Recap of Major Winter Developments (policy, regulations, legislation, statistics, fees, Commerce study, new AAO, SEC actions, litigation)
January 13, 2017 2 Comments
The past few months have been packed with important EB-5 news, and it’s hard to keep up with all that’s happening. As a reminder, here is a summary list of the major developments to keep in focus. (The first five I’ve discussed in previous posts; the last five I haven’t had time to write about yet.)
- New Policy: Effective November 30, 2016, USCIS replaced all existing EB-5 policy with a new Policy Manual: USCIS Policy Manual, 6 USCIS-PM G (November 30, 2016). This major event puts the whole program on a new footing (though 6 USCIS-PM G is essentially similar to the policy it replaced, with a few adjustments, additions, omissions, and clarifications as I started to discuss here).
- Proposed New Regulations: As I announced this week, USCIS has published notices of proposed EB-5 rule-making in the Federal Register. Advance Notice #0008 invites stakeholders to give input on possible changes to regional center designations and terminations and the I-924 and project approval process. Notice #0006 gives proposed new rules covering priority dates, investment amounts, and TEA designation, among other things. If the new rules are finalized as proposed, the EB-5 minimum investment amount will increase to $1.8 million (or $1.35 million within a TEA) as calculated from inflation, fewer projects will qualify for TEA status, investors with approved I-526 will have the option to invest in a different project without losing their original priority date, and regional centers may need to get project approval before offering investments. We can expect action toward finalizing regulations at some point after the public comment period closes on April 11, 2017 – maybe shortly or maybe long after, if the comments inspire redrafting and/or if the new administration chooses not to greenlight the regulations.
- Proposed New Legislation: Congress was (reportedly) actively working on EB-5 reform legislation before the continuing resolution that passed on December 10 provided the regional center program with a clean extension through April 28, 2017. We have a staff draft of an EB-5 bill dated December 2, 2016, and understand that staffers and lobbyists are still working with this document behind the scenes. If the staff draft were passed as-is, the EB-5 minimum investment amount would decrease to $700,000 (or $650,000 for a TEA investment), with incremental increases up to $1M/$800K, additional TEA categories and incentives (including rolling visa set-asides) would be introduced, and regional centers would be given hefty new annual fees ($10,000 or $20,000) and relatively gentle new fund administration and reporting requirements. (My bill comparison chart gives a link to the bill text and summarizes the provisions.) We may see action toward passing reform legislation in the coming months before the next regional center sunset date on April 28 – or may not, with so many other matters demanding attention during Trump’s first 100 days in office, and the anti-change lobby.
- New Data and Statistics: We got updated numbers from USCIS and the Department of State on EB-5 petition and visa processing and backlogs as of the end of 2016. The numbers show a queue of current and prospective visa applicants about 75,000 people long, which implies an 8-year visa wait for new China-born investors. And unless USCIS improves processing volumes, it will take 2+ years just to process the currently-pending I-526 petitions and 3+ years to just process the currently-pending I-829 petitions. Proposed EB-5 reform legislation and regulations both plan to improve processing times/volumes, but do not offer to increase available visa numbers.
- Fee Increases: EB-5 petitions and applications have higher filing fees since December 23, 2016. The new I-924 fee (dramatically increased to $17,785) is likely to curb the burgeoning number of regional centers (perhaps especially new applications from serial operators, which have accounted for an increasing percentage of new RCs) and discourage voluntary filing of amendments.
- Department of Commerce EB-5 Impact Analysis: We finally have the long-promised Department of Commerce study commissioned by USCIS: Estimating the Investment and Job Creation Impact of the EB-5 Program (January 2017). The product is a slender report and based on old data from 2012-2013, so the numerical conclusions are of limited interest at this point, but the analysis is still significant and could have political impact. I can see EB-5-critic Senator Grassley seizing on this report and the barriers to good analysis that the authors describe. EB-5 economists should review the formerly common EIR problems identified on p. 9, and ensure that they’re not still repeating them.
- New AAO Decisions: In November and December, USCIS published 27 new decisions on I-526 cases and one new decision on a regional center termination appeal. The termination decision (NOV022016_01K2610) and 15 nearly-identical I-526 decisions (for example DEC142016_07B7203) are related to Path America KingCo, LLC, which lost designation after an SEC action mainly targeting its principal. The regional center appealed its termination based on pursuing active, viable projects under reputable new management. Investors appealed with the argument that their petition denials were premature, coming while the regional center appeal and the SEC case were still unresolved. AAO found that the investor appeals were hopeless due to the issue of material change, and that the regional center appeal was not sufficiently compelling. (But the RC decision interestingly grants the possibility that mitigating, corrective, and restorative actions could potentially compensate for past problems with the regional center or related entities.) Among decisions not related to Path America, I hope to write more about three decisions with good discussion of material change issues (NOV012016_02B7203, NOV072016_01B7203, NOV292016_02B7203) and two that address the level of business activity necessary before filing I-526 (NOV092016_01B7203, NOV292016_01B7203). I’ll particularly highlight NOV292016_01B7203, which explicitly states what I’ve always said – that an investor must not file a TEA-based I-526 before securing a location for the business.
- New SEC Actions: On December 27, 2016, the SEC published a complaint brought against California-based attorney Emilio Francisco and associated companies who are charged with diverting and stealing EB-5 investor funds. On December 28, 2016, the SEC announced settlement on a case against AJN Investments LLC/Jason Adam Ogden, who was charged with diverting EB-5 investor funds and wrongly making midstream business model changes. I’m interested to note that these SEC complaints do not implicate or even identify the regional centers that sponsored the EB-5 investments involved. The SEC holds the project companies and principals exclusively responsible for problems in the offerings, projects, and use of funds. I wonder whether USCIS will pursue the regional center sponsors, holding them responsible for oversight, or whether it will follow the SEC’s lead in considering the sponsors out of the picture. It appears that the regional centers in these cases did not control any NCE bank accounts and were not involved in offering documents or investor promotion. In other news, the SEC has just settled with Path America (a case that did implicate the regional center).
- Other litigation: On November 14, 2016, a long list of EB-5 investor plaintiffs brought a civil suit against a long list of defendants associated with the Palm House Hotel EB-5 project. The suit enumerates the lies that the investors believe they were told, calls out every party and service provider allegedly involved in making false representations, and traces alleged misuse of investor funds. The case appears complicated and ambiguous (not the kind of low-hanging fruit that the SEC seems to favor) but full of drama and makes for gripping reading. Another case that’s older now (filed August 2016), but also a colorful Florida story: USA v. Karamchand Doobay, who was charged with perpetrating fraud through his regional center and projects. I’m sure the investors in these cases would unite in one message for the future: do not neglect due diligence before investing! And the defendants would likely encourage care in partnerships and representations.
- Good news: Meanwhile, just to keep perspective, 99% of the 865 regional centers are apparently doing well and good, or avoiding lawsuits and bad press at any rate. At least $10.4 billion dollars of EB-5 investment entered the U.S. economy in 2016, judging by the number of I-526 petitions filed during the year. I was privileged to write business plans last year for 32 new EB-5 deals that look promising for both local communities and foreign investors, and I continue to be encouraged by what I see on the ground on the bright side of EB-5.
(Also note, adding to the festival of updates and feedback opportunities, an in-person EB-5 stakeholder meeting just announced for March 3 in DC.)