand, long visa waits result in the golden gift of billions of dollars in past investment free to be redeployed for 10+ years longer than expected with little investor input and no new job creation requirement. Some companies with large amounts of EB-5 money already in pocket may not be motivated to press for change. But a majority of industry players do want change, as do investors of course.  A new lawsuit pressing the 10,000 EB-5 visas-for-investors argument has maximized its slim chance of success by being entrusted to rockstar Ira Kurzban. (The 10,000 EB-5 quota has been historically interpreted to include family members, thus making it effectively a 3,300-investor quota.) If Kurzban can’t argue this, no one can. People at the conference seemed to think the lawsuit is, at least, a significant and productive gesture. (Update: here is the complaint.) A new organization has been formed just to advocate for backlog problems: EB-5 Visa Relief Group. We shall see where all this leads. This year the draft EB-5 reform legislation did not touch EB-5 backlog problems, while larger immigration bills offered to increase visa numbers for every EB category except EB-5. I welcome more pressure and lobbying on behalf of EB-5 visa relief.

Based what I heard from panels and in conversation at the conference, I would be willing to bet money on the following predictions:

  • The regional center program will get another short-term reauthorization with no changes by the next sunset date of September 30, 2018, as part of the funding bill for FY2019.
  • Another EB-5 bill with longer-term regional center authorization and some EB-5 reforms will be introduced following the midterm elections. The bill will not go anywhere, unless finalized regulations motivate the EB-5 factions to consult with each other, accept painful compromises, and figure out a minimum broadly-beneficial platform that Washington can count on being thanked for enacting. In other words, the bill will not go anywhere.
  • The EB-5 modernization regulations will be finalized in 2018, probably right when I wanted to focus on pumpkin pie and Christmas shopping. The investment amount increases and priority date protections may be modified from the original draft regulations. Litigation around the rollout may come out of New York City.
  • The total number of I-526 filings will fall gradually through 2018, and drop significantly in 2019 as a result in of the regulations and new Visa Bulletin cut-off dates. Because I predict a fall in demand overall, my projections for China visa numbers are more optimistic than Charlie’s. I think that rest-of-the-world demand will fall after 2019, leaving more visas left for China.
  • When new Visa Bulletin cut-off dates are imposed in 2019, many people will express surprise that the cut-off dates and associated visa wait effect people who invested back in 2017 and 2018. If the visa cut-off dates come earlier than expected as a result of more/faster-than-expected I-526 approvals, people will be surprised by that too.
  • With increasing pressures and alternatives, many regional centers, real estate companies, and service providers (and some past investors) will look to exit EB-5 in 2019.
  • Litigators will keep busy, cashing in on questionable interpretations by USCIS and investor frustration with wait times, issuer redeployment decisions, and project progress.
  • I-526 processing times will improve significantly with the fall in I-526 receipts. EB-5 will become a fast track again for investors from low demand countries, escrows contingent on I-526 approval will become feasible again, and new types of projects will find opportunity in EB-5.

FY2018 Q2 EB-5 Form Processing Statistics

USCIS has updated its Immigration and Citizenship Data page with statistics on forms received, processed and pending in the second quarter of FY2018 (January to March 2018). Form I-526 and I-829 are in the Employment Based subsection, and Form I-924 is in the Forms subsection in the “All Forms Report.”

My charts below summarize FY2018 Q2 data compared with previous quarters, and highlight trends. A few notes:

  • IPO processed a few more forms in FY18 Q2 than ever before. It’s nice to see processing trend in a positive direction, and a new record set. Once could wish for more dramatic improvement. The chart of quarterly processing volume over the past three years shows a very gradual upward trend. I-526 and I-924 volume (approvals+denials) improved significantly in Q2, but net improvement remained low when considering reduced I-829 volume.
  • Form receipts at IPO reflect a gradual downward trend, driven by falling I-526 receipts. However I-526 receipts remain unsustainably high. The 10,000 annual quota of EB-5 visas means that the program can accommodate about 830 I-526 per quarter on average (assuming about 3 visas per investor). FY18 Q2’s unusually low 1,607 I-526 receipts is still almost twice the sustainable average: one quarter’s filings sufficient to claim half a year of visas.
  • Form I-924 receipts and processing were both significantly elevated in FY18 Q2. No wonder I-924 processing times look better than expected. I-924 denial rates remain high.
  • I-829 receipts grew in FY18 Q2, even as processing volume fell again, with fewer I-829 processed in Q2 than in any of the previous three quarters.
  • If we could predict processing times by dividing number of pending forms in Q2 by number forms processed in Q2, then I-526 would take 17 months, I-829 36 months, and I-924 16 months. This prediction differs from the month ranges currently in the USCIS Processing Times Report: 20-26 months for I-526, 30.5-39.5 months for I-829, 19.5-25.5 months for I-924. I tried several equations with the pending and volume numbers, and (unlike last quarter) didn’t find one that neatly replicates the USCIS processing time calculation.
  • In case I-829 petitioners didn’t have enough to worry about already, the I-829 data doesn’t look right. The FY18 Q2 report reviews Q1 data, as follows: 694 receipts, 6,251 pending. But the Q1 report published in May had quite different numbers for Q1: 1,046 receipts, 6,673 pending. To where did those 352 receipts and 422 pending petitions from Q1 disappear? Or maybe they didn’t disappear, but joined other petitions of unknown origin, since the number of petitions reported pending at the end of Q2 (7,447), is higher by almost a thousand than what one would expect from taking Q1 pending petitions plus Q2 receipts minus Q2 approvals and denials. Hope USCIS can soon modernize beyond paper and counting sticks for keeping EB-5 records. Or am I missing something?

Updates (I-829, Ombudsman, debt arrangements, PM, conference, Vermont, RC list changes)

Processing Times
The USCIS page to Check Processing Times was updated last week with minor tweaks to the I-526 and I-924 time calculations, and bad news for I-829. Someone can inquire today about an I-829 petition “outside normal” processing times if he or she filed the I-829 petition 1,175 or more days ago. Statute mandates the service to make a decision on the I-829 within 90 days of the filing date or interview, but it’s currently taking three to four years to make a decision. IPO faces pressure from increased volume of filings and an increasingly tough process. Conditional green cards maxed out the limit starting in 2014/2015, and that surge began maturing to the conditions removal stage in 2016/2017. Even as I-829 filings increase in number, IPO has implemented several time-consuming integrity measures: in-person interviews of all I-829 petitioners, and site visits to 100% of job-creating entities in I-829 petitions. IPO attempted to address processing times problems in 2017 by creating a new team of economists and adjudicators specifically to handle I-829, but this team obviously needs help now. (This post copies emails sent by USCIS last month regarding I-829 receipt notices.)

The USCIS processing times report has received three significant updates since it launched in March. (The report has a daily minor update: to add one more day to the Case Inquiry Date.)

2018 Ombudsman Report

The CIS Ombudsman’s 2018 Annual Report to Congress is a well-researched, well-presented document that I’d be proud to have written. The 2017 report made waves in EB-5 because it mentioned the 10+ year visa wait for Chinese investors, and many people in the industry found it expedient to imply that we didn’t know about the wait before that report. The 2018 report offers fewer occasions for real or feigned surprise, but does provide a solid summing up of the EB-5 program history and current status (page 48-56). I hope that Congress reads this report, as it gives a fair picture of challenges to EB-5 program effectiveness and integrity, and solid description and analysis of the substantial past, present, and planned steps taken to handle those challenges. Regarding the proposed EB-5 regulations, the Ombudsman makes a good point: “It remains to be seen whether these reforms will be sufficient to reassure those concerned about the increased oversight, or if they will have a chilling effect on participation.”

For anyone who has had problems with USCIS case processing and thought of contacting the Ombudsman for help, pages 3-5 of the report gives a nice explanation of how the Ombudsman handles inquiries. And I appreciated the detailed discussion of background checks on pages 28-32 and 57-58.

Debt Arrangements
USCIS continues to deny I-526 petitions based on finding that they include impermissible debt arrangements, while the industry continues to fight back to clarify what “invest” and “at risk”  mean. This article presents arguments and distinctions that will be helpful to anyone in midst of the battle:

Other relevant resources that I’ve previously linked here:

Conference
Suzanne Lazicki will be at the 2018 EB-5 Investors Conference in Los Angeles next week. I’ll be speaking on a panel at 1 pm on July 23 (“The Right Fit – How Current and Future EB-5 Projects are Changing with the Market”), and available to meet in-person on July 23 and 24. Look for me to chat, or use this calendar to fix a time.

Policy Guidance
In a new Policy Memorandum dated July 13, 2018, USCIS Updates Policy Guidance for Certain Requests for Evidence and Notices of Intent to Deny. The memo, which will become effective on September 11, 2018, “provides guidance to USCIS adjudicators regarding their discretion to deny an application, petition, or request without first issuing a Request for Evidence (RFE) or Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID) when required initial evidence was not submitted or the evidence of record fails to establish eligibility.” This isn’t a major change, and not exclusive to EB-5, but a good reminder. Petitioners need to establish eligibility at the time of filing, and may not be able to depend on correcting major omissions in response to RFE.

Regional Center Termination
To date, USCIS has terminated 244 regional centers, mostly for inactivity, or for not filing the I-924A annual report. A handful have been terminated in connection with problems, including, last week, Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. I’m particularly interested in the Vermont RC case, because it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more than Vermont has done to try to compensate for and recover from the oversights that allowed project fraud to occur under its watch. Vermont’s response to the Notice of Intent to Terminate challenged USCIS to be more precise about a regional center’s responsibilities for monitoring and oversight, and pointed out all the positive and responsible things the RC has done — including a plan to wind down the RC in an orderly manner that protects existing investors and prevents future problems. In response, USCIS makes that responsible plan a major plank in the denial decision: no future projects means failure to actively promote economic growth. Vermont plans to appeal. For more detail, see this VTDigger article, which ends with a link to the full USCIS termination notice.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 06/05/2018 to 7/16/2018.

  • Allstates QSR Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • American Dream Group, LLC Regional Center (Washington)
  • Art District Los Angeles Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Beresford Regional Center (California)
  • Best Tire Center Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • BridgeForth Southeastern Regional Center, LLC (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee)
  • Gateway South Florida Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Keystone Great Lakes Regional Center, LLC: www.keystoneeb5.com (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin)
  • Retail Equity Partners Regional Center Texas, LLC (Texas)
  • U.S. Immigration Fund – CA, LLC (California)
  • Xocolatl Xperience Regional Center, Inc. (Florida)
  • Zhielo, LLC (Florida)

New Terminations:

  • Charter Square Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 7/10/2018
  • RGV EB-5 Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 7/10/2018
  • Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (Vermont) Terminated 7/3/2018 USCIS Termination Notice
  • Idaho State Regional Center LLC (Idaho) Terminated 7/3/2018
  • White Lotus Group Regional Center (Iowa, Nebraska) Terminated 6/26/2018
  • Rota EB5 Regional Center (Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands) Terminated 6/21/2018
  • AmerAsia EB5 Regional Center SF, LLC (California) Terminated 6/11/2018
  • Utah Invest Regional Center, LLC (Utah) Terminated 7/3/2018
  • California Pacific Regional Center, Inc (California) Terminated 6/7/2018

Constructive IIUSA response to bridge finance and other challenges

During the Q&A period at the EB-5 stakeholder meeting on November, 7, 2017, Carolyn Lee questioned IPO Deputy Chief Julia Harrison about recent adjudication of the bridge financing policy.

[transcription of time 01:01:27 – 01:10:11]
Ms. Lee: …We are concerned because we have been seeing what we think is a pattern of adjudications where qualifying bridge finance structures structured under the current written policy manual appear to be found to not qualify. …This comment is directed to urge you to please ensure that your examiners are trained on this policy, and are applying it correctly, because we have seen some very troubling NOIDs in this respect.

Ms. Harrison: Yes, thanks for that. I appreciate that you’re getting NOIDs that … there’s always going to be times when maybe we don’t agree. That happens. But if you are seeing something where you feel we may have messed up, follow the standard protocols to do the formal response. You can send an email to our customer service box and say we would appreciate it if the leadership team would take a look at this. It’s really hard for us… I mean I could take that back and have conversations with my team and say “Are you guys having some challenges with bridge financing? Have we done something different?” And they would all say “no.” Right, because they’re doing what they think is the right thing to do. And maybe they are. But it’s really hard for me to really kind of take a look into that unless you send me some examples. So I don’t want you guys to all flood me. Don’t go crazy. But, if you have a couple that you think are good examples of where you think we’ve gone astray – I’m not saying I’m going to agree with you, but I’m going to have some conversations with my team.  Please, though, do not take that as instruction to not follow the formal process.

Ms. Lee: Absolutely. Can we take that as an invitation to some sort of dialogue on these very complex issues?

Ms. Harrison: We can’t do that. We can’t go crazy. We can’t have a dialogue. [Laughs] We don’t want to violate any of the FACA rules. But, I will take a look at it and discuss with my team.

Finally after seven months, the industry has followed up on this exchange with a letter from IIUSA to USCIS regarding Major Issues Facing the EB-5 Industry. The letter starts by reopening the possibility of dialogue by addressing what FACA does and does not prohibit, and goes on to analyze six specific bridge financing challenges, as well problems associated with processing delays, third party guarantees, project financing structures, site visits, and redeployment.

This letter exemplifies what we should do regularly: respond constructively to misunderstandings at IPO with solid and documented clarifications based on our collective knowledge and resources. If examiners at IPO know little about bridge financing beyond what’s in Black’s Law Dictionary, and make incorrect determinations accordingly, that’s partly our fault. They have tough jobs and can’t be expert in every area of law and finance. The industry does have a comprehensive array of expertise, if only we organized to share it. IIUSA was late drafting this letter, and even later involving industry, but the product is solid. Anyone struggling with challenges to financing agreements and structures can use and build on this letter’s in-depth analysis. And I hope USCIS listens to the important points about processing delays, site visit missteps, and ambiguity around redeployment.

Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on EB-5

The Senate website now has video of of today’s Judiciary Committee hearing on EB-5, as well as a statement from Senator Grassley and written testimony from USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna. I’ve uploaded my recording, and transcribed below the major news from the hearing: that EB-5 regulations are not actually close to being finalized, and the reason is not conspiracy but honest ineptitude. Hanlon’s Razor proves right again. I should’ve known better than to repeat rumors attributing delays to interference. It’s so plausible that, as Cissna says, CIS would be still reviewing public comments, slowed by a complex process and competing demands.

I listened to the hearing for hints that anyone plans to do anything about EB-5, and noted few such hints. The Democrats on the committee sent the message that they care about immigration law/policy that hurts children, and can’t be bothered about immigrant investment right now. Most did not even mention EB-5 in their statements or questions, instead changing the subject to undocumented migrants, and the administration’s zero tolerance policy and resulting family separations. Two senators (Feinstein and Durban) called for a kind of action — termination — but didn’t actually talk about EB-5. They discussed a mythical program that allows people to “buy their way to the front of the line” and purchase legal status as a commodity, apparently simply ignorant of basic facts: that EB-5 investors enter the back of a long waiting line with no premium processing option and must put capital at risk but can only acquire status based on job creation, not money. Senator Cornyn was the one person who spoke as if he might still have EB-5 legislation in mind. Senator Grassley granted the necessity of legislation, but complained about how he’d been stymied in the past and focused on calling for regulations (which “can probably do better than legislation”), attacking Director Cissna for not having finalized regs yet. Grassley definitely seemed to be trying to pass the buck on EB-5 program changes from Congress to USCIS. Cissna, meanwhile, tried to pass the buck back, telling the committee that he doubted his department could finalize regs before September 30, and urging Congress to either manage legislative reforms or let the program expire. Meanwhile, it wasn’t clear that anyone present really grasped what’s in the EB-5 modernization regulations, or how the regulations or the last legislative proposal would affect the real world of EB-5. I appreciate that at least Grassley and Cissna tried to do their homework, but clearly still operating with some basic misconceptions that won’t help yield good law or policy. Sigh. So much education remains to be done in EB-5. If our lawmakers and regulators do not know what’s mostly right or what’s actually wrong with EB-5, how can they direct it effectively?

On the positive side, Director Cissna’s testimony clarifies that EB-5 does not operate the way it did 25 years ago. The department has made major strides in its efforts to administer the program, particularly in the past couple years. Mr. Cissna reviews operational enhancements that have been implemented, even without reform legislation or regulations.

Transcript of a Q&A between Chairman Grassley and Director Cissna (starting at minute 47:30 of the Judiciary Committee hearing)

Grassley: In your written testimony, you say that the department is still, still, reviewing comments, but you plan to move forward as expeditiously as possible. Those last four words are yours. Do you have a sense of when the EB-5 Modernization regulations will be finalized, and how quick is “as expeditiously as possible.”

Cissna: It’s not soon enough. I want those regs out as quick as humanly possible. And from the moment I got sworn in back in October, I have been pushing and pushing and pushing for those regs to be completed. There is a process that all regs have to go through, often very lengthy, and I’ve been doing everything I can, from where I sit, since October to ensure those regs get out very fast.

Grassley: Are you getting the help of the Secretary?

Cissna: Yes. The Secretary is aware of the urgency of this and she is committed to getting the regs–       ….

Grassley: Do you anticipate the Modernization regulations being finalized before the expiration of the Regional Center program September 30?

Cissna: I don’t know. That would be hard to pull off. I think it might be tight.

Grassley: More time, hmm?

Cissna: I think so.

Grassley: Have you or Secretary Nielsen received political pressure from anyone to delay or halt the Modernization regulations?

Cissna: No. That I can say with certainty. No one’s been pushing us or telling us to drag our feet or delay this reg in any way.

Grassley: If anyone ever does that, will you tell this Committee?

Cissna: Oh yeah.

Grassley: If the Modernization regulation is not finalized before the expiration of the Regional Center program, do you support letting the program expire?

Cissna: I believe that if the program is not fixed in a way that addresses all these problems that we’re going to talk about today then yes, I think that it should expire.

I-526 and EB-5 visa wait times; country-specific effects of potential changes

I’ve written separately about I-526 processing time and the EB-5 visa wait time, but find that people get confused about how those times interact. How does I-526 processing time affect the total time to get an EB-5 visa? From what point do we calculate the visa wait? What factors and potential changes could compress or expand the full process from priority date to green card for people from different countries?  This post addresses such questions.

Note that the path to conditional permanent residence has two separate, sequential steps (Step 1 and Step 2 in Figure 1), but we usually calculate timing for each step from the same starting point (Time A and Time B in Figure 1).  An immigrant investor’s priority date – the date that USCIS received his I-526 petition – marks his place in line for I-526 processing (which is first-come-first-served in principle) and also his place in line for a visa. An investor must wait for I-526 approval before he can take the next step and submit a visa application or file for status adjustment.  But once he gets to the visa application stage (Step 2), his place in the queue for a visa doesn’t depend on the date he finished Step 1 (I-526 approval) but on the date he started Step 1 (I-526 receipt). This is so because anyone who files I-526 is effectively putting herself in the visa queue, even though she hasn’t progressed yet to the point of being qualified to file the visa application or I-485.  INA 203(e)(1) stipulates that available EB-5 visas are issued to eligible immigrants in the order in which the immigrant petition was filed. So when Charlie Oppenheim at the Department of State Office of Visa Controls estimates a two-year wait time for Country A, he is talking about two years from priority date to visa availability, not two years from I-526 approval.  To estimate wait times for new applicants today, it’s necessary count both chickens (documentarily-qualified applicants currently ready to file for a visa) and eggs (people who have filed I-526 petitions that may eventually hatch and yield visa applications). Therefore, with reference to Figure 1:

  • For an investor of any nationality, Time B is, at minimum, longer than Time A, because an investor isn’t qualified to apply for a visa until after I-526 approval.
  • For investors from countries without excessive demand, Time A can be the major factor determining the length of Time B. I-526 processing times have tended to be lengthy for all countries (averaging around 2 years). But once having received I-526 approval, the investor from a country with no cut-off date will have a visa number available right away and can progress straight to the visa application or status adjustment process to claim that visa. Only investors from countries over or near the annual per-country limit need to worry about waiting years for a visa number, making Time B very much longer than Time A.
  • For an investor from a country exceeding the annual 7% per-country limit, Time A becomes relatively insignificant (personally) because Time B will be long regardless of the individual’s Time A. As a Chinese investor, I may not care about the timing of I-526 approval if  have a decade to wait for conditional permanent residence regardless. The visa queue is ordered by priority date, not date of I-526 approval, so an expedite in Time A doesn’t expedite Time B for investors from significantly oversubscribed countries.
  • Because the visa waiting line technically starts with priority date, we have to look at I-526 receipts, not just I-526 approvals or current visa applications, to estimate Time B. Prospective Indian investors may wonder why there’s already an informal visa wait time estimate for Indians filing today, even though India shows as current in the Visa Bulletin. That’s because today’s Visa Bulletin just reflects what’s currently happening in Step 2. The prospective investor needs to predict how the Visa Bulletin will look in the future, when he can progress to Step 2. And that future Visa Bulletin will depend on what’s happening in Step 1 now, and the volume and nationality of people entering the system and receiving priority dates.

How long is Time B, for various countries? The latest rough estimates (as of early 2018) suggest the following time between priority date and visa availability for new investors from different countries filing today: China, 15 years; Vietnam, 6 years; India, 5 years; Brazil and South Korea (and maybe Taiwan), 2 years. Times for everyone else are just based on estimated petition processing times, assuming no wait for a visa number. (There’s a potentially significant time factor between visa availability and actually getting a conditional green card, depending on how busy the appropriate consulate or service center happens to be, but this time is so variable that I haven’t tried to account for it in my Time B calculation.)

Many factors could change the estimates for Time B, or cause the reality to be longer or shorter for people of various nationalities who have entered the EB-5 process.

Possible Change: USCIS improves I-526 processing, increasing volume of adjudications and reducing I-526 processing times.

  • Likelihood of this change: High. IPO processed 30% more I-526 in FY2017 than FY2016, and hopes to continue to improve performance
  • Impact of this change, if it occurs:
    • China: Negative effect. More approved I-526 means more approvals for countries other than China, which means more visa applications from outside China and fewer leftover visas available to the China backlog. Fewer leftover visas annually means longer Time B for Chinese investors.
    • Vietnam, India, Brazil, S. Korea, Taiwan: Mixed effect. These countries are or will be too new in the backlogged category to compete for leftover visas in any case (since China has enough older backlogged applicants to claim all leftover visas for years). An increased volume of rest-of-the-world applicants may not hurt countries that can’t expect more than their personal allotment of 700 visas a year regardless. However, more and faster I-526 approvals could mean that India, Brazil, and possibly South Korea and Taiwan get cut-off dates sooner than expected. (Charlie Oppenheim knows that they’re already probably oversubscribed, based on counting eggs, but he doesn’t set cut-off dates until the eggs actually hatch into chickens, i.e. until immigrant investor petitioners are documentarily qualified to apply for a visa.)
    • Rest of the world (any countries well below 250 investors per year): Positive effect. So long as a country doesn’t risk generating over 700 visa applications in a year, its investors can only benefit from improved I-526 processing time/volume. With no hold-up to wait for a visa number, short Time A means short Time B.

Possible Change: Legislation removes the per-country numerical limit for the EB-5 category, such that individual countries aren’t limited to 7% of EB-5 visas when the category is oversubscribed.

  • Likelihood of this change: Possible. Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018 (H.R. 6136), the compromise immigration legislation just introduced by House GOP leadership, proposes this change in Sec. 2102 (page 192).
  • Impact of this change, if it occurs:
    • China: Positive effect. With no per-country limit, the visa waiting line would simply be in order by priority date. Having been held back with cut-off dates for years, Chinese applicants have the oldest priority dates in the system. Thus, with no per-country limit, the huge pool of backlogged China-born investors would move to the front of the line for visas. Based on the number of old Chinese applications in the system, they could take 100% of available visas for the next 2-3 years, and be on equal footing with contemporary applicants from other countries thereafter. Time B for a China-born investor with priority date from 2014-2016 would decrease dramatically. Time B still wouldn’t be short for a China-born investor filing today (about 9+ years unless many previous applicants drop out, as they might), but that’s much better than the current estimate of about 15 years.
    • Vietnam, and any soon-to-be oversubscribed countries (India, Brazil, etc.): Negative effect. The per-country limit means that each backlogged country can expect to get at least about 700 visas annually. Without the per-country limit, all more recent applicants would find themselves in line behind tens of thousands of China-born applicants with earlier priority dates. Time B (currently estimated at 5+ years for new investors from Vietnam/India and 2+ years for Brazil/South Korea) would likely expand to 9+ years for all new investors regardless of country, in absence of per-country limits.
    • Rest of the world: Negative effect. The per-country limit currently protects low-volume countries from the effects of excess demand for EB-5 visas. Even with a decade of current/potential visa applications already in the system, new applicants from low-volume countries can expect a visa promptly because high-volume countries get held back. With no country-specific limits, new investors would join a line that’s about a decade long without regard to nationality.

 Possible Change: Legislation increases the number of EB-5 visas available annually.

  • Likelihood of this change: Possible. We need this change so badly, and advocacy dollars should focus on this issue. But I haven’t seen EB-5 visa number increases in any recent legislative proposals – not even in H.R. 6136, which proposes additional visa numbers for every EB category except EB-5.
  • Impact of this change, if it occurs: Positive for all past and future EB-5 investors from all countries.

Possible Change: Legislation or regulations implement higher minimum investment amounts that significantly depress new demand for EB-5. (Or other factors significantly depress new demand: e.g. investors in potentially-high-volume countries get discouraged by wait times, the U.S. becomes a less attractive destination for immigration or investment, EB-5 becomes a less attractive financing option for U.S. companies.)

  • Likelihood of this change: High. All legislative and regulatory proposals include higher investment amounts. The most imminent proposal – regulations possibly on schedule to be finalized in August 2018 – have investment amounts high enough to kill demand almost entirely, many EB-5 promoters say. Even if investment amounts do not increase, or increase only moderately, EB-5 has plenty of challenges and complications with potential to moderate future demand.
  • Impact of this change, if it occurs:
    • China: Positive effect. Fewer incoming immigrant investors means less competition from rest-of-the-world for available visa numbers
    • Vietnam, and any other high-demand countries: Positive effect. Reduced demand reduces risk for investors already in the system that their countries will become or stay oversubscribed.
    • Rest of the world: Neutral. Low future demand does not improve wait times for people already in the system from countries with no cut-off date.

Possible Change: Demand for EB-5 grows, and countries besides China produce a sufficiently high volume of EB-5 petitions to exceed the per-country limit.

  • Likelihood of this change: Fairly high. The Department of State already predicts cut-off dates in the next couple years for five to six countries in addition to China. And media reports indicate aggressive EB-5 promotion outside of China, particularly in India and Brazil.
  • Impact of this change, if it occurs:
    • China: Positive effect. Time B for China-born applicants depends primarily on the number of visas leftover each year from the “rest of the world” with no cut-off date. As soon as another country exceeds the per-country limit and gets a cut-off date, it’s removed from and reduces the size of that “rest of the world” pool, thus leaving more visas on the table for older China-born applicants.
    • Vietnam, and any other countries to be oversubscribed: Negative effect. Time B expands dramatically for a country as soon as it’s oversubscribed. Vietnam and subsequent countries don’t benefit the way China does from each additional country to get a cut-off date, because these countries don’t have applicants old enough to compete with China for visas leftover from the rest of the world.
    • Rest of the world: Positive effect. Each additional country to get a cut-off date reduces competition for available visa numbers.

Possible Change: Demand for EB-5 diversifies, with more investors coming from outside China, but spread out so that few individual countries exceed the per-country limit.

  • Likelihood of this change: Moderate. It’s much easier to raise a lot of EB-5 money from one country than from many countries, so concentration has been the rule to date in EB-5. But data has suggested a trend toward diversification.
  • Impact of this change, if it occurs:
    • China: Negative effect. Time B for China-born applicants depends primarily on the number of visas leftover each year from the “rest of the world” with no cut-off date. As that “rest of the world” pool grows, visa availability for China shrinks, and wait times grow.
    • Vietnam, and any other countries to be oversubscribed: Neutral effect. They aren’t competing for “rest of the world” visas anyway, thanks to China’s earlier priority dates.
    • Rest of the world: Negative effect. Each new applicant with no cut-off date increases competition for available visa numbers.

Possible Change: People already in line for an EB-5 visa despair about Time B and withdraw in large numbers from the EB-5 process. (Or other attrition factors come into play: more petitions get denied, more projects fail, more deaths and divorces occur, children age out or don’t get born.)

  • Likelihood of this change: Moderate. On the one hand, current wait time estimates are devastating for some investors (especially, China-born investors in the past couple years), undermining their immigration objectives and their investment projects. This could precipitate voluntary withdrawal, not to mention attrition from children growing up and more time for divorce and death and project failure. On the other hand, EB-5 investments are major and real at-risk investments, committed regardless of the immigration process. Giving up is not easy. Also, many people do not read my blog and are not well-informed about timing issues.
  • Impact of this change, if it occurs:
    • China: Positive effect for some. Each China-born applicant who withdraws from the process reduces the time that more recent China-born applicants have to wait for a visa.
    • Vietnam, and any other countries to be oversubscribed: Mixed effect. Mass exodus of past investors would reduce competition for available visas, but also involve collateral damage to the EB-5 program as a whole (in terms of public relations and damage to companies deploying EB-5 investment, not to mention the human cost for the prospective immigrants involved).
    • Rest of the world: Mixed effect. Countries without cut-off dates do not compete with the backlog anyway, so reducing the backlog has little effect on timing for these countries. But large-scale failure of previous EB-5 applications would damage the EB-5 program as a whole.

Other related posts:
Visa Numbers (FY2018 Q3 and conference update) July 27, 2018
How Long Does I-526 Take? (III) May 18, 2018
Visa Numbers (China, Vietnam, India, Brazil, S. Korea, Taiwan) April 23, 2018
EB-5 Visa Waiting Line and Visa Allocation April 8, 2018
EB-5 Timing Issues and Visa Wait: Process and Data October 13, 2017

Benefit from this blog? Please support the effort behind it. As the EB-5 industry changes, your contribution can help preserve this space for conscientious and freely-available EB-5 reporting. Contributions go to Lucid Professional Writing, a for-profit business, to fund work on this blog. Thank you!

Senate hearing, legislation, I-829 receipt notices (updated)

Senate Hearing

Mark your calendars for 10 am EST Tuesday, June 19, when Chairman Grassley will host a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with the provocative title Citizenship for Sale: Oversight of the EB-5 Investor Visa Program. So far the only announced witness is USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna. As background for the hearing, I recommend my 2015 post Immigrant investor program comparison, which explains how EB-5 fits in the continua of investor visa programs around the world, and the risks and challenges for government oversight inherent in the fact that it’s specifically not a “citizenship for sale” program.

Legislation

The House will reportedly vote next week on immigration legislation: Bob Goodlatte’s H.R. 4760 Securing America’s Future Act, and another to-be-announced bill dealing at minimum with DACA and border security. H.R. 4760 as written would not affect EB-5. (It covers DACA, border security, family reunification, and diversity visas, and proposes reallocating diversity visas to reduce backlogs in EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 only.) The second bill (available in discussion draft) would affect EB-5 by removing the per-country limit on visa numbers for the EB-5 category. (This would be good news for backlogged China and bad news for all other countries, which would then share the burden of oversubscription equally with China.) In an apparent slight to EB-5, the discussion draft bill would increase total visa numbers for every EB category except EB-5.

I-829 Notices

And a nice email (followed up by another email with qualifications) for people facing long I-829 waits.

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: Tuesday, June 12, 2018 9:02 AM
Subject: Update to Form I-797 Receipt Notices for Form I-751 and Form I-829

As of June 11, 2018, petitioners who file Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence, or Form I-829, Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions on Permanent Resident Status, will receive a Form I-797 receipt notice that can be presented with their Form I-551, Permanent Resident Card, as evidence of continued status for 18 months past the expiration date on their Permanent Resident Card.

We are making the change from 12 to 18 months because current processing times for Form I-751 and Form I-829 have increased over the past year.

Additionally, we will issue new Form I-797 receipt notices to eligible conditional permanent residents whose Form I-751 or I-829 was still pending as of June 11, 2018. Those Form I-797 receipt notices will also serve as evidence of continued status for 18 months past the expiration date on petitioner’s Permanent Resident Card.

As a reminder, conditional permanent residents who plan to be outside of the United States for a year or more should apply for a reentry permit by filing Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, before leaving the country. Read more information on our Green Card webpage.

To learn more, visit our website.

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: Wednesday, June 13, 2018 10:21 AM
Subject: Form I-751 Data Entry Delay at California Service Center

USCIS’ California Service Center (CSC) is experiencing a delay in initial data entry for Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence. Since initial data entry has to be completed before a receipt notice can be issued, some petitioners and their dependents may experience a delay in receiving a receipt notice for a Form I-751 submitted to the CSC.

If you submitted a Form I-751 to the CSC in May 2018 and you have not received a receipt notice, do not file a duplicate Form I-751 unless you have received a rejection notice or have been instructed to do so by the CSC.

The CSC is working to complete data entry of these petitions by the end of June 2018, and will issue another web alert once initial data entry has returned to normal. Petitioners will receive a receipt notice once their data is entered into USCIS systems.

If your 2-year green card has expired, you should call the USCIS Contact Center at 1-800-375-5283 (TTY for people with hearing or speech disabilities: 1-800-767-1833). The USCIS Contact Center will setup an appointment for you and any eligible dependents at your local field office. If possible, bring evidence that you sent your Form I-751 via USPS or courier service, such as FedEx.

For more information, visit our website.

Processing Report, Terminations, Regulations, RC List Changes

Processing Time Report Update

The processing times reports for EB-5 forms were updated on May 31, 2018 with new Estimated Time Ranges and new variables for calculating the Case Inquiry Date. Until this update, the reports had been constant since March 23, 2018.

Form I-526 Processing Time:
* Estimated Time Range changed to 20-25.5 months (previous report: 25-32.5 months)
* Case Inquiry Date changed to today’s date minus 761 days (previous report used -971 days)

Form I-829 Processing Time:
* Estimated Time Range changed to 29-37.5 months (previous report: 23-30 months)
* Case Inquiry Date changed to today’s date minus 1,121 days (previous report used -893 days)

Form I-924 Processing Time:
* Estimated Time Range changed to 19.5-25 months (previous report: 17-22.5 months)
* Case Inquiry Date changed to today’s date minus 746 days (previous report used -663 days)

My theory, supported by an informed-sounding blog commenter, is that USCIS recalculated the time ranges based on a dramatic drop in I-526 receipts and dramatic rise in I-829 receipts over the past few months. (The Immigration Data page has not yet been updated with FY2018 Q2 or Q3 data, so I’m not sure.) Alternatively, IPO might have decided to reallocate resources away from I-829 to I-526 adjudication, or the I-526 team might be on fire while the I-829 team struggles with something.

But it’s tough to interpret these reports. A processing time estimate could be either (1) forward-looking, “the average time it will take a petition filed today to get adjudicated” or (2) backward-looking, “the average time that petitions being processed today have been waiting.” It can’t be both because 1 and 2 are very different numbers, thanks to dramatic fluctuations in receipt numbers and changing processing capacity over time. But we don’t know which we’re getting with the USCIS processing time report. The “Case Inquiry Date” would logically be backward-looking, while the “Estimated Time Range” is forward-looking if, as I suspect, it’s calculated by dividing currently-pending petitions by current average rate of adjudication. But the report says that the Case Inquiry Date is based on the Estimated Time Range. But calculating a backward-looking estimate from a forward-looking estimate would be nonsense. So I don’t know what to think. (For everything else I know/don’t know about processing times, refer back to the post How Long Does I-526 Take? (III))

Considering the ambiguity (and the fact that the report, however it’s calculated, can evidently suddenly change by six months or more), better not rely on USCIS processing time information for major decision-making. Just one thing is clear: EB-5 petition processing times are too long, and fuel a number of the political and integrity threats that face EB-5 today.

Regional Center Terminations

The USCIS website has been updated with some additional termination notices for regional centers terminated through May 2017. I added the letters to my Termination Log, summarized in the following table.

The recent termination letters mainly cite failure to file a Form I-924A annual report and/or inactivity (i.e. no EB-5 investors in the last 3-5 years) as reasons for termination. They rarely mention derogatory evidence as a reason.

Examples:

Regulations

The indefatigable Senator Grassley continues to nip at the heels of the EB-5 regulations. Today he sent a letter to President Trump with this complaint: “As I mentioned to you yesterday afternoon, certain EB-5 interest groups are telling investors they have ‘bought off the White House’ and that your Administration will never allow the EB-5 regulations to take effect. These comments are very disturbing, and undermine the American people’s faith in your ability to restore integrity to our immigration system.” Earlier this week he sent a letter to DHS urging “It is past time for your Department to publish the modernization rules. I have received reports that certain industry groups believe the White House will never allow the regulations to go into effect. Please confirm or deny this allegation, provide my office with an update on the status of these rules, and any impediments to their finalization.” (FYI I don’t know to which”certain industry group” Senator Grassley refers. To the extent that I’ve observed questionable marketing around the regulations, it’s people trying to hustle prospects into investing now by claiming that the possible August 2018 date for final action on regulations is actually a hard and firm August 2018 deadline to invest under current rules — while omitting to mention that final action date doesn’t mean effective date, and the OMB Unified Agenda dates are not guaranteed.)

I used to read between the lines of Senator Grassley’s legislative proposals that he wished to make EB-5 safe, legal, and rare, but now he seems ready to settle for just making it rare. Because the proposed EB-5 regulations (at least, the RIN: 1615-AC07 possibly on schedule to be finalized in August) do not in fact address the integrity or security concerns that the Senator raises in his letters; their major impact would be to dampen demand by increasing investment amounts.

I keep watching the OMB website to see when/whether the EB-5 regulations progress to the OMB review stage, but that hasn’t happened yet. Any status changes will be recorded on my Washington Updates page.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 05/25/2018 to 06/05/2018

  • 900 Regional Center LLC (Hawaii)
  • American Lending Center Arizona, LLC (Arizona): usa-rc.com
  • Birmingham Alabama Regional Center, LLC (Alabama)
  • Discovery California, LLC (California)
  • Gladstone Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Golden Gateway Regional Center LLC (California)
  • Napa Valley Regional Center (California)
  • Northeast EB5 Regional Center, LLC (District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Principal Regional Center, LLC (Washington)
  • Southeast EB5 Regional Center, LLC (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi)
  • West Coast EB5 Regional Center, LLC (California, Oregon, Washington)

New Terminations:

  • Encore Wash D.C. RC, LLC (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia) Terminated 5/25/2018
  • Colorado Headwaters RC, LLC (Colorado) Terminated 5/24/2018
  • Faustus Capital LLC (California) Terminated 5/24/2018
  • Marianas EB5 Regional Center (Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands) Terminated 5/29/2018

AAO Decisions (termination, exemplar approval, bridge financing), Other Updates, RC List Changes

AAO Decisions

The Administrative Appeals Office continues to issue non-precedent decisions on appeals of denied EB-5 petitions and applications. The cases give insight into recent USCIS thinking on sensitive topics: material change, deference to prior approvals, regional center oversight responsibilities, regional center activity requirements, bridge financing, and evidentiary requirements.

  • MAY032018_01K1610 (Matter of L-V-E-I, LLC) dismisses the appeal of a regional center that USCIS terminated for inactivity. The applicant successfully demonstrated that its principals have remained actively engaged in seeking EB-5 projects, have been carefully reviewing potential proposals, and have participated in EB-5 conferences and networking. However, the applicant has not received any capital from EB-5 investors since its designation in 2011, and has not offered documentation confirming any currently-active EB-5 projects. AAO concluded that “in light of the above positive and negative indicators, the Applicant has not established that, on balance, it is continuing to promote economic growth.”
  • APR032018_01K1610 (Matter of A-G-R-C, LLC) and APR022018_01K1610 (Matter of W-F-R-C, LLC) sustain the appeals of two regional centers seeking exemplar approval for a project. USCIS cited multiple reasons for denying the exemplar requests, but the core concern seems to have been discomfort with the involvement of two regional centers in the same project (with a portion of EB-5 investors in the project sponsored by one regional center, and remaining investors by the other regional center). However, AAO countered that “The record included a sponsorship agreement that contained sufficient detail to explain how responsibilities and investors would be allocated amongst the two RCs.” AAO went on to determine that USCIS made several mistakes in its denial:
    • USCIS cited Form I-924A information in the denial, but “neither the regulations nor the form instructions predicate the adjudication of an amendment to a regional center’s designation upon a demonstration of consistency or accuracy in its own Form I-924A filings or in relation to those of another regional center.”
    • When USCIS determined that funds were not at risk in the JCE, it erroneously identified the JCE as the project DBA, which is just a name, not an entity.
    • USCIS concluded that EB-5 funds were not spent to develop the project because its site visit inspectors did not see construction underway, but AAO accepted that “applicant has provided permits and records indicating that the project has undertaken meaningful business activity.”
    • USCIS questioned the terms of non-EB-5 capital commitment, but AAO found that “Funds provided from sources other than EB-5 investors are not subject to the at-risk requirements in the regs.”
    • USCIS “opined that it was unlikely that NCE would raise the total amount of required foreign investor capital. He does not cite any evidence in the record to support this contention, nor do the regulations require the Applicant to demonstrate this ability.”
    • AAO agreed that the applicant overcame USCIS concerns about working capital as an input to the economic model, and inflation affecting the revenue estimate.

These cases reflect inconsistencies in EB-5 adjudications. USCIS denied exemplar I-526 amendment requests after having already approved eight investor I-526 petitions with the same project and documents (not to mention having reviewed the project in context of an initial regional center approval). Apparently, deference in EB-5 only goes one way: from exemplar to I-526, not the reverse. We wish that an approved actual I-526 petition could serve as de facto exemplar for future petitions involving the same project, but apparently it does not.

  • APR252018_01K1610 Matter of E-B-F-N-Y concerns a regional center whose amendment request for exemplar project approval was denied, based in part on a bridge financing arrangement. AAO agreed with USCIS and dismissed the appeal. The bridge financing arrangement was found to be unacceptable because the funds were made available to an entity other than the JCE entity, and therefore “The record does not show that the EB-5 capital would go towards the construction that the Applicant claims would provide the job creation required for foreign investors, violating the holding of Mauer of lzummi and the USCIS policy on bridge financing.” Moreover the arrangement did not qualify because it was not sufficiently “temporary,” since the loan in which the investors participate is a construction-to-perm loan that will eventually be considered permanent financing. The applicant attempted to clarify matters by providing new loan agreements, but AAO countered that “the Applicant’s introduction on appeal of new loan documents between the NCE and the JCE may constitute an impermissible material change.” USCIS’s emerging and as yet undeclared new policy on bridge financing has major implications for many EB-5 offerings. For additional discussion, see: A tide change in EB-5 bridge financing policy (April 23, 2018) by Kristal Ozmun and Adam Schaye and EB-5 Bridge Financing: A Study of Market-Driven Applications & Definitions (April 2018) by David Hirson, Nima Korpivaara, Phuong Le
  • APR242018_01B7203 (Matter of H-T-B-) concerns a regional center investor petition that was denied based on problems with the business plan: specifically, failure to link the plan to reality. USCIS doubted the project’s job creation potential because the plan was not grounded in evidence such as supply contracts, lease agreements, construction bids, permits, loan agreements, or analysis of competitors. Lacking such evidence, the plan was not considered comprehensive, credible, or  “any more reliable than hopeful speculation.” This is why the business plans I write bristle with footnotes citing verifiable sources.
  • MAY032018_01B7203 (Matter of Z-Y-) and MAY032018_02B7203 (Matter of W-W-) deny direct EB-5 petitioners who apparently had not read EB-5 policy.  USCIS/AAO remind them of longstanding rules: direct EB-5 investment and job creation must be in a single enterprise (the JCE must be the same entity as the NCE, or its wholly-owned subsidiary), part-time positions cannot be combined to create full-time positions, qualifying investment must be a contribution of capital directly from the investor personally, and job preservation claims require documenting the pre-investment financial condition and employment records of a business that meets the policy definition of “troubled.”  (FYI my Direct EB-5 FAQ page summarizes policy specific to direct EB-5.)

Other Updates

Regional Center List Changes
Meanwhile, I have hard work to update my regional center list as USCIS continues to designate and (mostly) terminate regional centers. 76 regional centers have been terminated so far in 2018, presumably mostly for inactivity. (But we don’t know for sure, since USCIS hasn’t updated the Termination Notices page since 2016.)

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 04/10/2018 to 05/25/2018

  • Auric Ventures International Regional Center (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania): www.eb5rc.org
  • Formosa Gardens Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Greystone EB5 Northwest RC (Oregon, Washington): www.greystoneeb5.com
  • Greystone EB5 West RC LLC (California, Nevada): www.greystoneeb5.com
  • K-Stone LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • LD Capital SE Regional Center, LLC (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee): ldcbtusa.com/regional-centers/
  • Midwest Investment Fund, LLC (Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio)
  • My Life California and Nevada, LLC (California, Nevada)
  • Pan Enterprises Regional Center (California)
  • Seattle Tacoma Area Regional Center, LLC (Washington)
  • Strategic Capital Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • Te-Enterprise LLC (Texas)
  • Texas Expanse, LLC (Texas)
  • Utah Global Investments, LLC (Utah): utahglobalinvestments.com

Regional Center Terminations, 04/10/2018 to 05/25/2018

  • Silver State Regional Center LLC (Nevada) Terminated 4/11/2018
  • LIGTT Regional Center (Louisiana, Mississippi) 4/18/2018 Terminated
  • Commonweaith of Puerto Rico Regional Center Corporation (Puerto Rico) Terminated 4/25/2018
  • SAA Cedisus EB-5 Projects – SW Indiana Regional Center, LLC (Indiana) Terminated 4/18/2018
  • Art District Los Angeles Regional Center Terminated, LLC Terminated 4/16/2018(California) Terminated
  • SPG Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/26/2018
  • Global America Regional Center (California) Terminated 4/27/2018
  • California Bond Finance Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Colorado Growth Fund, LLC (Colorado) Terminated 5/15/2018
  • Home Paradise Texas Regional Center, LLC (Oklahoma, Texas) Terminated 4/17/2018
  • Global Century (Houston) (Texas) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • American International Venture Fund – Oregon, LLC (Oregon) Terminated 4/19/2018
  • Central California Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/13/2018
  • ADC Colorado Regional Center, LLC (Colorado) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • East Coast Renewable Regional Center, LLC (New Jersey) Terminated 4/9/2018
  • Midwest Regional Center, Inc. (Kentucky) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • Ohio Lakeside Regional Investment Center (Ohio) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • TBC Washington DC Area Regional Center, LLC (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia) Terminated
  • American General Realty Advisors Regional Center (California) Terminated 4/20/2018
  • Liongate Regional Center, LLC (Washington) Terminated 4/27/2018
  • Altura Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/9/2018
  • Florida East Coast EB5 Regional Center LLC (former name United States Growth Fund, LLC) (Florida) Terminated 4/10/2018
  • Cornerstone Regional Center, Inc. (Alabama, Florida) Terminated 4/6/2018
  • New England Center for Business Development, LLC (Maine) Terminated 5/9/2018
  • Reside in America Puerto Rico, LLC (Puerto Rico) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • Greystone EB5 Southeast Regional Center LLC (former name Greystone Florida Regional Center LLC) (Florida) Terminated 4/13/2018
  • Washington Foreign Investment Management Group, LLC (Washington) Terminated 4/26/2018
  • QueensFort Capital Texas Regional Center, LLC (Texas) Terminated 4/27/2018
  • Landy Resources Management, LLC (North Dakota) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • Encore S. CA RC, LLC (California) Terminated 4/18/2018
  • One World Development Fund, Inc. (Texas) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Encore Boston RC, LLC (Massachusetts) Terminated 4/18/2018
  • Pacific Northwest Regional Center (Washington) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • North Atlantic Regional Center, LLC (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • Tacoma EB 5 Regional Center (Washington) Terminated 5/2/2018
  • Collegiate Regional Center LLC d/b/a Texas Collegiate Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 5/15/2018
  • QueensFort Capital California Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Ark of the Ozarks LLC (Arkansas) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • Energize-ECI EB-5 Visa Regional Center (Indiana) Terminated 5/9/2018
  • Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED) (Iowa) Terminated 4/19/2018
  • 5 Starr Regional Center LLC (Oklahoma) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • South Dakota International Business Institute (SDIBI) (South Dakota) Terminated 5/11/2018
  • Regional Economic Development & Investment Group (California) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • New Energy Horizons Regional Center (California) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Liberty EB5 Regional Center (Pennsylvania) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • American YiYo Regional Center (Georgia) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Encore Washington/Oregon Regional Center, LLC (Oregon, Washington) Terminated 4/18/2018
  • Amaxi Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 5/1/2018

How Long Does I-526 Take? (III)

This post combines, updates, and replaces my two previous posts on I-526 processing times. I’ve divided the post into five sections:

How much time does USCIS take to process an I-526 petition? The short answer: usually between 3 and 33 months. The rest of this post provides the long answer.

Interpreting Official USCIS Processing Time Information

USCIS addresses the processing time question on the EB-5 filing tips page:

How long does USCIS take to process a Form I-526 petition?
For current estimates, see USCIS Processing Time Information. However, processing times can vary depending on the circumstances of each case. These include factors such as the time it takes to complete a background check and whether we need to request additional evidence.

Since, March 23, 2018, the USCIS Processing Time Information page for I-526 has looked like this:

The report claims that “We generally process cases in the order we receive them,” and provides two pieces of information: an estimated time range, and a case inquiry date.

  • What “Estimated time range” means:  This month range gives a theoretical average processing time and an upper limit. The lower number (25 months) is an average that’s calculated by dividing the number of I-526 petitions pending at IPO by the average number of petitions that IPO has been processing in a month. The higher number (32.5 months) is “generally” the lower number multiplied by 1.3. Cases that take longer than 32.5 months to process have exceeded an arbitrary “upper limit” for “normal” processing times, and considered outliers. The month range provides a reasonable theoretical estimate for I-526 processing times. However, we have no evidence that the dates broadly reflect the actual ages of cases currently being adjudicated at IPO. Quite the contrary, in fact, as discussed below. (Source of my interpretation: USCIS’s More Info page, which says that we “continue to use our old method to calculate processing times” for non-pilot forms such as I-526, combined with an Office of Inspector General report exposing the “old method” for calculating processing times in the I-485 context, and corroborated by reproducing USCIS’s presumed time range calculation using public data on I-526 pending petitions and volume of adjudications.)From March 23, 2018 to May 18, 2018, the Processing Time Information Report Estimated Time Range for I-526 has remained unchanged: 25 to 32.5 months. Since the Estimated Time Range appears to be a broad theoretical calculation, not dependent on fluctuating reality, I expect it to remain unchanged in the report indefinitely, regardless of what’s happening on the ground at IPO. [Update: on 5/31/2018, the report was updated to show 20-25.5 month range for I-526.]
  • What “Case inquiry date” means: As the Processing Time Information page explains,

    We have posted a Case Inquiry Date … to show when you can inquire about your case. If your receipt date is before the Case Inquiry Date, you can submit an “outside normal processing time” service request online.

    From March 23, 2018 to May 18, 2018, the Case Inquiry Date for I-526 has remained constant: today’s date minus 971 days. (I spot check the webpage periodically, and log the reports in my IPO Times file.) The webpage claims that the report gets updated “around the 15th of each month,” but that has not been true yet.

    Like the Estimated Time Range, the Case Inquiry Date appears to be merely theoretical and functional. It’s more-or-less simply the upper end of the Estimated Time Range, converted from a month into a calendar date. It does not claim to be the date of cases that IPO is processing now. It’s just the cut-off date that IPO has set for complaints – and naturally IPO would choose to put that date back as far as possible. If you want to estimate when you may start to complain, add 971 days to your priority date. But your I-526 will get a decision before that date, unless it’s an outlier. And I predict that variable currently set at 971 will be adjusted downward eventually, assuming that IPO continues to improve processing speed. [Update: on 5/31/2018, the report was updated to show I-526 case inquiry date of 761 days ago, rather than 971 days ago]

Predicting Average Processing Times

Average processing time is theoretically a function of inventory (number of pending petitions) and flow rate (rate at which IPO approves and denies petitions). You can get the input data for this equation from the USCIS Immigration and Citizenship Data page, which posts quarterly reports for I-526 and other forms. My I-526 Time spreadsheet turns the quarterly data into a prediction model that estimates average processing times as a function of petition volume at different points in time (with some assumptions about future trends). The last quarterly report indicated 24,627 I-526 pending at IPO in December 2017 and an average of 2,954 petitions processed per quarter over the last four quarters. 24,627/2,954 = 8.3 quarters to process the pending petitions (estimated average). So an I-526 petition filed in January 2018 would be theoretically likely to wait 8.3 quarters (25 months) for processing, other factors being equal. That’s consistent with the Processing Times Information page, which starts the Estimated Time Range at 25 months. But unequal reality leads to some petitions being processed more quickly.

Understanding Variation in Processing Times

Here’s 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 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. With this complex process, it’s unsurprising that IPO appears far from its intention to process cases more-or-less in the order in which they are received.
  • Factors that can speed I-526 processing per IPO:
    • Investing in a project with an approved Exemplar and/or 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. Also, 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.)

Individual Processing Time Experience

Individual processing time variation means that some people wait longer than the theoretical average 25 months for I-526 approval, while others receive approval much more quickly.

My best evidence for faster-than-average approval is priority dates for pending visa applications. If all I-526 take 2 years to process, then Department of State should have been receiving applications in 2017 from people who filed I-526 in 2015. In fact, as of October 2017 Department of State reported having over 1,500 pending visa applications based on I-526 petitions filed in 2016 and 2017. Assuming an average 3 visa applications per approved petition, that reflects about 500 I-526 petitions approved and advanced to the next stage within a year of filing. And the DOS report only mentioned pending applications for five countries, not counting all applications for the year. I-485 inventory statistics likewise show many pending status adjustment applications with recent priority dates.

I set up a Google Form to collect reports of processing time experience from individual investors. (Entries still welcome!) In the very limited sample of entries so far (which appear in this Google Sheet), I-526 approvals in 2017/2018 that were reported to me had an average processing time of 19 months, with standard deviation of 7 months. The following tables summarize results reported in my Form so far.

Resources for Investors

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