December/January Updates (Regional Center status, visa availability, I-526 and I-829 Processing in Q4, Fee Rule, Form I-526 and I-956 revisions and comments)

A quick roundup of significant EB-5 developments since last report – rather delayed, while I held out for good news. I did not expect to start my 14th year in EB-5 grappling with basic questions like “How and why do regional centers exist?” and “Is EB-5 an immigration opportunity?” I hope that 2023 will bring policy clarifications and processing improvements to help resolve such questions, which should not be open.

Regional Center Status

On December 23, USCIS slipped a new sentence onto the USCIS website: “Dec. 29, 2022, is no longer the deadline to file Form I-956, Application for Regional Center Designation, amendments, as required by the Behring Settlement, and Form I-956G, Regional Center Annual Statement. USCIS is extending this deadline until we publish guidance that clarifies the requirements of these forms.”

I saw this update on Christmas Eve and thought about leaving the nieces and nephews to report on it, but why? EB-5 stakeholders needed this notice months ago. By three business days before the deadline, everyone had already had to make their guesses and gambles and done what they were going to do with I-956 and I-956G (if they even realized that a December 29 deadline existed, since USCIS did not offer I-956 guidance to the general public, but only in litigation settlement and a private meeting with a few litigation plaintiffs). USCIS and industry are not sure how to handle the regional center application, amendment, and reporting forms because we lack clarity or agreement on basic questions about regional center identity and responsibilities. The effect of the Integrity Act on previously-approved regional centers and their investors remains unclear. Nine months after the Integrity Act passed, the USCIS Policy Manual section on regional center designation and termination remains vacant.  Meanwhile, billions of dollars are flowing in real time under sponsorship of entities and from investors who aren’t sure what eligibility requirements do or will apply to them. On the bright side, I’m glad that USCIS acknowledged a need to “clarify the requirements,” and did not stick to an unreasonable deadline. And stakeholders now have more time to provide input.

Form I-956, I-956F, I-956G, and I-956K

The Federal Register has re-opened opportunity to comment on the new regional center forms I-956, I-956F, I-956G, and I-956K. Feedback will be accepted until January 26, 2023. (Click on the “View More Documents” button to see what you’re commenting on.) This is a great chance to submit your view on the application/implementation of regional center requirements, because a responsible person at DHS is compelled to actually read and respond to each comment made through the regulatory process. It’s not like stakeholder meeting comments, which can disappear into the void. I was interested to read USCIS’s digest and responses to the previous round of comments. Many stakeholder questions about ambiguities were met with the response “USCIS may consider rulemaking to address these issues.”

I-526 and I-829 Receipt and Processing Data

USCIS published form receipt and processing data for FY2022 Q4 (July to September 2022), and I also received data unofficially for EB-5 adjudications in October to December 2022. See my Processing Data page with updated charts and detail for I-526, I-829, and I-485 processing through the end of the year.

Short report: fantastic performance for I-485 at the California Service Center in Q4 (thanks to USCIS leadership for prioritizing EB visa issuance and to Congress for applying political pressure that proved effective!), and on-going terrible performance by the Investor Program Office. IPO is still on track to deliver over-six-year processing times for I-526 and I-829, still chaotic in the date range of petitions being processed, and still denying a large percentage of I-526. In July to September 2022, over half of I-526 adjudications were denials. Fiscal Year 2022 ended with a total of 590 I-526 approvals and 825 denials/withdrawals; in other words, $295+ million in EB-5 investment yielded a chance to pursue a visa while $423.5+ million was invested without resulting in any chance to immigrate. These dreadful numbers can trace back to factors including economic pressures on EB-5 projects, heightened risk from long processing delays, the legacy of “extreme vetting” philosophy, and rogue IPO staff alone in their home offices and apparently free to make up and apply idiosyncratic standards of proof for source of funds. I expect the I-526 success rate to improve if and when IPO standardizes and publicly articulates its policy and adjudication guidelines, shortens processing times, and increases staff supervision and quality control.

I-956 and I-956F filings commenced in Q4, but the USCIS data report for Q4 does not report them. The USCIS Office of Performance and Quality may not even realize that the I-956 forms exist, and still has line items for I-924. OPQ did add I-526E to its Q4 data reporting, lumped in one line item together with I-526. Just 188 I-526/I-526E were filed in July to September 2022.

USCIS Fee Rule

The Federal Register has published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the future USCIS fee schedule, with a public comment period open until March 6, 2023. USCIS invites the public to a listening session for the Proposed Rule on January 11 at 2 pm ET.

The fee rule process is critical, because it determines over 90 percent of USCIS funding and whether or not USCIS has “the resources it needs to provide adequate service.” The fee rule process is a major reason why USCIS never has ended up with needed resources or adequate service. If you want a good cry and to lose some hair, read the 132,341 words that explain the budgeting methodology and assumptions. I am working on an in-depth article discussing the rule’s EB-5-related content. The obvious headline is the huge proposed increase to EB-5 form filing fees. But I’m more concerned by the assumptions and plans disclosed in discussion of how USCIS arrived at the proposed fees, and the question of how to respond strategically so that the Investor Program Office ends up with resources.

UPDATE: The IIUSA blog has published my detailed analysis of the formula and inputs behind the fee rule, with thoughts on how to respond.

Visa Availability

Congress did not, after all, pass the EAGLE Act or repeal country caps as part of FY2023 appropriations, which means that (for now) EB-5 visa availability remains constrained/protected by caps that limit any one country to 7% of visas in oversubscribed categories. In the near term, that on-going status quo is good news for anyone in EB-5 who isn’t an in-process EB-5 applicant born in China, India, or Vietnam.

The new EB-5 set-aside categories remain enticingly “Current” in the Visa Bulletin, which means nothing for planning because the Visa Bulletin cannot see and does not flag crowds, if any, when they start at the I-526 stage. The Visa Bulletin only monitors and controls the later visa stage, not the queue on its way to the visa stage. USCIS knows how many people are getting in line by filing I-526/I-526E, but USCIS has persistently refused to publicly report on I-526 filings/inventory by category or country. This leaves stakeholders blind to visa backlogs until the backlogs have already built up and too late to avoid.

If only USCIS would report timely and category/country-specific I-526 filing data, then we could project and compare in-process visa demand with available visa supply to calculate availability/timing for each EB-5 category.  USCIS should want to empower prospective EB-5 users to judge upfront whether and when EB-5 could offer an opportunity to immigrate. The U.S. government engages in fraud when offers an investor visa incentive while making it impossible to assess, at the time of investment, the availability of that incentive. (So far, I’ve only succeeded in getting USCIS to answer in November 2022 a Freedom of Information Act request that I submitted in February 2020 for I-526 inventory by country, having previously fruitlessly tried to get country-specific I-526 data via IPO customer service requests. The two-year-old data was useless by the time it was finally delivered to me. Others have encountered similar delays and obstruction from USCIS. As of today, the best I-526 data we have is mostly thanks to IIUSA communicating with the now-retired Charles Oppenheim at Department of State, and goes through 2021. I hope for more transparency from USCIS in 2023!)

Form I-526 and I-526E

We get another chance to provide feedback to USCIS on the revised Form I-526 and I-526E, with comments due by January 23, 2023. The last round of comments successfully convinced USCIS that it’s unreasonable to demand that petitioners detail 40 years of employment history (the current proposed version asks for 20 years of employment history). Perhaps this time we can get through to USCIS what “substantive authority” means, such that USCIS doesn’t misidentify “persons involved.” Also, let’s all remind USCIS that the public list of questions and required evidence on the Form I-526 should match the private list of questions and required evidence given to USCIS adjudicators. (For example, if USCIS truly holds the untenable standard that that each investor’s eligibility is contingent on the lawful source of funds for each other investor in the NCE, then the Form I-526 should reflect that standard, and request lawful source of funds documentation for NCE investors other than the petitioner. Currently, the Form I-526 does not request any non-petitioner source of funds evidence. But USCIS has directed adjudicators to request it at the RFE stage, and to deny direct I-526 for lack of source-of-funds documentation for non-EB-5 investors.)

Form I-956K Promoter Registration

USCIS has published Form I-956K, Registration for Direct and Third-Party Promoters. The purpose of the form is “to register with USCIS as a direct or third-party promoter” and to “allow DHS to perform standard background checks with law enforcement agencies.” The form is exciting due to its ambiguities (with vague terms pointed out in the draft I-956K still undefined), and the dramatic consequences of getting it wrong. The I-956K instructions warn that if USCIS finds problems with I-956K, penalties can include criminal prosecution for the aspiring promoter plus denial of applications and petitions associated with the regional center, NCE, or JCE associated with that promoter. The I-956K instructions request that “a promoter should submit Form I-956K before operating on behalf of any of the specified entities or promoting any offering under the EB-5 Regional Center Program.” (See also the article “Who are ‘Promoters’ and What Requirements Apply to Them Under the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act?” in the October 2022 Regional Center Business Journal, and the above-linked Federal Register invitation to submit I-956 comments to USCIS.)

About Suzanne (www.lucidtext.com)
Suzanne Lazicki is a business plan writer, EB-5 expert, and founder of Lucid Professional Writing. Contact me at suzanne@lucidtext.com (626) 660-4030.

3 Responses to December/January Updates (Regional Center status, visa availability, I-526 and I-829 Processing in Q4, Fee Rule, Form I-526 and I-956 revisions and comments)

  1. Harry Ng says:

    Thank you Suzzane for your update information and your in-depth analysis. Does the industry or attorney association have any lobby or action in place to improve the current I-526 processing situation?

    • Vijay says:

      I am of Indian origin and submitted 485 in April 2019 , responded to rfe in April 2020 Which Uscis received and nothing after that . What can I do , and I applied for travel doc April 2021 and still waiting .

  2. SV says:

    Is there any way to improve the processing time for i526. Since this is an investor visa, the expectation would be get the approval within a year or max 2 years. The delay in processing will ultimately impact the number of applicants to the investor program. Can the regional centers take any action?

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