Petition Processing Times Report Change, RC List Updates

The USCIS page to Check Case Processing Times, which updates at irregular intervals, has just published dramatic new time estimates for EB-5 forms.

  • I-526 Processing: Estimated time range of 29 to 45.5 months (the previous update gave a range of 22 to 28.5 months)
  • I-829 Processing: Estimated time range of 25.5 to 40.5 months (the previous update gave a range of 30 to 38.5 months)
  • I-924 Processing: Estimated time range of 22.5 to 44 months (the previous update gave a range of 16.5 to 21.5 months)

These charts picture the latest update in context of past reports (which I’ve logged in this file since 2014).

 

What’s the story behind the changes to estimated processing times? I have a few thoughts.

  • All we know for sure is that the report changed. Actual processing times may or may not be changing.
  • The major report change is in the spread between the high and low end of the “estimated time range.” Previous processing time report updates since early 2018 had around a 6-month spread; today’s report shows a 15+ month spread. I guess that USCIS is motivated here to redefine what counts as normal processing times by including outliers in the average. The high end of the estimated time range always roughly corresponds to the “Receipt date for a case inquiry” in the processing report. The report page states this purpose for the case inquiry date: “to show when you can inquire about your case.” By suddenly adding 1-2 years to their estimate of what can be considered “outside normal processing time,” USCIS effectively cuts the number of petitioners who can hassle them with inquiries about overdue petitions. An understandable possible reason, even if the processing speed and backlog have not in fact changed.
  • The new report gives these receipt dates for case inquiry: I-526: 9/15/2015; I-829: 2/2/2016, I-924: 10/25/2015. How many petitions filed before those very old dates could possibly still be in the system? We roughly know the answer for I-526, thanks to a report of forms pending as of 10/2018: up to 412 Form I-526 filed before September 2015 could still be pending. That was only 3% of total pending I-526 (though the number ought to be 0).
  • After several quarters of improvement, IPO reduced processing volume in the last reported quarter (Oct-Dec 2018), with 37% reduction from the previous quarter in number of EB-5 forms adjudicated. Lower adjudication volume drives longer processing times. On the other hand, lower receipt numbers (another recent trend) should eventually result in faster processing times.
  • IPO has not engaged with stakeholders since October 2018, when IPO Chief Sarah Kendall praised IPO’s progress thanks to additional resources, reported that IPO was fully staffed with over 200 personnel, and indicated that IPO would be working toward additional backlog reductions in FY19. (I keep a log of communications related to processing times here.)  There’s been no explanation for the overall processing slowdown evident since that positive report.
  • A May 2019 letter from L. Francis Cissna to Senator Tom Tillis discusses recent processing delays across USCIS, and gives EB-5 one mention. “Another cause for delays in processing can be increased litigation. For example … the USCIS Field Operations Directorate is complying with court orders related to the EB-5 program…” (on PDF p. 7) I assume that refers to the Zhang Class Action. Perhaps IPO is slowing new I-526 adjudications as it backtracks to deal with all the petitions that it denied in error over loan proceeds. And USCIS has been targeted by numerous other lawsuits over questionable denials involving the EB-5 “at-risk” requirement. (In other news, this letter is one of Cissna’s last actions as USCIS Director.)
  • We can see what IPO is not doing since October 2018 – not adjudicating many I-526, and not approving or terminating many regional centers. The question: what is IPO doing? IPO is processing more I-829, if the lower low end of the estimated time range in the new processing report gives any indication. That’s a good thing. I hear that IPO has been issuing lavish RFEs, which potentially doubles the work involved in each form processed. That’s less excusable, especially since many RFEs don’t even target problems, but basically just request that originally-filed documents be resubmitted to reflect developments during the adjudication delay.
  • Back in 2011/2012, a processing slowdown presaged a policy shift. At that time USCIS turned against tenant occupancy methodology, and delayed decisions on affected cases while it figured out how to define its objections. The current slowdown makes me wonder if USCIS is again shelving certain cases while it brews more new policy guidance. (Only the policy won’t be called “new,” when announced, since then it couldn’t apply retroactively to pending cases.)

NOTE: Having written so much about timing issues, I’ve now added a EB-5 Timing page to collect links to data and posts related to processing times, visa wait times, and visa availability and allocation. I’ve also created a new service for people who would rather not wade through all the detail themselves, but want to request my timing estimate for their specific situation. See the EB-5 Timing Estimates Page.

RC List Changes

Speaking of reduced activity at IPO, here’s another sparse regional center list update. Just four regional centers have been terminated so far this year, as compared with 79 terminations in the first five months of 2018, and 38 terminations in the first five months of 2017. Just three new regional centers have been designated since January 2019. Is this a new period of welcome stability after the frantic growth and culling of 2016-2018? Or an unnatural calm?

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 04/20/19 to 5/28/2019

  • No new regional center designations
  • Interestingly, four regional centers that were terminated last year have now been restored to the approved list, demonstrating that it’s possible to overcome a termination: EB5 United West Regional Center, LLC, EB5 Affiliate Network Washington, D.C. Regional Center, LLC, Art District Los Angeles Regional Center, LLC, and Greystone EB5 Southeast Regional Center LLC. (No decision documents have yet been posted for these RCs. For Greystone, USCIS has posted the termination reason but not the sustained appeal.)

New Terminations

  • America Commonwealth Regional Center (terminated 5/10/2019)
  • American Opportunities Regional Center, Inc. (terminated 2/15/2019)

Regulations Update (Spring 2019)

The Spring 2019 OMB Unified Agenda has been published with updated timetables for three EB-5 regulations in progress.

  • RIN1615-AC07 EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program Modernization, with proposed changes to TEAs and the minimum investment amount:
    • Timetable for Final Rule is May 2019 (The Fall 2018 agenda had anticipated November 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 March 2020 (The Fall 2018 agenda had anticipated March 2019)
  • 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 is March 2020. (The Fall 2018 agenda had anticipated September 2019)

RIN1615-AC07 is still listed as Pending Review by the OMB before it can become a final rule. Meanwhile, a number of parties have requested to meet with OMB regarding the regs (View EO 12866 Meetings).

  • 5/30/2019 meeting requested by Carmen Group Inc representing United States Immigration Fund LLC
  • 5/7/2019 meeting requested by EB-5 Investment Coalition representing Related Companies and other regional centers
  • 3/25/2019 meeting requested by Real Estate Roundtable; Commonwealth Strategic Partners representing IIUSA; HLP+R representing EB5 Capital; US Chamber of Commerce; Klein/Johnson Group representing Civitas Capital Group
  • 3/20/2019 meeting requested by Navigators Global representing Related Companies
  • 3/6/2019 meeting requested by American Life

The regional centers named have historically undertaken large EB-5 raises for projects in major cities, most remarkably Related with $1.2 billion in EB-5 raised for the Manhattan Hudson Yards project. They naturally oppose a regulation that would dramatically cut EB-5 demand with higher investment amounts and that would make urban TEAs more scarce. (To know the messages likely conveyed at the OMB meetings, see comments on the regulations submitted by Related, EB-5 Investment Coalition, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Civitas, EB5 Capital, American Life, and IIUSA).  Apparently anyone can request a EO 12866 meeting, so any interests that have another perspective can take the chance to provide additional input. But the EB-5 Modernization Regulation, at least as written in 2017, managed to threaten such a variety of interests that I’m not sure anyone exists to advocate for it to be finalized. Except people like Senator Grassley who want reform but apparently unclear about what’s actually in the regulation.

 

TEA set-aside proposal

This post examines the visa set-aside proposal in the industry’s most recent Letter to Judiciary Committees in Joint Support of Reform and Reauthorization of EB-5 Program.

Here’s the recommendation in the letter:

Notably, we recommend a 30% set aside of the annual visa allotment each year for investors in TEA projects, which would be split equally between Rural and Urban Distressed communities.

TEA Set-Asides

  • 15% of visas for Rural
  • 15% of visas for Urban Distressed
  • Unused visas roll-over annually at the end of each year to general visa pool for access by all projects in the immediately following year
  • The set asides apply immediately to new I-526 petitions filed after enactment, but they cannot be applied retroactively towards petitions that were pending as of the date of enactment.

Possible arguments in favor of the recommendation:

  • A visa set-aside could be a genuine incentive for TEA investment because it offers something that’s of value to investors (visa fast track) and that doesn’t have the economically counter-productive effect of reducing capital available to the TEA project (as does the current monetary-discount TEA incentive)
  • A visa set-aside can only be a potent incentive if new investors have a chance to benefit from it. Therefore, such set-asides must be limited to new petitioners, not available to the tens of thousands of past investors. Consider that current law (INA 203(b)(5)) has already set aside a minimum of 3,000 visas annually for TEA investment. We forget that this set-aside even exists, because it means nothing when TEA investments far exceed 3,000 annually in any case. The new TEA set-aside proposal will be no more effective than the existing one unless demand for it is limited.
  • Limiting the visa set-aside to new investors would help, at least short-term, to address a major industry problem identified in the letter. “In the current marketplace, protracted EB-5 wait times have slowed inbound foreign capital to a trickle.” People who want to raise more EB-5 capital from China, Vietnam, and India need to be able to offer shorter wait times. Future prospective investors from those countries want shorter wait times too. So long as we can’t get more visas for those countries, the only option is to create a shortcut around people already waiting in line from those countries.
  • The industry must appease reformers who want to incentivize investment in distressed and rural areas, but industry (as represented in this letter) does not wish to upset the status quo or disadvantage prosperous urban areas. Set-asides can be presented as a TEA incentive to help bargain down the monetary TEA incentive, while likely to have limited effect in practice.

Possible arguments against the recommendation:

  • Considering the backlogs, EB-5 visa availability is a zero-sum game. Restricting 30% of visas to future investors means removing 30% from past investors still waiting on a future visa. Getting in front of the line means pushing someone else back in line. Improving visa wait times for some means worsening them for others. Supporting the set-aside recommendation for the sake of future capital raises requires betraying investors in past capital raises. This is a serious problem for regional centers and project companies. The zero-sum issue is a painful fact unless Congress/the White House agree to offer additional visa numbers to EB-5, which no one says is likely to occur. The only question is how many past investors would be harmed by set-asides, and how badly. The following is my attempt so far to reason out the impact, and I welcome thoughts from others.
    • Damage from the set-aside would vary by country.
      • The worst impact of set-asides would likely be for past investors from Vietnam and India (and South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil if they also exceed the per-country cap). These countries can each access only 7% of total EB-5 visas annually until the China backlog dissipates – i.e. for the foreseeable future.  That means about 700 visas each. If, for example, 350 new investors from India are recruited in a year under the new set-aside categories, that could be sufficient to claim the total visas available to India. 700 available visas minus 700 visas allocated to new investors gaining priority under reserved set-asides would equal 0 visas left for past investors. 0 visas available year by year would stretch visa waits for past investors to infinity. The disaster for past investors would be less if (1) the new TEA categories are not popular and fail to attract many new investors from India or Vietnam, or (2) the new categories are so popular that excess demand creates backlogs even for new investors that would eventually depress new demand, or (3) the statute is interpreted such that past investors at least get 7% of the 7,000 generally-available visas, or such that set-aside status would only trump priority-date status after the 7,000 non-TEA limit is reached. In other words, the set-asides would not be disastrous for these past investors provided that they are ineffective for new investors.
      • Past investors from China calculate their wait times based on 10,000 total available visas minus visas claimed by the rest of the world. Their current wait time calculations already assume over 3,000 new investors a year getting priority due to nationality. If those same investors get the additional priority of TEA set-aside status, that might not change the China calculation very much. The set-aside proposal would harm past China investors if the set-asides are not popular, and new investors from other countries instead compete with China for the reduced pool of generally-available visas.
      • The visas set-aside provision would likely be neutral for investors from relatively low-volume countries (i.e. countries other than China, Vietnam, India, Brazil, and South Korea). New investors from these countries would not receive special benefit, since they already don’t face a visa wait by virtue of nationality, and past investors from these countries would not be specially harmed, since they already demand far fewer than 7,000 visas annually.
    • How many past investors would be affected? All those who are still waiting for a future visa when the set-aside proposal is passed. The industry’s letter to Congress numbers “all pending applicants in the queue” at “approximately 30,000.” This is phrased to imply that there are 30,000 total people waiting in line, though in context “all pending applicants” appears to refer specifically investors, not counting family also in line. Charles Oppenheim of Department of State estimates EB-5 applicants with petitions on file at NVC and Estimated USCIS Applicant Data (as of April 1, 2019) at 73,157 people. Looking at data from USCIS on I-526 filings by country, we can count over 40,000 people who filed I-526 but couldn’t possibly have visas yet, either due to cut-off dates or because the I-526 is still pending. That would translate into a queue with 70,000 to over 100,000 people in it depending on one’s assumptions about denials, withdrawals, and family size. The queue is 68% to 85% Chinese, by various estimates. (Here’s Oppenheim’s estimate — see especially slide 10 — and my analysis.)
  • Set-asides would not even be an effective TEA incentive
    • Set-asides offer a time incentive.  They incentivize TEA investment from new investors by offering a visa wait significantly shorter than the norm. Such incentive depends on a norm of long visa waits. Therefore:
      • If the industry’s recommendations for visa backlog relief/increased visa numbers were accepted and visa waits were reduced, the potency of the set-aside incentive would be diminished accordingly.
      • If there’s no visa relief, set-asides would still only incentivize new investment from China, Vietnam, and India. Other countries that already do not expect a visa wait would not value a ticket to avoid the wait.
    • Set-asides would only incentivize new investment so long as demand for the set-asides is low. If they’re popular and attract over 1,000 investors annually, their 3,000 visas will quickly be claimed, backlogs will form, and the time advantage on which the incentive depends will disappear.

Please send me links to alternative analysis and I will post them, or add your comments. The TEA set-aside proposal has been brought forward regularly since 2016, but I still haven’t quite grasped why, in light of the above issues. EB-5 Investment Coalition and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, how about publishing justification for the TEA proposal? Current IIUSA members, did you hear about this letter before it was released to the public last week? Did you take part in crafting it or have opportunity to vote on it? I’d love to hear your perspective.

EB-5 Reform, Immigration Reform

Today, IIUSA and others published a letter to the Senate and House Judiciary Committees laying out “consensus reform concepts” recommended for new EB-5 legislation. I’m heartened to see effort toward reform and reauthorization, and saddened by the letter’s content. Ideally, a consensus will appear to balance the interests of a variety of groups. I don’t see that here. Two recommendations particularly deserve input from a broader base of stakeholders:

  • Recommended investment amounts. The letter proposes $800,000 minimum for investment in a TEA, and $900,000 for investment outside a TEA – replacing the current 50% discount with a 12% discount. Competitive advantage requires that a feature be both rare and valuable. The letter offers a concession that TEAs can be more strictly defined so as to make them more rare than now, but then redefines the incentive to make TEA designation less valuable. The net result is clear for projects located in genuinely distressed areas that struggle to complete against prosperous urban areas. (I don’t see expedited processing being an effective additional incentive, considering USCIS’s likely inability to deliver such benefit, or visa set asides for reasons discussed below.) The recommended investment amounts don’t look like an attempt to compromise with interests outside big cities, and also don’t look like a compromise with reform advocates. How likely is Congress to accept a proposal that not only hardly increases but would actually lower the standard EB-5 investment amount set back in 1990? The recommended investment amounts have the advantage that they’re feasible and wouldn’t destroy the market, but are too-obviously the status quo.  Where’s the attempt to sell the recommendations to people who want to be seen voting for modernization and reform?
  • Recommended visa set-asides. This is framed as an additional TEA incentive, but I am doubtful. The letter recommends setting aside 30% of visas annually for TEA investments, with the set-asides applying immediately to new I-526 filed after enactment, and not allowed to apply to petitions pending on the date of enactment. I foresee that this will act as a TEA incentive only for a short time, until the set-aside categories build up backlogs of their own. However, set-asides would allow raising new capital by taking visas from backlogged investors and offering them to new investors. The tens of thousands of people already in line for a visa would see the pool of visas available to them reduced by 30%, for the sake of having 30% of visas set aside in a special category only open to future investors. Thanks to the additional action of per-country caps, the set-asides could theoretically reduce visas available to past investors from India and Vietnam to zero (if promoters exploit the opportunity to offer all 700 annual visas available to India/Vietnam to new investors under the set-asides).  I want the EB-5 program to remain viable as much as anyone, but I don’t see how this visa set-aside proposal can possibly be an honorable option, considering the size and nature of the EB-5 backlog. To be fair, the letter also recommends visa relief. It suggests eliminating derivatives from the visa allocation, and suggests giving pending applicants the opportunity to pay $50,000 each to “re-set the program,” whatever that may mean. But since Congress has entertained the visa set-aside idea in recent years, and hasn’t expressed remote willingness to increase visa numbers in any way, one struggles to see good faith to past investors in the recommendations. Impossible benefits do little to counterbalance possible harm. And there ought to be obvious good faith to past investors, considering that the associations signing the letter represent members that benefited from over $10 billion in past EB-5 investment. (My post TEA set-aside proposal gives additional analysis.)

It may be pointless to get upset, considering the low likelihood that Congress will heed these recommendations or act on EB-5 any time soon. But why can’t we, as an industry, do better than this letter? If you’re represented by an organization that signed this letter, and you do not agree with the so-called consensus, make your voice heard in the on-going discussion.

Speaking of immigration proposals likely to be ignored, President Trump gave a speech yesterday to outline an immigration plan. In 2016, I wrote about candidate Trump’s vision “to choose immigrants based on merit, skill and proficiency,” and cribbed a chart from the New York Times that pictures visa allocation under our current system.

Yesterday’s speech enlarged on a “big, bold, beautiful” plan to reorient our immigration system so that it issues fewer visas based on “random” characteristics such as family relationship and humanitarian concerns, and more based on personal qualities, particularly economic position and potential. The plan sounds similar to the points-based system promoted by Senator Tom Cotton in the RAISE Act, though details have yet to be released.

One sentence from the President’s speech struck me particularly: “America’s immigration system should bring in people who will expand opportunity for striving, low-income Americans, not to compete with those low-income Americans.”

This sentiment could get some bi-partisan support, if anything received bi-partisan support anymore. And certainly, the EB-5 program deserves credit for already realizing this value. EB-5 can use the immigration incentive to expand opportunity in two ways: by creating jobs that are within reach of striving low-income Americans, and by providing capital for striving Americans who might otherwise not have been able to implement their business ideas.  How many small towns across the US now have their first flagged hotels thanks to local entrepreneurs matching with EB-5 investors to make the dream happen? How many local restaurant chains were able to expand their portfolios thanks to partnership with EB-5 investors? Such ventures don’t make the news, but I see them as a business plan writer working with small EB-5 projects.  They highlight an important feature of the EB-5 program: that it doesn’t only reward immigrants establishing their own businesses, but immigrants who support US citizen-owned businesses. I hope that any immigration reform debate will keep that EB-5 value in mind. Tom Cotton’s proposal, for example, though intending to reward economic contribution, would only have granted points for an immigrant’s investment in his or her own business.

Apparently the the administration’s plan has few friends and unlikely to go anywhere. But I’m interested as a citizen. What kind of immigration system would really accomplish a “Build America” goal? Here in Ogden Utah we just celebrated the sesquicentennial of a major nation-building milestone: the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. In his speech at the centennial celebration, then-transportation secretary John Volpe proudly asked “Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? Who else but Americans could drill through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid 10 miles of track in 12 hours?” As it happens, Americans did none of those things. There’s a railroad through the Sierra Nevadas thanks to Chinese workers.  What would have happened to America’s economic development without the incredible stamina and skill of those migrants from China, few of whom would’ve scored points in Tom Cotton’s system? Would Leland Stanford just have become less rich, having had to pay a naturalized workforce at least 30% more? Or is there a broader lesson about what builds America?

 

 

 

Forecasting Visa Availability: 5/6 Oppenheim projections and big picture

[Post updated 6/19/2019] Today Charles Oppenheim, Chief of the Visa Controls Office at the U.S Department of State, gamely appeared again at IIUSA’s EB-5 Advocacy Conference to discuss EB-5 visa availability.

So far Twitter just reports a few headlines from his talk. India is expected to reach its limit and get a cut-off date by July 2019, and to start FY2020 with a final action date in Summer or Fall of 2017. Rough estimates for visa wait times for I-526 filed today: 16.5 years for China, 8.4 years for India, 7.6 years for Vietnam, and 2.4 years for South Korea. I trust that IIUSA will again support program integrity by publishing a blog post with the detail and slides from Mr. Oppenheim’s talk. When that happens, I’ll update this post with a link. [UPDATE: Here is IIUSA’s post on the Oppenheim presentation, with a link to his slides.] But for the moment, some background and comments on what the estimates do and do not mean.

Future visa wait times rest on several uncertain variables, and thus impossible to calculate with certainty. Mr. Oppenheim has gotten flack for attempting long-range predictions that aren’t and can’t be perfect. But rough headline-making projections serve a purpose: to highlight the existence of real visa availability issues, even if with a significant margin of error.  Hearing “16.5-year wait” at least alerts EB-5 users to a problem with China visa availability, though an accurate year estimate could be longer or shorter depending on which assumptions one chooses to use for the calculation. [I have a request pending with IIUSA to clarify Oppenheim’s assumptions.]

There are two ways to go wrong in interpreting future EB-5 visa wait time estimates. One is to interpret them as some kind of official guarantee, and blindly follow or furiously attack them as such. The other is to dismiss them as mere hot air, conclude that wait time projections are prohibitively complex, and thus disregard wait time as a factor in EB-5 decision-making. Some past EB-5 investors make the first error. Unscrupulous promoters hope that all prospective EB-5 users will make the second error.

In the past I’ve delved into the detail and complications behind EB-5 visa availability, with my 10-tab spreadsheet of data, log of visa allocation statutes, and scenario analysis. But examining the trees can mean losing sight of the forest. So for this post, I want to focus on the solid big picture behind all our varied and flawed attempts to quantify EB-5 wait times in detail.

First, an image to clarify how the EB-5 queue works. It’s the kind of queue where you enter a waiting room, take a number, and sit down to wait, watching a notice board for your number to be announced to show that your turn has come. Meanwhile, other people are also moving through the process and getting their turns and leaving, while others enter, and the notice board updates regularly.

[Image updated 6/19/2019]
In EB-5, the place-holding number is “priority date” – the date of I-526 filing. The notice board is the monthly Visa Bulletin, which signals which priority dates can get service at any given time.

Figure 1 illustrates the stages in the EB-5 process up to conditional permanent residency.

  • Step 1: File I-526. This step initiates the EB-5 process, and assigns a priority date that marks each investor’s place going forward. There is no constraint at this stage; as many people as want to file I-526 can file I-526.
  • Step 2: Waiting for I-526 approval. In principle, I-526 adjudication is first-come-first-served without regard to nationality, but it’s not strictly by priority date. In recent years, most people have waited 1-2 years at this stage. This stage is only constrained by USCIS efficiency in processing petitions. The USCIS Processing Times Report gives a rough indicator of progress in I-526 processing. Step 2 must be completed before the investor can apply for a visa. We have data for I-526 receipts, approvals, and pending petitions at various points in time. (Such data only counts number of principal investors, so need to multiply by an estimated number of family members when making total visa demand estimates.)
  • Step 3: Wait for a fee bill from the National Visa Center (consular processing), and wait for the visa bulletin to indicate that one is qualified to move forward in the process.
  • Step 4 to 5: Investors plus family members can proceed to get green cards through consular processing or I-485 status adjustment once visa numbers are available to them. At this stage, priority date and nationality determine order of service, and the Visa Bulletin announces each month who can proceed. We have data for the number of people waiting at Stage 3-4 from different countries at various points in time. (Such data already counts investors plus spouse and children – don’t multiply by derivatives again or you’ll overcount.)
  • Step 5 has the major process constraint – the annual EB-5 visa quota. The annual limit: about 10,000 total EB-5 visas worldwide, of which at most only about 700 can go to each country other than China, and none to China except what’s leftover from the rest of the world (which has been 4,000 – 9,000 visas in recent years). Steps 3-5 can be less than a year wait for applicants born in countries that are “current” in the Visa Bulletin (not at risk of exceeding the 700/year visa limit). Steps 3-5 involves multi-year waits for applicants born in countries that do exceed the annual quota. The more in excess of the quota, the longer the wait.

Some points that I tried to highlight in Figure 1, to combat misconceptions:

  • The person just entering at Step 1 can look up at the notice boards and see who’s currently getting service. He can see from the current processing times report that most I-526 from before 2017 have already been processed, and from the current visa bulletin that China-born applicants who filed I-526 in October 2014 are now getting green cards. But that’s just info about the end of other peoples’ process — indicating who’s being served now, and how long they waited. It does not look forward to indicate when May 2019 priority dates will be served, or how long the person at Step 1 will wait.  To forecast into the future, and guess about future notice dates, the person in Step 1 needs to look around and forward — at how many other people are entering Step 1 and waiting in Step 2 to Step 4 in front of him. Charles Oppenheim attempts to help with such guesses.
  • Wait times result from backlogs building up against the major constraint in the EB-5 process – the annual visa quota. Unfortunately for efficiency, this constraint is in the last step. To estimate his personal wait time, the person in Step 1 needs to estimate how big the backlog will be once he gets to Step 3. Again, this requires looking around and forward — at how many other people are entering Step 1 and waiting in Step 2 to Step 4 in front of him. The variables are clouded by spotty information and judgment calls, but the equations themselves are simple. If I’m an India-born person in Step 1, then my visa wait = (A) qualified India-born visa applicants with priority dates earlier than mine divided by (B) about 700 visas per year limit. Variable (A) is equal to India-born investors waiting in Step 2 in front of me, minus attrition from I-526 denials and withdrawals, plus family members who will join the approved India-born I-526 in Step 3-4, plus India-born applicants already waiting in Step 3 and 4, minus India-born applicants who will drop out or receive visas during my time in Step 2-4.
  • It’s good to step back sometimes from the confusing variables to the simple equations, as a reminder of the big picture and basic logic of wait times. The basic logic is that visa waits are mainly a function of I-526 volume. Unknowns about future denials and withdrawals and family size and processing times will vary forecast calculations this way and that, but this is sure: a lot of I-526 filings will result in a lot of people eventually ready for a visa. A lot of visa applicants will mean long backlogs and wait times in front of the visa quota constraint. People at the beginning of a surge in I-526 filings will wait less time for a visa than people after a surge.
  • With that in mind, one last figure, the most telling of the numbers in my backlog calculation file. If I were a lawyer counseling EB-5 users about big picture timing issues, I would have them consider the numbers in Table 1. How many investors plus family are likely to end up at Step 5, and when, considering how many investors have started at Step 1? What future wait times are implied in that past demand, considering visa number limits? It’s impossible to look at I-526 numbers and predict exact backlogs and wait times, considering all future variables, but it’s easy to see the general issue. For example, over 700 Vietnamese investors filed I-526 in 2018, and only 700 Vietnamese investors plus their spouses and children can get visas in a year, so Vietnam is clearly looking at a backlog and wait time situation at the visa stage — a situation exacerbated by excess demand in 2016 and 2017 as well. A Vietnamese investor had better not rely too heavily on specific future estimates from Charlie Oppenheim or anyone else, but she can and should have a chance to see the fact and consider the consequences of excess demand.

NOTE: I’ve added a EB-5 Timing page to collect links to data and posts related to EB-5 visa availability, visa allocation, and wait times. If you would like to order a personalized timing estimate, see the EB-5 Timing Estimates Page.