4/23 Visa Numbers (China, Vietnam, India, Brazil, S. Korea, Taiwan)

[10/30/2018 UPDATE: for more recent data and predictions, see my post AILA/IIUSA Forum Updates (Kendall, Oppenheim, visa availability)]

Visa Numbers Update

Charlie Oppenheim, Chief of the Visa Controls Office at the U.S. Department of State, spoke about EB-5 visa numbers and allocation at the IIUSA conference on April 23. This post summarizes interesting data from his slides. (The tables pictured below are also in my increasingly untidy Backlog Calc Excel file. When I have time, I’ll reorganize the file and recalculate projections.) I’m relying on a partial video recording and reports from others for this post, not having heard Mr. Oppenheim’s talk in person. When someone at the conference posts a substantial report, I’ll link it here. As always, I welcome corrections. [Update: other reports on this presentation from IIUSA and Wolfsdorf Rosenthal.]

Highlights from Mr. Oppenheim’s presentation [with my commentary in brackets, and images showing my summaries of data points from the presentation]:

  • USCIS has picked up the pace on I-526 adjudication. The National Visa Center received 25% more EB-5 applicant petitions in 2017/2018 than 2016/2017. That reflects I-526 processing improvement (good news), and results in more people ready to claim available visas (bad news for the visa backlog).
  • Visas can be issued by Department of State through consular processing (for applicants residing outside the US) or USCIS through I-485 status adjustment (for applicants in the US). Historically most EB-5 visas have come through DOS, but we’re seeing a steady increase in visas through status adjustment: 991 in FY2015, 1,442 in FY2016, 1,676 in FY2017, and 952 already in the first six months of FY2018. This reminds us to keep an eye on what’s happening at USCIS as well as DOS, when tracking visa number demand.
  • Department of State has seen a dramatic increase in visa applications from people outside China. In just the first six months of FY2018, DOS issued 2,735 EB-5 visas to applicants from outside China – more than in the whole of the previous year. That increase in “rest of the world” visas can be bad news for China, because annual visas available to China depend on leftovers from the rest of the world. [My model estimates that the China line is 10 years long assuming 80% of annual visas available to China, and 15 years long if 50% of annual visas are left to China. Also, I wonder if the “rest of the world” bump could reflect IPO taking initiative to prioritize moving non-China I-526 petitions – an idea they suggested in November 2017.]
  • Based on growing demand, Vietnam, India, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan are on Mr. Oppenheim’s radar for potential to trigger the per-country cap and thus get held back with cut-off dates. Vietnam already has a final action date that Mr. Oppenheim expects to advance by several months in 2019 (but not make it current). He expects to set a final action date for India by June 2019 at latest, and for Brazil, South Korea, and (maybe) Taiwan in Summer 2019. The projected final action date for September 2019 is October 1, 2014 (worst case) or October 15, 2014 (best case) for China and other oversubscribed countries. [Cut-off dates for other countries is good news for China, because those countries get temporarily removed from the queue-cutting “rest of the world” pool, and instead stuck in line behind older Chinese applications for leftover visas.]
  • In the Q&A period, Mr. Oppenheim reportedly projected these EB-5 visa wait times: China 15 years, Vietnam 6 years, India 5 years, Brazil and South Korea 2 years. [This time indicates years from today to conditional permanent residence for people filing I-526 today. But these estimates are subject to change depending on future demand trends.]

Consider the lesson from China. EB-5 was still current for China throughout 2014; Chinese applicants didn’t start getting held back with a cut-off date until May 2015. But Chinese investors who filed I-526 back in FY2014 have been affected.  Applicants with 2014 priority dates started getting visas in September 2015 (per the Visa Bulletin) and will still be getting visas into 2019 (per Mr. Oppenheim’s predicted final action dates). That’s a lot of years just to issue conditional green cards to petitioners from one year.  Look at 2014, and then visualize how many years it will take to issue the visas to Chinese who filed I-526 in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, unless something changes. (See my graphic for visual reference.) If Chinese with 2014 priority dates are still in line for visas into the end of 2019, how long will a Chinese with a priority date of today have to wait for a visa? That tower of past petitions is a sobering fact for China, and also any potentially high-volume countries that may end up in line behind China. The prospect of unacceptable wait times creates urgency to advocate for more EB-5 visa numbers. As things are, we can’t keep attracting every year three to four times the number of investors who could eventually get visas in a year, or depend heavily on any one country given the per-country limits.

For additional discussion of factors that could change visa wait times for various countries, see my post I-526 and EB-5 visa wait times; country-specific effects of potential changes (June 18, 2018)

EB-5 Processing Times

Since late March, I’ve been tracking EB-5 forms on the new USCIS Processing Times page. So far the month range has remained unchanged for each form, while the “Case Inquiry Date” has advanced one day per day for each form. No evidence yet of human intervention to update the information, and I rather doubt the link to reality. But for the record, here’s how the system is currently set to auto-advance the “Case Inquiry Date”:

  • I-526 case inquiry date: today’s date minus 971 days (i.e. priority date plus 971 days is the date when one can start to inquire about the petition as being outside normal processing times)
  • I-829 case inquiry date: today’s date minus 893 days
  • I-924 case inquiry date: today’s date minus 663 days

FYI, of people who’ve filled out my I-526 processing experience Google form so far, a majority of those with approvals  in 2018 had priority dates in 2016, and some even in 2017. (Form results here.)  Apparently IPO isn’t simply processing petitions from 2015, as the published Processing Time Information would suggest.

New TEA Data

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has made its annual Spring release of employment data for the previous year, which means a new data set for calculating Targeted Employment Area qualification.  Impact DataSource explains what changed. To learn more, consider signing up for a webinar.

Other Resources

Speaking of webinars, note that the Council of Development Finance Agencies is hosting a course  designed to provide a substantial practical introduction to EB-5.

New Litigation and AAO Decisions (“invest” requirements)

Appeals and litigation give a rare public glimpse into how the Investor Program Office is adjudicating I-526 petitions. It appears that IPO may be in the midst of a campaign to re-interpret/enforce the EB-5 “invest” requirements as described in 6 USCIS Policy Manual G.2  There have been a spate of denials that turn on language in the securities and transaction documents. Recent examples:

  • Guaranteed returns and debt arrangements, call option issue: CHANG et al v. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY et al (Case Number: 1:18-cv-00659) is a civil action filed on March 22, 2018 by ten investors who put money into senior living project in Florida. (Here’s a summary and the full complaint.) These investors filed I-526 in 2014 and 2015 and heard nothing back from USCIS, finally making a mandamus complaint in October 2017 to compel agency adjudication. USCIS responded in February 2018, denying all investor petitions based on finding that “a call option reflected in the Partnership Agreement and the offering documents demonstrated the existence of an impermissible debt arrangement.” The investors have responded with a complaint pointing out that this issue was previously addressed by federal judges who found that a call option does not of itself constitute a debt arrangement. In previous cases, the US District Court in DC ruled that the USCIS denials could not survive review because they conflict with the plain language of the regulations, are not compelled by statutory or regulatory purpose, unreasonably stretch the rationale of precedent decisions, and run counter to evidence. Call options (buyout options) have been quite common in EB-5, and I wonder if many I-526 are being held up now behind the scenes while USCIS figures out how to deal with them (balancing newfound intent to deny such cases with the fact that the court has shredded the reasoning behind several denials so far). I’ve seen recent NOIDs based on call options, so USCIS hasn’t given in yet. I can’t see what legs the court (not to mention policy and reality) have left to the case against call options per se, and I hope USCIS accepts that soon to avoid further needless delays, disruption, and lawsuits. (UPDATE: FYI here are my notes for an ILW call on 4/17 to discuss the “invest” requirement, and new USCIS challenges to equity with debt-like features. The notes link to the relevant AAO and district court decisions, and summarize the fact patterns and arguments for each case.)
  •  “Made available” and bridge financing issues: JAN262018_05B7203, JAN302018_01B7203, FEB072018_02B7203, and MAR152018_01B7203 are decisions on the same regional center offering to invest in construction of a distribution center in Washington. After having approved 10 investors in the project, USCIS denied petitions for the last 10 investors. USCIS’s main excuses for this treatment: (1) the project having completed construction constitutes a material change of fact that prevents the last investors from relying on favorable decisions for previous investors, (2) USCIS belatedly identified a legal deficiency: that the PPM and loan agreement language don’t unambiguously obligate the NCE to make the entire amount of the petitioners’ funds available to the JCE, and (3) the reality that the investors chose a project that successfully developed and created jobs does not overcome paperwork problems. The petitioners were judged ineligible not based on reality, necessarily, but based on wording: they submitted documents that had leaky language in the loan agreement, didn’t paper up a bridge financing arrangement the way it’s supposed to be papered, and left sloppy inconsistencies in the business plan and economic impact report. Several morals from this case: People who draft transaction documents need to be mindful of the “made available” and bridge financing features of the EB-5 “invest” requirement, and write that into documents — taking particular care when it’s likely that (as often happens now considering long processing times) the project will have been completed by the time USCIS finally gets around to adjudicating I-526 petitions for investors. Prepare for the fact that an adjudicator may ask two years later: “why the JCE would still need this capital and to what use it would be put by the JCE in light of the completion of the project.” Document preparers must be very attentive to detail and careful about language, because compliant documents are apparently more determinative than compliant reality in whether or not investor petitions get approved. I keep this burden in mind as I write EB-5 business plans.
  • “Chance for gain” issue: FEB282018_02B7203,  MAR092018_02B7203, MAR162018_01B7203 are decisions on the same offering to invest in a regional center NCE to make a loan to a JCE to construct, finance, and operate an hotel. The denials rest on a finding that the LP agreement and loan agreement “do not provide the Petitioner with any rights to the NCE’s profits, whether derived from the loan interest or otherwise, and the sole opportunity for the Petitioner to generate a return on the investment is if the general partner elects to pay a 0.05% interest payment upon the NCE’s loan repayment.” USCIS will deny cases that guarantee a return, but – as we see here – can also deny cases that appear to make a return too discretionary. USCIS found in these cases that “discretionary chance for return which is unrelated to the investment does not satisfy the regulatory requirement for capital at risk under 8 C.F.R. § 204.60)(2).” Again, people drafting documents must walk a very fine line. USCIS wants to see (1) that investors have a chance for gain, (2) that the income sources to pay a return are directly related to the purpose of the underlying investment, (3) that the return is not guaranteed, (4) that the NCE general partner does not have absolute discretion to make or withhold the return. And furthermore, the documents have to be right the first time, at I-526 filing. The petitioners in FEB282018_02B7203 and MAR092018_02B7203 provided amended documents in response to NOID, but USCIS judged this an impermissible material change and refused to consider such post-filing clarifications.
  • “Business activity” at-risk issue and identified location: To meet the at-risk requirement for EB-5 investment, a petitioner must present evidence of actual undertaking of business activity, not just an idea for future activity. The precedent decision Matter of Ho cited entering a lease as an example of de minimus activity that doesn’t  itself qualify as sufficient business activity to put funds at risk. So if a petitioner hasn’t even secured a business location before filing I-526, he can expect to be challenged as having even less than de minimus activity. That happened to the petitioner in MAR162018_02B7203, a regional center case. “The Chief concluded that without a specific property, the Petitioner could not demonstrate that his funds were at risk, that the business plan was comprehensive rather than hypothetical, or that certain inputs to the economic model were valid.” (This decision also shows the importance of a quality business plan with real market analysis and financials, as it rips apart the placeholder content in the petitioner’s plan. And it shows confusion about the job creation timing requirement in the USCIS Policy Manual Vol. 6 Chapter 2(D)5. The decision seems to assume that job creation must occur within two years of filing I-526, while the PM states that the two-year job creation window is deemed to begin 6 months after adjudication of Form I-526.)

Other recent AAO decisions of note:

  • FEB072018_01B7203 is one of the rare cases where AAO decides to withdraw USCIS’s decision – in this case involving source of funds derived from loan proceeds received as a gift from the petitioner’s husband.
  • FEB152018_01K1610 upholds USCIS’s decision to terminate a regional center for this fatal error: filing Form I-924A to the wrong address.
  • FEB282018_01B7203 is yet another reminder that the new owner of a pre-existing business cannot expect that the enterprise and its new employees automatically qualify as “new” for EB-5 purposes.

Minor Investors:

Long processing times and the visa backlog have motivated families to make a teenage child to be the principal EB-5 applicant. USCIS has questioned but started approving such petitions, as reported by Wolfsdorf Rosenthal in this post and Miller Mayer in this webinar (35 minutes into the recording).

Washington Updates:

I continue to update my Washington Updates page, most recently with post-March analysis and a link to a letter from several senators to USCIS urging that regulations be finalized. Senator Grassley has made this plea multiple times since 2016; we’ll see what happens now.

Personal Update:

As EB-5 reporting and analysis become increasingly time-consuming, and less linked to my selfish purpose of encouraging demand for my business plan-writing service, I’ve decided to put up a donate option. If you can support the effort behind the blog and help keep it in business, please visit my About page and scroll down to the Paypal button, which can facilitate making a contribution through Paypal. I want to avoid a subscription model because publicly-available EB-5 information is important to my clients and the health of the EB-5 program.

Regional Center List Changes:

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 03/19/2018 to 04/10/2018

  • American Capital Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • Borrego Development, LLC (California, Nevada)
  • Colorado Rocky Mountain High Regional Center, LLC (Colorado): www.coloradorockymountainhighrc.com
  • M5 Venture Silicon Valley RC LLC (California): www.m5venture.com
  • Mile High Regional Center (Colorado)
  • National Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Protogroup, Inc. (Florida)
  • Texas Tilegend Regional Center (Texas)
  • Y & L Enterprises LLC (Iowa, Nebraska)

New Terminations

  • Encore Raleigh/Durham Regional Center (North Carolina)
  • Encore Alabama/Florida Regional Center (Alabama, Florida)
  • G.R.E.E.N. Regional Center (New Jersey)
  • BLMP Florida Healthcare Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Michigan-Indiana EB-5 Regional Center (Indiana, Michigan)
  • Queensfort Capital Massachusetts Regional Center, LLC (Massachusetts)
  • South Pacific Regional Center, LLC (Hawaii)
  • Queens Fort New York Regional Center, LLC (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Central Texas Properties Regional Center (Texas)
  • South Texas EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • Pacific Viniculture (Washington)
  • California Investment Immigration Fund, LLC (CIIF) (California)
  • USA ODI Regional Center, LLC (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia)
  • Manchester Pacific Regional Center (California)
  • Regency Regional Center, LLC (California)

EB-5 Visa Waiting Line and Visa Allocation

People who use EB-5 face some tough facts:

  • Demand for EB-5 visas (annual I-526 filings) has been three to four times higher than EB-5 visa availability since 2011, resulting in a backlog now about a decade long. (For those not already familiar with the situation, here’s a simplified explanation.)
  • New investors from most countries today can still expect to receive a conditional green card fairly promptly after I-526 approval, but only due to exceptions that will allow their applications to skip ahead of (push back) other people stuck in the backlog. (Or the overall wait could be shortened if the visa quota changes, or many people drop out of line.)

We respond to these facts by (1) advocating for backlog relief (AILA’s White Paper: Solutions to the EB-5 Visa Waiting Line gives suggestions), and (2) figuring out how the exceptions work, because investors and projects want to avoid a decade-long wait if possible.

The past few years offered a simple exception that allowed jumping much of the queue: be born outside China, since China accounts for most of the backlog and was the only oversubscribed country. Now, people from Vietnam face getting stuck in the visa wait line behind the Chinese (the May 2018 Visa Bulletin will have a Vietnam cut-off date), other countries wonder whether the same could happen to them one day, and Congress threatens set-asides and other changes to visa availability. And so we feel the urgency to understand just how visa allocation works, and relevant numbers.

First, here’s the law related to EB-5 visa allocation, with linked citations. (Or you can download my Word doc to get the text with headings to assist navigation.)

  1. The annual worldwide level for all employment-based (EB) immigrants is effectively 140,000. INA 201(d)(1)(A)
  2. At most 7.1 percent of the employment-based worldwide level is made available to immigrants in the EB-5 category. INA 203(b)(5)(A)
  3. Available EB-5 visas are issued to eligible immigrants in the order in which the immigrant petition was filed. INA 203(e)(1)
  4. At least 3,000 EB-5 visas are reserved annually for immigrants based on investment in a Targeted Employment Area. INA 203(b)(5)(B)
  5. 3,000 EB-5 visas are set aside annually for immigrants based on investment in a Regional Center. PL 102-395 Section 610(b) as amended by PL 105-119 Section 116(a)
  6. The EB-5 visas made available to natives of any one country may not exceed 7 percent of the available worldwide total. But if one or more countries gets held back by this rule, resulting in available visas with no one else to take them, then those remaining visas can be made available again without regard to per-country numerical limits for that year. INA 202(a)(2) and INA 202(a)(3) and INA 202(e) and PL 106-313 Section 104
  7. EB-5 visa numbers available to China annually under the per-country limit are reduced by 700 to compensate for cases processed under the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992. PL 102-404 Section 2(d)(B)

I imagine Charlie Oppenheim at the Department of State, sitting at his desk on October 1, 2017 with 30,000 EB-5 visa applications before him and tens of thousands more to come as USCIS approves pending I-526. How does he apply the above rules to decide who gets a visa in FY2018, and in what order? I hope he addresses this question during his keynote speech at the IIUSA EB-5 Advocacy Conference on April 23. (4/25/18 update: here are notes from Mr. Oppenheim’s presentation. 10/30/18 update: See slide 5 in this presentation, and my recording of a panel on EB-5 visa numbers.) In the meantime, here’s my understanding of how the rules get applied in practice.

  • #1 and #2 above give the target quota for EB-5 visa numbers in one year: 140,000*0.071=9,940.
  • #3 specifies the basic rule of order: first-in-first-out by priority date (applicants with oldest I-526 priority dates are first in line for a visa)
  • #4 to #6 are factors that can override the basic FIFO order principle. The applicant with oldest priority date gets the first visa number unless she’s held back by:
    • #4) being the 6,941st+ applicant that year (9,940-3,000) who invested outside of a TEA, in which case she’s held back for any TEA-based applications to go ahead (thus far, non-TEA applications have been too few to trigger this set-aside)
    • #5) being the 6,941st + applicant that year who invested outside of a regional center, in which case she’s held back for any regional center-based applications to go ahead (thus far, direct EB-5 applications have been too few to trigger this set-aside)
    • #6) being the 696th+ applicant that year (9,940*0.07) from a single country, in which case she’s held back for any applicants from not-oversubscribed countries to go ahead (China has been oversubscribed and triggered the per-country cap since 2015, and Vietnam will as of May 2018)
  • #6 does not mean that 7% of visas get set aside annually for each country in the world. It does not mean that any one country gets only 7% of visas annually. #6 just means that any one country’s allocation gets capped at 7% so long as other countries are also competing to use up available visas. When other countries aren’t competing, then any visas still on the table get allocated to the waiting line in FIFO order without regard to per-country limits. So in 2017, China in fact got 75% of visas, which is what remained after numbers had been allocated to qualified applicants from other countries. (If not for the Chinese Student Protection Act, China could’ve received 700 visas plus the 75% leftover.)
  • When total demand promises to exceed total available visas for the year, then DOS looks at individual countries to see which look likely to exceed the 7% per-country cap, and sets a cut-off date or final action date for each of those countries. When a cut-off date is in place, only people from that country with priority dates earlier than the cut-off date can proceed with visa applications; others are held back. DOS gradually advances the cut-off date to release just enough people to apply for available visas.  At the beginning of the year, different oversubscribed countries can have different cut-off dates. When each country is getting its 7% of visas for the year, DOS looks at each country individually when setting the cut-off dates. When per-country caps have been met, then all oversubscribed countries are just competing together for remaining EB-5 visas left by not-oversubscribed countries. That means they are all in the same line again and will have the same cut-off date. (In practice that puts China at the head of the line for leftover EB-5 visas, since it’s been held back for years and thus its applicants have the oldest priority dates. Vietnam will start being held back in 2018, and its more recent held-back applicants will find themselves behind many longer-pending Chinese applicants. If India or Brazil get held back next, their still-more-recent applicants will find themselves behind both China and Vietnam in the competition for leftover visas. )
  • Exceeding the 7% cap is scary because it puts a country in the same line as China for leftover EB-5 visas, and near the back of that line based on priority dates and the FIFO process. The saving grace for small countries is that they can at least get 7% of EB-5 visas every year, and probably won’t exceed that cap by very much. If I’m a Vietnamese applicant held back this year, I’ll be one of the older Vietnamese applications next year and thus well-placed to get one of 700 new EB-5 visas available to Vietnam then. What I can’t expect is to get an EB-5 visa left over after not-oversubscribed-countries took what they want, since tens of thousands of Chinese have earlier claim on any leftover visas. But small excess = small backlog = small need to compete for leftover visas, thus relatively short wait time. As an Indian, I’d be a bit more concerned and vigilant. India hasn’t had high EB-5 numbers before, but the companies that helped create the China backlog with giant EB-5 raises have turned to India. If Indians flock to big raises seeking 100s of investors, then they will end up needing many more than 700 visas per year,  thus creating a significant India backlog that needs leftover visas but won’t get them for ages because behind the earlier China/Vietnam backlog plus squeezed by any new rest-of-the-world applications.
  • Visas can only be issued to people with complete visa applications ready, not to people with I-526 investor petitions still pending at USCIS. But it’s important to keep an eye on I-526 petitions – on number of receipts, petitioner origin, adjudication speed, approval rates – to estimate how many of those petitions will become visa applications, and when. New visa applications from not-oversubscribed countries immediately reduce the number of leftover visas available to pending applicants from oversubscribed countries. New applicants from a country near the 7% cap could tip the balance into cut-off dates and backlogs for fellow-countrymen already in line. A major decrease in I-526 filings or increase in denials or withdrawals would reduce incoming pressure on the visa backlog, and shorten wait time projections. Estimates are tough with all these moving parts and limited data, but we must try. The China backlog ballooned quickly and came to many investors (and their projects) as a nasty surprise. They didn’t realize how many other Chinese investors were already in the system or entering at the same time, and what that would imply for future visa wait times. A cautionary tale.

To facilitate analyzing numbers relevant to country-specific visa availability, I’ve added a tab titled “Country Focus” to my ongoing Backlog Calc Excel file. (The numbers aren’t new, but highlight significant previously-reported I-526 and pending visa data. I even made a cartoon to assist in visualizing the numbers. The thumbnail image here gives a teaser of the new Excel tab.) I don’t offer conclusions, but information to assist your conclusions.

Additional reading:

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