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.

Previous related posts:
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!

About Suzanne (www.lucidtext.com)
Suzanne Lazicki is a business plan writer, EB-5 expert, and founder of Lucid Professional Writing.

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

  1. LK says:

    A question from South Korean.

    A quote made by Suzanne:
    So when Charlie Oppenheim at the Department of State Office of Visa Controls estimates a five-year wait time for Country A, he is talking about five years from priority date to green card, not five years from I-526 approval to green card.

    So does this mean since my priority date is Aug 2016, this will be my inquiry/priority date for my i-485 filing also? Or just an estimation from i-526 priority date to actual green card receival (which i-485 inquiry/priority date gets created again)?

    • My point is only that the line for visa numbers is in order by I-526 priority date, based on the principle that Available EB-5 visas are issued to eligible immigrants in the order in which the immigrant petition was filed. INA 203(e)(1). Form I-485 is not the immigrant petition, so its inquiry date does not determine order in the queue for an EB-5 visa. I’m not sure what the I-485 filing date does provide, besides an inquiry date. If anyone reading this knows more than I do, please clarify!

      Also, I’ve updated the post to be more precise, specifying that Charlie’s estimates are for the time between priority date and visa availability, not actually getting the visa. Because I’m reminded that I-485 processing can be quite lengthy, aside from the quota problem.

  2. Venkat Gupta says:

    Please share / guide – what is process and mechanisms for allocation of ‘surplus’ visas to over subscribered countries.
    How will this effect China / Vietnam / India?

  3. Ash K says:

    I am deeply concerned about the removal of per country limits for EB5. Like you detailed, non-China applicants of EB5 will be pushed back as Chinese petitions waiting since 2014 will be getting processed first.
    It will effectively kill the EB5 program going forward. Why will any new investor from any country apply for an EB5 visa if he/she has to wait for 5-10 years for a conditional greencard.

    • I agree, and that’s one reason that I wrote this post — to help people think about where to direct their advocacy efforts, and which changes are most in their own interests. Eliminating the per-country limit could look like a solution to the China wait line, and industry advocacy may actually have put it in last week’s draft bill. It only fades as a solution when one remembers the sheer number of people in line for an EB-5 visa and thinks numerically about the implications for different groups. So I try to keep the bringing the numbers back to the discussion.

    • kishore says:

      Dont worry the country limit will never be removed. It simply wont happen cause Indians will flood EB2/3 and Chinese will flood the rest of the categories (especially EB5).

  4. Karan says:

    Is there any proposal for Premium Processing to be introduced in EB5 Category in New Immigration Bill.

  5. Rohit says:

    Are these expected wait times for the petitions filed in the future? I’m from India and filed in October 17- should I expect a 5 year wait time based on your estimates?

    • I assume that the estimates were as of when Charlie made the prediction — April 2018. Thus your wait time should be shorter, assuming that accumulated demand from India was less as of October 2017 than it was as of April 2018. And time estimates for after April 2018 will be higher, assuming petitions from India continues to build up.

  6. Parveen Garg says:

    What will be my wait time if I apply now

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