Countdown to Reauthorization/Immigration Changes

January 19
Congress lost its bet and failed to pass a new funding bill by midnight. But “lawmakers are believed to be negotiating a days-long extension that could be approved quickly.” In the meantime, the regional center program is on hold, and regional center-associated petitions and applications won’t advance until Congress takes action.

January 18-19
The Hill has a new article every few minutes on the likelihood that Congress will or won’t agree on time to the CR extending current funding and associated authorities (including RC program authorization) into February. So much drama. I expect that the CR will pass by 11:59 pm on Friday, assuming that our lawmakers have much to gain from speaking out against the CR, and more lose from the shutdown that would result from not voting for it in the end. But we shall see. Just in case, Klasko Law comments on effects of a potential government shutdown on immigration processing and programs and IIUSA explains Possible Government Shutdown: What it Means for the EB-5 Regional Center Program.

January 16
House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen today introduced legislation (H.J.Res 125) to maintain current funding for federal operations and prevent a government shutdown. The Continuing Resolution (CR) is a stop-gap measure that will extend government funding through February 16, 2018.
There’s nothing in the text of H.J.Res 125 to prevent regional center program authorization from being extended with other authorities tied to current funding. But we’ll see whether Congress can manage to agree long enough to pass the CR and avoid a shutdown. The White House supports the CR, at least.

January 15
No indication yet that Washington is near compromise on new immigration legislation. A Continuing Resolution of current funding and authorities to February 16 continues to look likely. In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day today, I quote President Trump making an important point:

Today, we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God.

This is not the belief evident in the current immigration reform discussion, which looks more like this:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are not created equal, that they are endowed by their nationalities with certain inalienable characteristics, that among these are propensity to violence, noxious ideology, inability to assimilate, and failure in the pursuit of property. — That to secure against such characteristics inherent in certain nations and their nationals, immigration policy is instituted among Us, to effect Our Safety and Happiness by erecting barriers against threats embodied in Them, and screening Them by the color of their passports in lieu of the content of their character.

We miss you, Dr. King!

January 11 post
Some dates to keep in mind as we wonder what will happen next with EB-5:

  • January 19, 2018: The next regional center program sunset date (and the deadline for a new funding bill that some hoped to make a vehicle for sweeping new immigration legislation). It’s looking likely that this deadline will be pushed back a few weeks, however, with another continuing resolution.
  • February 2018: The date indicated for final action on new EB-5 regulations (with provisions including drastic increase to the EB-5 investment amount)
  • February 16, 2018: Possible next regional center program sunset date, if Congress fails to pass a new funding bill in January, and instead defers the funding and immigration fight with a continuing resolution  (or some speculate the CR could go into March)
  • March 5, 2018: The date DACA protections are slated to end, and thus the date Congress is pushing to beat in passing a big immigration bill
  • April 2018: The possible effective date for new EB-5 regulations, assuming that the rule is finalized in February with an effective date after 60 days (as ILW rumors)

The race is on for EB-5 legislation, with pressure from sunset dates and the need to forestall unwelcome regulations. Washington is actually talking about comprehensive immigration reform, including reshuffling visa numbers. But I haven’t heard EB-5 mentioned once, for good or ill, anywhere, by anyone, in recent immigration discussion. The left is for DACA; the right is for border security and against diversity visas and chain migration. Immigrant investment doesn’t fit with any side’s talking points. I hope that Congress privately remembers EB-5, because we really need action from them: to give the regional center program a longer-term authorization, to enact program changes better than what would come with new regulations, and to realize program potential by freeing up more visas for EB-5.

If broad-based immigration legislation happens soon, what will it include and how will it affect EB-5? We have a few hints, but nothing definitive yet. This week President Trump hosted a bipartisan and bicameral meeting on immigration reform that concluded (reportedly) with “an agreement to negotiate legislation that accomplishes critically needed reforms in four high-priority areas: border security, chain migration, the visa lottery, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.”  (As an aside, I recommend the White House transcript of the meeting. It’s not especially informative, but an amazing artifact. If Aristophanes or Alexievich set out to write Washington today, I doubt they could beat this straight record of the January 9 Cabinet Room scene.)  Yesterday House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte introduced H.R. 4760 Securing America’s Future Act, which proposes sweeping changes in line with President Trump’s immigration priorities. The bill includes nothing that would directly affect EB-5, so far as I can tell. (The Immigrant Investor Pilot Program gets a name check, but only in context of a technical amendment that renumbers a subsection. No mention of program authorization or any EB-5 changes. H.R. 4760 proposes to increase employment-based visa numbers, but EB-5 wouldn’t benefit because the bill would change its allocation from 7.1% of the total to a flat 9,940 visas annually, regardless of the worldwide level. The bill fiddles with per-country limits for family-based visas, but not for employment-based visas.)  Meanwhile, the Senate is still trying to come up with a competitive immigration deal that’s more passable by Congress while still signable by the President. I’ll report on details when available, and also hope that advocacy people will eventually share what’s happening with EB-5 on the ground. (Update: IIUSA has published an Industry Special Report, and Senator Graham has posted summary provisions of the Senate’s Immigration Reform Act of 2018. The summary mentions nothing that would affect EB-5.)

EB-5 Regulations (2/2018?)

While we have our eye on the legislation ball, the Office of Management and Budget has given us a new EB-5 deadline to think about. The Spring 2017 Unified Agenda had mentioned April 00, 2018 as a “Final Action Date” for regulations dealing with EB-5 investment amounts and TEAs (RIN 1615-AC07), but now the Fall 2017 agenda has advanced that prediction to February 00, 2018. I’d doubted the April date because so many factors seemed likely to delay regulations (the prospect of legislation instead, the fact that Congressional intent as expressed in draft legislation looks so different from what DHS put in the proposed regulations, the administration’s coolness to regulation in general, government inertia in general), but advancing the date to February looks like positive intent to really get the EB-5 regulations done.

We don’t know yet what will be in the final Rule 1615-AC07, since it may have been revised significantly since the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. But as a reminder, here’s what the NPRM proposed:

  • Increase the standard minimum EB-5 investment amount to $1,800,000, or $1,350,000 in a TEA.
  • A TEA is based on high unemployment and incentivized with 25% reduction to the investment amount (not other factors or incentives as proposed by Congress).
  • A TEA can only be designated for a high-unemployment MSA, county, city, single census tract, or limited group of census tracts. DHS, not the states, is responsible for TEA designation.
  • Give priority date protection (an investor with an approved I-526 could choose to file a new I-526 while keeping the original priority date, subject to certain restrictions)
  • Spouse and children may be able to file I-829 even if not included on the principal investor’s petition.
  • Other technical changes.

The federal rulemaking process requires that “At the end of the process, the agency must base its reasoning and conclusions on the rulemaking record, consisting of the comments, scientific data, expert opinions, and facts accumulated during the pre‐rule and proposed rule stages.” In April 2017, the public responded to the NPRM with challenging questions and criticism, and some persuasive data and policy arguments. The agency must take these into account. If USCIS revised the proposed rule in response to public comment, they might have modified the proposed investment amount increases (nearly all commenters argued strongly for this), either narrowed or expanded the gap between TEA and non-TEA investment (there were spirited arguments on both sides), modified the restrictions on census tract TEAs, or reconsidered giving DHS the burden of issuing TEA designations. On the other hand, USCIS is not well known for changing track in response to evidence and arguments presented by the public. The Fall 2017 OMB notice reiterates USCIS thinking about the potential costs and benefits of the proposed regulations:

The proposal to raise the investment amounts and reform the targeted employment area (TEA) geography could deter some investors from participating in the EB-5 program. The increase in investment could reduce the number of investors as they may be unable or unwilling to invest at the higher proposed levels of investment. On the other hand, raising the investment amounts increases the amount invested by each investor and thereby potentially increases the total economic benefits of U.S. investment under this program. The proposed TEA provision would rule out TEA configurations that rely on a large number of census tracts indirectly linked to the actual project tract by numerous degrees of separation, and may better target investment capital to areas where unemployment rates are the highest.

If a final rule were published in the Federal Register in February 2018, it could go into effect as early as March 2018, and apply to petitions filed on or after the effective date. (See A Guide to the Rulemaking Process for an explanation of the typical process.)

On the other hand, the threat of immanent regulations may inspire Congress/industry to finalize EB-5 legislation ASAP instead.

Meanwhile, the OMB Unified Agenda has pushed back the estimated date for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for RIN: 1615-AC11, the EB-5 rule dealing with regional center designation, the exemplar filing process, continued regional center participation, and regional center termination. The Spring agenda had estimated April 2018; the Fall agenda has October 2018. We previously responded to this as a Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The agenda’s cost/benefit comment notes that:

DHS is still in the process of reviewing potential changes it would propose to the regional center process. DHS may propose to implement an exemplar filing requirement for all designated regional centers that would require regional centers to file exemplar project requests. An exemplar filing requirement could cause some projects to not go forward, but DHS is still in the process of assessing the impacts on the number of projects that may be affected. DHS anticipates that any proposed changes to the regional center program would increase overall program efficiency and predictability for both USCIS and EB-5 stakeholders.

RC Reauthorization to 1/19/2018, visa numbers, legal actions, RC list changes

Countdown to Regional Center Program Reauthorization

  • 12/22: President Trump has signed the continuing resolution H.R. 1370, which means that the regional center program is now extended together with other authorities to January 19, 2018. (See Congress.gov for the text of the enrolled bill H.R.1370, now Public Law No 115-96.) I also notice that the White House website has been reorganized to highlight immigration as a key issue. The new White House immigration page emphasizes these priorities for the administration: constructing a border wall, ensuring the swift removal of unlawful entrants, ending chain migration, eliminating the Visa Lottery, and moving the country to a merit-based entry system.
  • 12/21: The House and Senate have passed a Continuing Resolution that replaces the expiration date in previous legislation with “January 19, 2018,” and doesn’t include any language that would exclude regional center program authorization. See the House Appropriations Committee news release for the text of House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 1370.
  • 12/20: The content of a Continuing Resolution through 1/19 is still under negotiation.
  • 12/18: Nothing settled yet on the next stopgap funding measure, which will have to fight with tax reform for attention this week. The Senate Appropriations Committee may come up with its own proposal to compete with the House proposal. Senator Cornyn indicates that the Senate bill would also be through January 19, but may include some different provisions.
  • 12/13: Yesterday the House Appropriations Committee introduced H.J.Res 124 – a Continuing Resolution that would temporarily extend federal funding and maintain current federal operations (currently authorized to December 22) until January 19, 2018. Basically, it’s a clean extension that just switches out expiration dates: “SEC. 101. The Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018 6 (division D of Public Law 115–56) is further amended—7 (1) by striking the date specified in section 8 106(3) and inserting ‘‘January 19, 2018.’’ The 250 pages of miscellaneous additional provisions (defense appropriations, CHIP extension, etc.) do not mention EB-5 or move to separate RC program authorization from continued government funding. This bill is just barely out of committee, not enacted yet, but I’ll add updates as I hear news ahead of the 12/22 deadline.
  • 12/8: IIUSA members will be happy to note that the association has decided to tell us its 2017 Policy Platform and comments on the draft legislative framework. Now to see if we’ll be asked for our opinion on the policy positions someone has formulated. Probably not, since the hard-won industry unity depends on a narrow base. UPDATE: IIUSA has sent an email to members with the invitation “Please contact advocacy@iiusa.org with any comments or questions” on the IIUSA policy framework.
  • 12/8: IIUSA did the right thing with a stern statement on Marketing Hypothetical EB-5 Reform Outcomes as Certainties. Prospective investors take note: do not rest your current EB-5 decision on the possibility of visa set-asides in hypothetical future legislation. We have no assurance that a set-aside proposal will ever be enacted, or to whom/what a set-aside proposal would apply, if enacted. Even if set-asides became available, the size of the visa backlog and volume of I-526 filings mean that they may disappear too quickly to have an appreciable incentive effect. Their main function appears to be now, in hypothetical form, as a phantom concession to help get what industry negotiators really want (low investment difference between TEA and non-TEA areas) and a phantom carrot to encourage new investors.

Visa Backlog Update

The backlog of EB-5 visa applications at the National Visa Center continues to grow, as one would expect with I-526 filing surges reaching the visa application stage. The Annual Report of Immigrant Visa Applicants in the Family-sponsored and Employment-based preferences Registered at the National Visa Center as of November 1, 2017 reveals that the EB-5 visa application backlog is 23% longer this year than last year, with 17% increase in pending applications from mainland China and a 106% increase in pending applications from other countries. I’ve added these numbers to my master backlog calculation spreadsheet, which has a projection tab to estimate how statistics translate into wait times.

Legal Actions

Additional reading for those interested in following litigation in the EB-5 space, and learning from the actions and statements that got other people in trouble.

Other Helpful Articles

McKee, Curylo, Parrington: Considerations for Independent Third Parties to Assist With EB-5 Investments (December 12, 2017)

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 11/08/2017 to 12/05/2017:

  • American Dream Fund Seattle Regional Center, LLC (Washington): www.adreamfund.com
  • American EB5 Regional Center (Florida)
  • Cactus21 LLC (California)
  • Chicago Real Estate Development Regional Center, LLC (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin)
  • Great North Regional Center, LLC (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont): www.peakresorts.com
  • Hawaii Regional Fortune Center LLC (Hawaii)
  • M5 Venture Southern California RC, LLC (California): www.m5venture.com
  • Manhattan Empire State Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • NCP Regional Center (California)
  • North Carolina EB5 Regional Center, LLC (North Carolina, South Carolina): eb5affiliatenetwork.com/regional-centers-access/eb5-regional-center-north-carolina
  • SRC NY, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)

One regional center was removed from the approved list, but not added to the terminated list:

  • Bart Investment Group, LLC (Florida)

 

RC Program Reauthorization (CR to 12/22/2017)

Updates:

  • 12/8: H.J. Res 123 has been signed by the President and is now P.L. 115-90. Now we wait for legislation that will authorize the regional center program past December 22, 2017.
  • 12/7: A continuing resolution through December 22 passed the House and Senate today, and the President is expected to sign it. H.J. Res 123 is a “clean” extension, meaning that it simply extends the deadline for previous funding and authorities (including the regional center program) without changes.
  • 12/7: Regional center program authorization is still waiting on Congress to manage a Continuing Resolution that would extend current government funding and associated authorities past December 8. Washington continues to fight and risk shutdown. If by chance current government funding and the regional center program sunset on 12/8, what will happen to EB-5 investors? The impact will not be too painful so long as the lapse is temporary. Judging from past history, the Department of State will change EB-5 regional center visa categories from “Current” to “Unavailable” in the Visa Bulletin, and pause issuing visas to RC investors until the RC program is authorized again, returning to business as usual.  USCIS has reportedly prepared “what if” guidance for two sunset scenarios: if the Regional Center program lapses but Congress apparently intends to reauthorize it, or if Congress indicates its desire to end the program. I’m guessing that if the lapse appears temporary/unintentional, then IPO will probably also just hold off on new RC petition approvals until the program regains authorization. And as another reminder: EB-5 itself is a permanent program and not facing a sunset; direct EB-5 petitions and applications can continue as usual regardless of RC program authorization.
  • 12/5: Senator Grassley and Senator Cornyn — two people who have worked on EB-5 legislation in the past — today announced a new bill that would address a number of immigration issues but apparently not EB-5.  S.2192 “The Security, Enforcement, and Compassion United in Reform Efforts (SECURE) Act of 2017” is about security and enforcement, not about compassion or unity, and not concerned with EB-5 (though it would give permanent status to E-Verify, a temporary program historically reauthorized with the regional center program).
  • 12/5: The Hill notes that immigration is in the spotlight as discussions continue over a series of continuing resolutions that would extend current government funding to 12/22/2017, and then again to January or February next year. But the contentious issues are Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals and border security; no one’s arguing about EB-5 so far.
  • 12/4: It looks as if there will be an extension to December 22 (or possibly into January), to give Congress more time to come up with a new funding bill.

Original 11/29 post: EB-5 is permanent, but the EB-5 regional center program faces another sunset date. The RC program’s current authorization is tied to a continuing appropriations act that expires next week Friday, December 8. Sabers are rattling in Washington over the next funding bill, and we may be in for another short-term resolution while our representatives get things figured out. EB-5 hardly rates in the scheme of significant and controversial issues facing Congress now, and I don’t hear anyone speaking out about it. I expect we’ll see (1) a new appropriations bill or continuing resolution next week that includes clean extension to the RC program for the bill’s duration (since that’s been the pattern for two years, and the default option for a Congress busy with other matters); or (2) limited EB-5 program changes crafted by/for the few people who spend most on EB-5 lobbying, slipped quietly and at the last minute into a larger bill to facilitate passage and forestall review and criticism from a broader base of interests. I do not think the regional center program will be terminated, or omitted on purpose from the next appropriations bill. Termination calls have never been very loud or widespread, and termination would also take time and attention from Congress. However, the reauthorization picture is not pretty. The RC program has received seven short-term extensions in the past two years. Congress hasn’t taken positive action on EB-5 since 2012. A program with billions of dollars on the line deserves more stability, attention, and enthusiasm.

Chart notes: The PL numbers identify the public laws that contain regional center program authorization. Each opaque blue bar begins with the date of PL enactment and ends with the end of RC authorization in that PL. The light blue shading reflects the fact that the first three reauthorizations just extended the original authorization (from five years to seven, then ten, then fifteen years). If anyone knows how to fill in the authorization gaps in my chart before 2008, please email me the missing PL numbers.

Visa Numbers Update (Vietnam, India), TEA Reform Proposal, RC Audit Change

Visa Numbers Update (Vietnam, India)

We heard some updated EB-5 numbers this week from Charles Oppenheim, the Chief of the Immigrant Visa Control and Reporting within the U.S. Department of State. Bernard Wolfsdorf gives highlights from the presentation in 5 Things I Learned from Charlie Oppenheim at the IIUSA 7th Annual EB-5 Industry Forum. The major news is Mr. Oppenheim’s prediction that Vietnam will have enough demand to be subject to a cut-off date in 2018, and India may need a cut-off date by 2020. Cut-off dates happen when a visa category is oversubscribed and a country demands more than its rightful 7% of available visas in that category. A cut-off date holds back applicants from oversubscribed countries long enough to let any other applicants from undersubscribed countries get first chance at available visa numbers.  China is so far over the limit that it’s in an indefinite cut-off date situation with slow forward movement. Vietnam and India are just barely approaching the limit, and don’t have that much competition from other countries, so their cut-off dates would likely be temporary and hardly perceptible unless demand explodes.

I most appreciated the slide from the Mr. Oppenheim’s IIUSA presentation that gives a breakdown of pending applicants at the National Visa Center by country of origin (for the top five countries) and priority date. I added data from the slide to my Excel file of EB-5 backlog-related info, and correlate it with per-country I-526 receipt data from USCIS. I’m copying below a couple tables that illustrate (1) how we might forecast future cut-off-date-countries from information on I-526 receipts and approvals, and (2) that life is not fair. (Note: see below for updated tables.)

Since the IPO Processing Times report indicates that USCIS has only gotten to processing I-526 filed in November 2015, one wouldn’t expect to see applicants with 2016 and 2017 priority dates already in the visa queue. But Department of State reports nearly 2,000 applicants from the top five countries with priority dates after 2015, which means that USCIS must have processed over 600 petitions out of date order. Of course the number of pending visa applicants with priority dates 2015-2017 is still very small compared with the number of I-526 receipts in those years, so a majority of petitioners are getting held up in slow I-526 processing. I am surprised at the number of applicants with early priority dates still pending at NVC, considering that the China cut-off date progressed to mid-2014 this year (per the Visa Bulletin) and the other countries don’t have a cut-off date.

12/11/2017 UPDATE: The Department of State has provided updated numbers for pending visas in its Annual Report of Immigrant Visa Applicants in the Family-sponsored and Employment-based preferences Registered at the National Visa Center as of November 1, 2017. Here are updated charts based on the new data.

TEA Reform Proposal

Industry discussion about potential legislation has focused on the House-Judiciary Chair EB-5 Reform Proposal, a one-page term sheet with notes for potential future legislation. The term sheet proposes replacing the current Targeted Employment Area (TEA) system with a R/UD system. R/UD stands for Rural or Urban Distressed – two areas that would be incentivized for EB-5 investment with a slightly lower investment amount and fees, reduced job creation requirement, and – most potent of all – set-aside visas.

A couple major questions to consider: which projects would qualify for incentives under the R/UD proposal, and who’d be the winners and losers, were the term sheet to become legislation and then law?

  • The term sheet briefly defines Urban Distressed criteria: “must meet 2 out of 3 of the New Market Tax Credit Criteria.” The NMTC program has several sets of criteria, but we’ll assume the staffers mean the NMTC criteria for “severe distress” (since that’s the criteria referenced in previous EB-5 draft legislation): Poverty rate greater than 30 percent; median family income not exceeding 60 percent of statewide median; unemployment rates at least 1.5 times the national average. The term sheet gives this cryptic description of Rural criteria: “Base law + census tracts that would qualify under base law except for the fact that they are located in the outlying counties of MSA’s with population densities of less than 400 psm + Hatch fix.” I believe that means: Rural is an area with a population under 20,000 that is outside a Metropolitan Statistical Area (or a low population/low density area within the outskirts of an MSA). With those definitions in mind, you can get a sense of whether a project location might qualify for R/UD incentives using the CDFI Fund Mapping page provided by the US Department of the Treasury. For urban projects, select the NMTC mapping tool. When you enter the project address, the NMTC tool will bring up a map of census tracts around that address, with relevant NMTC data for poverty rate, income, and unemployment for each census tract. Check these numbers against the NMTC Severe Distress threshold, recalling that the EB-5 proposal would require 2 of 3 criteria to qualify. For rural projects, choose the BEA tool on the CDFI Fund Mapping page. This will bring up a map that lets you search by address and discover whether the address is in a non-metropolitan area, and the local area population. (To be sure of R/UD qualification, you’d need some additional guidance: whether and to what extent it’s allowable to group and average data across more and less distressed urban census tracts, what it means to be “outlying” in the rural context, and what source and date of data would be accepted. The term sheet doesn’t specify this.)
  • To judge winners and losers, we look at proposed incentives for R/UD investment. The term sheet suggests that investments in R/UD areas would be incentivized in these ways: 1,500 annual set-aside visas each for R and UD (with any unused visas rolling over from year to year in the same category), $925,000 minimum investment, reduced job creation requirement (5 indirect), option for exemplar somewhat-premium processing (one year), and exemption from an extra visa fee. Investments outside R/UD areas would have a $1,025,000 minimum investment, compete for the 6,940 annual visas remaining after set-asides, and would be subject to a visa fee of $50,000. The R/UD definitions and visa set-asides would become available on the date of enactment, affecting everyone with a visa pending at that time. The term sheet specifies that people with pending petitions and applications wouldn’t need to increase their investment amount, but they would find themselves in a line suddenly made about 40% longer by set-asides that reduce the generally available visa pool. The term sheet offers this limited relief: “For 1 year after DOE, any unused set-aside visas may be used by investors who had filed petitions pending as of DOE that meet the new definitions of R/UD.” However, I guess that few pending petitions fall in that category. This means that the #1 loser in this proposal is the past investor still waiting on conditional permanent residence. Congressional staffers don’t cry over the past investor, because they’re annoyed by the filing surges that happened in recent years (while they failed to act) and have wanted retroactivity. Self-interested RC lobbyists may also have few tears for past investors, whose money is in the bank and whose presence in the backlog represents the major drag on recruitment of new investors. A small negotiating table could see a win-win in a proposal that could discourage past applicants into clearing out the backlog and smooth the way for new rural/urban distressed investment (effectively incentivized with set-asides) and new prosperous urban investment (still competitive thanks to minor investment amount difference). Industry players who care about past investors and clients exist, and I hope their concern will signify.

Audit and Inspection Change
The page on the USCIS website that formerly explained Regional Center Compliance “Audits” and Site “Inspections” now describes Regional Center Compliance “Review” and Site “Assessments.” It’s interesting that USCIS revised the titles to sound less threatening, though the promised content of the audit/review or inspection/assessment remains almost unchanged.  The one content change I notice on the page is an additional bullet point for Regional Center Compliance Review: “Assess the effectiveness of internal controls related to the regional center’s administration, oversight, and management functions.”

Direct EB-5 FAQ, White House Immigration Principles

Direct EB-5 FAQ
The regional center program dominates EB-5, but the alternate direct EB-5 track remains significant. 846 EB-5 visas went to direct EB-5 investors plus family in FY2016, and this number will likely climb as petitions from the past couple years finally reach the visa stage. Direct EB-5 can be an attractive option for foreign investors and U.S. business owners who wish to avoid the uncertainty surrounding the regional center program. About half the business plans I write these days are for direct EB-5.

There remain, however, lingering misunderstandings about how EB-5 works outside the regional center program. I’ve prepared a new page, Direct EB-5 FAQ, that addresses questions about the nature and practical uses of direct EB-5.

Test your direct EB-5 knowledge.

  1. True or False? The direct EB-5 program will sunset unless re-authorized by Congress.
  2. True or False? A direct EB-5 investor must invest at the $1 million level.
  3. True or False? Real estate developments are the most common direct EB-5 project type.
  4. True or False? A majority of direct EB-5 investors have come from China.
  5. True or False? The direct EB-5 investor must majority-own the enterprise receiving investment.
  6. True or False? The direct EB-5 investor must have day-to-day managerial responsibilities in the enterprise receiving investment.
  7. True or False? If a direct EB-5 investor buys a business, that business and its employees will qualify as new for EB-5 by virtue of the new ownership.
  8. True or False? A new commercial enterprise can use direct EB-5 capital to invest in a separate job-creating enterprise.
  9. True or False? A direct EB-5 investor can count full-time equivalent jobs created by the enterprise.

Each of these statements is false. If you were surprised, then check out the Direct EB-5 FAQ page for direct EB-5 information, policy references, and case citations.

White House Immigration Principles & Policies

Just in time for Columbus Day, President Trump has sent Congress a list of Immigration Principles & Policies that 15th-century Americans could wish they’d had. The White House principles focus on border security and interior enforcement, and repeat the idea that legal immigration should feature a skills-based points system while reducing admissions for relatives, asylum seekers, and refugees. We shall see how Congress reacts to this guidance from the White House. The White House principles look positive for immigrant investment, but the points system would be fatal (at least in the scenario proposed by Tom Cotton, which would eliminate EB-5 and would not allow immigrant investment to support US entrepreneurs, but only immigrant-controlled business).

In the meantime, in honor of voyagers who continue to build our great nation as they bridge continents and pursue their dreams in face of doubt and adversity, I will quote the first paragraph of President Trump’s Columbus Day proclamation.

Five hundred and twenty-five years ago, Christopher Columbus completed an ambitious and daring voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.  The voyage was a remarkable and then-unparalleled feat that helped launch the age of exploration and discovery.  The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation.  Therefore, on Columbus Day, we honor the skilled navigator and man of faith, whose courageous feat brought together continents and has inspired countless others to pursue their dreams and convictions — even in the face of extreme doubt and tremendous adversity.

Washington Updates, Articles, SEC Actions, RC List Changes

Washington Updates
We’re entering FY2018 with another RC program sunset date coming up on December 8, 2017, and new EB-5 regulations waiting for final clearance by the Office of Management and Budget. In a September 28 podcast with Mona Shah, Peter Joseph of IIUSA reports that “Congressional leadership including Senator Cornyn, Majority Leader McConnell, and Speaker Ryan has spent time working with judiciary committee leadership in coming to an agreement. The fact that these parties continue to dedicate time to a legislative solution is a very good sign.” However, “We don’t know the details of what might come out of a Congressional agreement. Investment amounts and other key issues are part of a fluid conversation, and negotiation will continue until there is enough agreement to move to the next stage.” I’m glad to hear that conversations are on-going, with IIUSA taking an active part. I’m also inclined to agree with Mintz Levin’s conclusions in the thoughtful article Lawmakers May Not Spend Political Capital on Standalone EB-5 Bill (September 28, 2017). It’s hard to imagine that Congress will prioritize EB-5 legislation when issues like health care and tax reform are pending, and easy to imagine them deferring responsibility with another content-free short-term RC program extension, or waiting for regulations. If DHS finalizes new EB-5 regulations before Congress gets around to legislation, then Congress doesn’t have to touch donation-losing issues like investment amount increases and TEA reform. Congress must act eventually, because only Congress can authorize the RC program and deal with visa numbers, but we’ll see. Prior to the last couple sunsets I heard whispers that certain lobbyists had secured a gentleman’s agreement with staffers for new legislation that would protect the status quo. (Senator Grassley heard the whispers too, and was not pleased). I’m hearing similar reports this time around, together with protests from other people in communication with the same offices who say no, Congressional leadership is not on board with the status quo proposals (to minimize the investment differential, protect the natural advantage of big-city projects, and generally avoid painful disruption). I’m not sure what to expect. I look forward to listening in to EB-5 Legislation: Where Are We? a free webinar to be hosted on October 4 by Kurt Reuss of EB5 Diligence, with an all-star cast including Stephen Yale-Loehr, Robert Divine, Robert Cornish, Laura Reiff, H. Ronald Klasko, Carolyn Lee, and Douglas Hauer. (10/12 Update: Mona Shah reports on a possible new legislative compromise.)

Interesting Articles

  • NES Financial has published another white paper with EB-5 Trends & Insights based on data from the many regional center transactions they facilitate. NES comments on 2017 trends in EB-5 capital structure, investor markets, escrow terms, and size and location of EB-5 projects.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek recently featured EB-5 in How Rich Chinese Use Visa Fixers to Move to the U.S. (September 14, 2017). I appreciate the article for its clever graphic, and for its old-fashioned vision of Chinese flocking to the smooth path of EB-5, not sweating at home over backlog calculations and the question of whether an EB-5 green card is worth a decade wait on top of investment risk and political uncertainty and capital control complications. CNN Money seems closer to the current situation with its article America’s ‘golden visa’ is losing its luster in China (September 29, 2017). The changing role of Chinese investors in EB-5 will likely define our experience in 2018. Unless, of course, we get good news on legislation and visa numbers.
  • Those involved with EB-5 investors from Iran, and people of conscience generally, will want to keep an eye on the emerging situation with President Trump’s new Presidential Proclamation on Visas. The State Department summarizes the revised travel ban, and how it affects nationals of Chad (?), Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, and Somalia. (10/24 update: the Supreme Court has dismissed a final attempt to block the ban.)

SEC Actions
The Securities and Exchange Commission continues to highlight the need for investor vigilance. This month brought two new complaints, against Ronald Van Den Heuvel and Green Box NA Detroit (filed September 19, 2017) and Edward and Jean Chen and Home Paradise Investment Center LLC (filed September 20, 2017). I’ve added select details to my log of all SEC actions in EB-5. If we believe the SEC’s version of events, these cases did not involve complex or sophisticated schemes, just daylight theft and open lies enabled by related-party transactions and weak diligence. USCIS wasn’t necessarily taken in (the briefly-posted list of I-526 and I-829 adjudications by RC showed 0 petition approvals for Home Paradise), but quite a few investors were. The market needs to be more careful. The good actors who account for a majority of EB-5 players need to go the extra mile with transparency and account controls to demonstrate their good faith. Meanwhile, we appreciate the SEC putting bad actors on notice that EB-5 is not a free lunch.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 8/28/2017 to 10/02/2017

  • American Real Estate Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • American Stone Energy EB5, LLC (Texas)
  • Broadway Regional Center, LLC (California)

(Additionally Live in America – Carolinas Regional Center LLC, previously removed in error, has been restored to the list of approved regional centers)

New Terminations

  • California Blue Sky Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated August 29, 2017
  • Arundel Capital Partners (Massachusetts) Terminated August 29, 2017
  • California Economic Development Fund, LLC (California) Terminated September 25, 2017
  • Global Medical Center of Southern California (California) Terminated September 25, 2017

RC reauthorization to 12/8/2017, I-924A tips, SEC request denied (Kameli)

Regional Center Program Reauthorization

The EB-5 Regional Center Program authorization is now extended to December 8, 2017 thanks to H.R.601, which the President signed into law yesterday. Washington worked with admirable dispatch this time, cutting and finalizing the deal all within one week and nearly a month ahead of the September 30th deadline.

The law is hard to read, but for those who like to confirm things personally here’s the relevant language for regional center program extension. H.R. 601 “Continuing Appropriations Act, 2018 and Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Requirements Act, 2017”  Division D Section 101 (PDF page 11) provides appropriations for “continuing projects or activities…for which appropriations, funds, or other authority were made available in the following appropriations Acts: … (6) The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2017 (division F of Public Law 115–31), except section 310.” The previous regional center program authorization is in Public Law 115-31 Division F Section 542 (PDF page 298), so it’s one of the continuing activities that’s extended by H.R. 601 Division D Section 101. (And to go back another step, the language in PL 115-31(F)542 refers back to Section 610(b) of the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1993 (Public Law 102-395) page 47, which established the regional center program.) H.R. 601 Division D Section 106 (PDF page 13) further specifies that:

Unless otherwise provided for in this Act or in the applicable appropriations Act for fiscal year 2018, appropriations and funds made available and authority granted pursuant to this Act shall be available until whichever of the following first occurs:
(1) the enactment into law of an appropriation for any project or activity provided for in this Act;
(2) the enactment into law of the applicable appropriations Act for fiscal year 2018 without any provision for such project or activity; or
(3) December 8, 2017.

The language in Section 106 is a good reminder that “extended to December 8” doesn’t mean “guaranteed to remain unchanged until December 8.” Congress will reportedly turn its attention to immigration issues in the next couple months, and they could come up with legislation before December that affects multiple visa categories including EB-5.

I-924A Filing Tips
I’m not sure what changed, since I don’t work directly with I-924A, but yesterday USCIS published a new version of the Form I-924A Filing Tips page.

SEC Request Denied (Kameli)
When the SEC files a complaint, it’s easy for the public to just assume that the defendant is guilty as charged and there won’t be any more to the story but determining punishment. Even worse, USCIS tends to assume this and has been known to deny and revoke investor petitions and terminate regional centers before the SEC cases are concluded. We all need to remember that sometimes the defendant might have a compelling other side of the story, and might not be found guilty. The district court judge overseeing a recent EB-5 case filed by the SEC just found that the SEC “in numerous instances has not presented fully developed arguments to show why defendants’ actions violated securities laws.” The judge’s memorandum opinion, which considers the defendants’ side of the story, is linked at the end of the article Senior living developer avoids EB-5 ban, receivership (September 7, 2017). For the SEC’s version of events see SEC v. Seyed Taher Kameli, et al., Civil Action No. 17-cv-04686 (June 22, 2017). The article SEC Suffers One of its First Major Losses in EB-5 Realm (September 12, 2017) summarizes the issues.

Redeployment, Reauthorization, I-485, AAO Decisions, RC List Changes

Redeployment
Julia Harrison’s published statement for the July 19 engagement in San Jose has been updated with cautious answers to two important questions about how redeployment policy applies to pending I-526 petitions. Specifically, whether adding redeployment language to filed documents would constitute material change, and what process and documents are required if redeployment occurs while I-526 is pending. The answers aren’t direct and substantial enough to provide comforting guidance, but on the other hand they’re so open-ended as to potentially offer a lot of flexibility for compliance. I’ll let you consult the link to read for yourself. You needn’t return to my recording to check whether these topics were discussed in more detail in person on July 19, because they were not. Maybe these redeployment questions came up in follow-up emails to the Public Engagement mailbox, and now kindly being shared with everyone. Though it’s lucky I’m so vigilant, or we might never have noticed that the USCIS website replaced one version of the July 19 talking points with another.

Speaking of redeployment, here’s another helpful article. Fiduciary Duties of General Partners and Managers in Connection with Redeployment of EB-5 Capital (August 28, 2017) By Catherine DeBono Holmes

EB-5 Engagements
USCIS posted an official recording of the 8/24 I-924A webinar very promptly, and also sent a “Save the Date” announcement. “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will hold the next EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program national stakeholder engagement on Tuesday, November 7, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern. This event will take place at the USCIS New York City Field Office with in-person and telephone participation and the option to submit questions in advance. We will send an invitation with more details in the coming weeks.”

Reauthorization
The next sunset date for the Regional Center Program comes in just a few days, on September 30. Since dropping or substantially extending the RC program would require attention and discussion, and no one seems to have time or interest for that, I’m guessing we’re in for another series of uncomfortable and inconclusive short extensions with spending bills, as in 2015 and 2016. (9/8 update: the Regional Center Program is now extended as part of a Continuing Resolution to December 8, 2017.)

EB-5 has an awkward position, politically. When the right likes investment but is queasy about immigrants, and the left is just the opposite, what’s the future of immigrant investment? EB-5 is a visa category that demonstrably creates rather than takes U.S. jobs, supports U.S. business development and American products, and brings in a small number of legal immigrants likely to generate a lot of tax dollars and not strain the welfare system. That should make it a favorite visa category, especially for economic nationalists. But a Congressman who’s actively working against the immigration prospects of US-raised kids and overseas grandmas is already getting some flack, and may hear criticism from all sides if he’s seen to simultaneously support wealth-related immigration. On the other hand, people concerned to protect visa opportunities get more political credit for focusing on kids and grandmothers and tech talent than on a small category of legal immigrants associated in the press with luxury real estate. So far as I know, no one in Congress has been interested enough in EB-5 recently to even criticize it, must less speak in support of it. The Senate Judiciary Committee is reportedly about to hold a hearing on immigrant visas, but EB-5 probably won’t be on the agenda. The hearing is designed to scrutinize visas that conflict with the administration’s “Buy American Hire American” policy, and EB-5 doesn’t conflict with that policy. Since EB-5 isn’t in the cross hairs, it may not even be on the radar. But I’ll keep looking for news, and please tell me if you have insights into what’s likely to happen between now and December. Maybe USCIS’s threat to possibly finalize EB-5 regulations by 4/00/2018 will incentivize lobbyists to push for substantial EB-5 legislation sooner rather than later, but we’ll see. A lot of good EB-5 projects and good faith investors depend on smooth seas ahead.

I-485 Interviews
Immigrants who apply for an EB-5 visa through the adjustment of status (I-485) rather than consular process should note the announcement that USCIS to Expand In-Person Interview Requirements for Certain Permanent Residency Applicants (August 28, 2017). These interviews are designed to provide USCIS officers with the opportunity to verify the information provided in an individual’s application, to discover new information that may be relevant to the adjudication process, and to determine the credibility of the individual seeking permanent residence in the United States. Miller Mayer comments on practical implications.

AAO Decisions (geography, material change, RC termination)
The 2017 folder of AAO decisions on I-526 appeals has already posted 177 decisions – or 26 decisions, if we exclude near duplicates (different petitioners, same decision). I read all the decisions and keep a log of points that are significant to my work with EB-5 business plans. A few comments on decisions that interested me.

  • JAN132017_03B7203 (Matter of WX) and AUG152017_01B7203 (Matter of SL) deal with the same business model: a proposal to open and operate three franchise hair salons, of which the first two have identified TEA locations and the third is a plan for the future, with location to be determined. The AAO decisions confirm what I’ve always said: that only the identified locations can be considered for the total EB-5 investment and employment eligibility requirements. A petition can’t depend on applying TEA investment to a prospective location, since the TEA status of that unidentified location can’t be determined at the time of investment or filing.
  • AUG152017_01B7203 (Matter of SL) has the additional wrinkle that the salons funded by qualifying investment had already gone out of business (after having operated 1.5 years) by the time USCIS got around to adjudicating SL’s I-526 petition. SL expressed her intention to make additional investment and resume operations in the same locations. Interestingly, AAO did not say that such a situation would automatically lead to denial or the need to file a new I-526 petition. AAO challenged the practical feasibility of restarting the business (based on minute analysis of the business plan), but does not challenge the very idea of funding a new business after the previously-funded business failed. The decision implies that business failure and need for new investment would not be, in themselves, a material change. The decision specifically states that opening new salons in the same TEA with different management and different staffing plan is not a material change.
  • JUN302017_01B7203 (Matter of WL) gives another rare example of a change NOT found to be material. WL filed Form I-526 with a business plan that anticipated that the NCE would provide shuttle and tour services, with auto accessories sale as a sideline (about 10% of business). A site visit subsequently found little evidence of shuttle/tour service, and auto accessories sale accounting for far more than 10% of the business. But AAO judged that “Merely shifting the percentages of the types of services the Petitioner said the NCE would offer is not, by itself, a sufficient basis to deny the petition.”
  • APR262017_02B7203 (Matter of YL) and JUL062017_01B7203 (Matter of YY) identify material changes and explain what makes the changes material. In Matter of YL, a change in business focus and location are judged to be “predictably capable of affecting” and “have a tendency to influence” determinations of whether the Petitioner invested at the required capital investment threshold and will prospectively create the requisite qualifying jobs. In Matter of YL, the petitioner filed a series of plans for different types of food service business. AAO judged that in this case “The NCE’s business plans two and three constitute a material change to the original one because they represent far more than a change in food styles. …In addition to the type of food, business plans two and three include changes to the NCE’s nature of business, services offered, location, start-up costs, and staffing needs. These changes are material and are made to correct a deficiency in the original submission.”  (By the way I add these examples as they come to my master post on material change.)
  • JUN222017_01B7203 (Matter of LPT) shows how real-life business development after I-526 can help the petitioner, so long as it’s successful. USCIS questioned the reasonableness and credibility of LPT’s business plan, and LPT responded not by revisiting the projections but by documenting actual successful business performance since I-526 filing. On the other hand, JUN132017_01B7203 (Matter of MYA) explains why disastrous developments after I-526 filing (in this case, the Palm House Hotel woes) justify judging the original business plan not credible in hindsight.
  • APR182017_01B7203 is good reading for anyone intending to set up a direct EB-5 investment with elements of a debt model, such as preferred return.
  • The cases from JUL192017_01B7203 to JUL282017_11B7203 are denials of appeals or motions to reopen/reconsider filed by Path America investors whose petitions were denied or revoked following the termination of Path America Regional Center. All are nearly identical to one or the other of the linked decisions, and dismiss the petitioners’ attempts to claim some due process protection.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 8/23/2017 to 8/28/2017

  • Guardian Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • NationSure, LLC (New York)
  • State of Maine EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Maine)

New Terminations

  • Live in America – Georgia Regional Center LLC (Georgia) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Boston Regional Center LLC (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Florida, LLC (Florida) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Nevada Regional Center, LLC (Nevada) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Louisiana Regional Center, LLC (Louisiana) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – U.S. Virgin Islands Regional Center LLC (U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Arizona Regional Center, LLC (Arizona) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Indiana, Michigan, Ohio Regional Center (Indiana, Michigan, Ohio) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America Chicago Regional Center, LLC (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • Live in America – Midwest Regional Center, LLC (Minnesota, Wisconsin) Terminated 8/18/2017
  • SoCal Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/18/2017

I-924A webinar, EB-5 regs, Articles, RC list changes

I-924A Webinar

Today USCIS held a webinar to discuss the latest version of Form I-924A, Annual Certification of Regional Center. USCIS has linked an official recording to the webinar page. (I previously posted a folder with my recording.)

The webinar was technical and specifically focused on Form I-924A — what’s new in the December 23, 2016 version of the form, and how to complete it. A couple points of general interest came out in the presentation.

  • The presenter highlighted the expanded definition of regional center “principal” in the new I-924A and additional information requested about principals. The presenter confirmed that the IPO Compliance Division plans to use this information to conduct background checks of everyone in a position to control, influence, or direct the management or policies of the regional center, and that the results of such background checks are material to the regional center’s ongoing designation.
  • USCIS instructed that petitions that were withdrawn should be reported as “denied” on I-924A. This categorization could explain the petition approval and denial statistics published last month by USCIS, which reported a surprisingly high number of denied petitions. A caller encouraged USCIS to consider recording withdrawn and denied petitions as separate categories, and the call presenters said they’d consider the suggestion. The presenters also indicated that regional centers can add a note to I-924A explaining how many of the “denied” petitions were in fact denied, and how many withdrawn.

EB-5 Regulations

The Semiannual Regulatory Agenda published today by DHS lists regulation 1615-AC07 (the EB-5 regulation concerning TEAs and investment amount increases) as being in the “Final Rule” stage. The timetable on the rule’s summary page gives an estimated date of 04/00/2018 for Final Action. I’m not sure how seriously to take the agenda or the date estimate.

Articles

Developer FAQ: Jim Butler of JMBM Global Hospitality Group has put together a booklet titled The Developer’s EB-5 Handbook for EB-5 Construction Financing. Although targeted to hotel developers, this free booklet provides experienced answers to a range of practical questions common to businesses as they first consider EB-5 financing.

Large-Scale EB-5 Real Etate Projects: Gary Friedland and Jeanne Calderon of the NYU Stern Center for Real Estate Finance Research have released a new paper featuring a database of large-scale real estate projects that incorporate EB-5 into the capital stack. See EB-5 Projects Database: 2017 Supplement with Trends and Observations (August 16, 2017 Draft).  This 2017 database collects publicly-available information on 26 projects in major metro areas with current/recent EB-5 raises. The authors previously published a 2016 database with 27 projects and a 2015 database with 25 projects.  These large-scale projects are significant for the industry because they target such a large number of investors. The 26 projects in Friedland & Calderon’s 2017 database aim to attract 6,736 EB-5 investors, which means that they alone could use up over two years of available EB-5 visas. Megaprojects take a large piece of a small pie, are too big to fail, can offer attractive and well-managed investment opportunities, and present a public relations challenge. A high-profile luxury development in a Tier 1 city is not typical of the EB-5 program overall, but it is typical of the few projects that seek and find hundreds of EB-5 investors.

Vermont: Speaking of too-big-to-fail, I continue to follow the efforts of Vermont Regional Center to clean up from fraud charges against a couple of its project managers. The regional center has worked hard to recover from the disaster and (at least recently) to protect and compensate investors, but now faces having to respond to a NOIT from USCIS. A Notice of Intent to Terminate is not the same as a termination notice (the RC has a chance to respond to a NOIT, and not all NOITs are followed by termination), but it is a significant development. This news story discusses the whole situation, and this story gives detail of NOIT content. “What level of oversight are regional centers responsible to provide?” is a grey area question in EB-5, and a question that USCIS addresses in its assessment of Vermont Regional Center.

Regional Center List Updates

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 08/01/2017 to 8/23/2017

  • Liberty Regional Investment Center (Georgia)
  • Nevada First National Regional Center, LLC (Arizona, Nevada)
  • Pass2NY Regional Center, LLC (New York)
  • USA New York Liberty EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)

New Terminations

  • IZON, LLC (South Carolina) Terminated 8/17/2017
  • America’s Regional Center, LLC (Florida) Terminated 8/15/2017
  • First American Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/14/2017
  • Civitas Rio Grande Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 8/10/2017
  • Illinois Valley Regional Center (Illinois) Terminated 8/10/2017
  • Southern California Investment Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/10/2017
  • Powerdyne Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 8/2/2017

I-924A webinar, Processing Times, I-526 by country, visa numbers, EB-5 legislation (HR 3471)

I-924A Webinar
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) invites you to participate in a webinar on Thursday, August 24, from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern to discuss Form I-924A, Annual Certification of Regional Center. This webinar will discuss certain changes to the Dec. 23, 2016 edition of Form I-924A and the accompanying instructions. Here is the invitation with instructions for registration. This webinar is also mentioned in Julia Harrison’s Talking Points (July 2017), a new document on the USCIS website that covers a bit of content from the EB-5 engagement in San Jose.

EB-5 Processing Times
Good news! The latest IPO Processing Times report indicates that IPO had a productive June and possibly made a dent in processing times. Most reports since 2014 have shown IPO processing less than a month’s worth of filings each month, which meant it got further and further behind. But in June 2017, the “processing petitions as of” date advanced 1.1 months for I-526, 1.4 months for I-829, and 2.1 months for I-924. If IPO can keep working through more than 30 days of filings every month, we’ll see processing times come down. I understand that periodic filing surges make this difficult, however.

EB-5 Investors by Country: 2016
The latest Regional Center Business Journal has an article with interesting data on I-526 petition filings by country of investor origin, obtained via FOIA request from USCIS. See A New Lens: What the Latest Data Tells Us about Raising EB-5 Capital in an Increasingly Challenging Marketplace (June 2017) by Lee Li.  The State Department publishes figures for visa issuance by country, but they aren’t a good indicator for current demand since most investors receive a visa years after investing. The figures on I-526 filings in 2016, however, likely reflect investment decisions in 2016.

A few takeaways from the 2016 data on I-526 petitions:

  • Vietnam and India register the largest demand spike, with 40+% increase in I-526 petition filings between 2015 and 2016
  • Iran, Venezuela, and Mexico are three countries that made the top 10 countries by number of petition filings in 2016, though they weren’t in the top 10 for visas issued in 2016.
  • Average I-526 approval rates vary by country. The lowest average approval rate in 2016 was for Iranian investors, at only 37%, while 96% of petitions from Hong Kong investors were approved. I will guess that approval rates correlate to the relative difficulty of verifying source of funds for specific countries, and on the relative experience/inexperience of people preparing petition paperwork for investors in each country. Other countries with low I-526 approval rates in 2016 were Mexico (57% approval rate), India (66%), and Russia (67%).
  • China-born investors filed more or less 10,948 I-526 petitions in 2016, while the rest of the world filed about 2,325. China-born investors should pay attention to that “rest of the world” number, since those petitioners and their family get to go ahead of China-born investors in the visa queue.

Visa Numbers

Speaking of the visa backlog, here’s another good article addressing the situation and possible solutions: It’s All About the Numbers (August 8, 2017) by H. Ronald Klasko.

The status quo is unsustainable and requires serious response. So long as we have a few mega-projects flooding the program and the backlog with investors, we must unite in support of visa number solutions or EB-5 will become unusable for everyone. And the U.S. would benefit from providing visas to accommodate the volume of people willing to make major investments in our economy.

New Legislation
Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Dwight Evans (D-PA) have introduced an EB-5 bill: H.R.3471 – American Job Creation and Investment Into Public Works Reform Act of 2017. The bill is nearly identical to H.R. 5992 introduced last year by Goodlatte and Conyers, with the most significant difference being the suggestion that infrastructure projects administered by a governmental entity should get a visa set-aside. This bill is significant because it’s one of only two EB-5 bills officially on the table this Congress, but I don’t hear anyone talking about it. The sponsor and co-sponsor haven’t announced it on their websites. Industry as a whole will not like the fact that it doesn’t offer a solution to the visa backlog. The big-league lobbyists won’t like it because it retains the features of H.R. 5992 that they worked so hard to negotiate out of subsequent discussion drafts: retroactive application to petitions filed since June 1, 2015, hefty and clunky account transparency requirement, gift and loan restrictions, significant incentive to invest in a distressed TEA, and significant spread in the annual fee applied to large versus small regional centers. The additional visa set-aside proposed by H.R. 3471 is sweetened by the fact that the bill eliminates the H.R. 5992 suggestion to make the set-asides permanent. I’ve added the bill to my comparison chart, and will keep watching for discussion. The Hill has another article on controversial immigration issues linked to the upcoming September spending fight, but EB-5 doesn’t get a mention. Perhaps H.R.3471 is a subtle solution to the border-wall funding argument that dominates current immigration debate?

 

RAISE Act

And now, Washington is talking about immigration after all. Today the White House announced that President Donald J. Trump Backs RAISE Act. Senator Tom Cotton introduced this bill back in February, but today released a significantly revised and expanded version of Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act (now with the number S.1720). The bill promises to “spur economic growth and raise working Americans’ wages by giving priority to the best-skilled immigrants from around the world and reducing overall immigration by half.” Most of the reduction would come at the expense of family-based visas, which would be cut dramatically. The proposal would keep the current 140,000 allocation for employment-based visas, but would do away with all current EB categories (including EB-5) and replace them with a “merit-based” or “skills-based” points system. A prospective EB immigrant would accumulate points to gain the right to enter an applicant pool, and then every year USCIS would invite the 140,000 applicants in the pool with the most points to file a visa petition. Points could be accrued based on age (the nearer to age 25 the better), English language test scores (the higher the better), educational credential (most points for US doctorate in STEM), extraordinary achievement (more points for Nobel laureate than Olympic medalist), job offer (more points for higher salary), spouse (negative points for low-point spouse), and investment in an enterprise that the immigrant will manage as a primary occupation (more points for bigger investment).

The bill seems unlikely to go far, considering that it proposes to change the current immigration system so radically and would hurt so many interests. In my capacity as a citizen, however, I’m very interested in this bill and the conversation around it. When we talk about immigration policy, we go straight to core questions of national identity – who we are, what we value, what borders define us, and where we want to go as a country. I’m fascinated by the history of U.S. immigration law, and how the laws reflect and shaped our socioeconomic history and values. I’m also fascinated by data on U.S. immigration, and how dramatically the data picture differs from the Emma-Lazarus-colored impression that both advocates and critics seem to have of US immigration. It’s helpful to consider the history and the data when assessing this new immigration vision as proposed by Senator Cotton and endorsed by President Trump.

Listening Session (EB-5 regs), EB-5 as securities (Hui Feng), RC Audits, RC List Changes

EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program Engagement July 13

At the EB-5 listening session on July 13, the USCIS participants stuck to their resolve to listen only, and did not provide input or feedback. The call solicited stakeholder comments on the questions raised by the Advance Notice of Proposed Rule-Making, which addressed regional center designation and participation and exemplar project approval. The ANPRM inspired few written comments to its preliminary questions, and this call also got tepid response. What did USCIS want to know from us, beyond what those of us who care said already in our written comments? USCIS would not specify, and we weren’t sure what to say. The Wolfsdorf Rosenthal blog has diligently summarized stakeholder comments, and my recording is available for anyone who’s really interested. I hope USCIS learned something from the call, but I did not. People with more to say on the designated topics of RC life-cycle (designation, participation, termination), RC exemplar process, RC compliance audits, or indirect job creation methodologies may email ipostakaeholderengagement@uscis.dhs.gov.

USCIS let slip one bit of info. Lori MacKenzie said that “the agency is working to finalize that rule” — referring to the regulation that people care about, the NPRM dealing with investment amounts and TEAs. No indication of timeline, however, or whether the listening session call reflects intention to combine NPRM and ANPRM topics in one new rule. (On July 3, Senators Dean Heller, John Cornyn, Rand Paul, and Thom Tillis had sent DHS a letter asking that the agency not move forward with the proposed EB-5 regulations. The listening session indicates that DHS is indeed moving forward, however slowly.)

Here is my favorite listening session caller comment, from a Mr. Fuentes in minute 45: “We have a bottleneck of processing in an environment where resources are not the limit.” Yes – that’s exactly what’s wrong and fixable in EB-5. So many problems for EB-5 projects and investors result from the fact of long processing times, and long processing times are traceable to constraints that need not exist in a program of multi-million-dollar projects and high-net-worth immigrants. I’ll write more on this soon.

The call also reminded me that we need to talk more about direct EB-5, and the kinds of business and investment that are and are not workable in that environment. Purchasing an operational existing business rarely works for direct EB-5. The history of AAO denial decisions is thick with business acquisition cases that foundered on the “new commercial enterprise” requirement and/or the requirement to create new jobs. EB-5 rules specify that mere ownership change does not make an enterprise or jobs in that enterprise new. I have a couple related posts (one on the difference between direct and regional center EB-5, and one on options for investing in an existing business), but see the need for a simpler article addressed to entrepreneurs contemplating direct EB-5.

EB-5 and Securities Law

Immigration lawyers happen to be well-placed to match EB-5 investors to EB-5 projects, and are pressured by the market and tempted with commissions to play a match-making role. This role is perilous, however, considering securities laws. In 2015 and 2016, the SEC made examples of several immigration lawyers who had received transaction-based compensation for facilitating investments, and of one of the regional centers that paid such compensation. The message: it’s illegal to be on the giving or receiving end of payments to someone acting as a broker without appropriate license.

One of the law firms targeted by the SEC fought back. Hui Feng (subject of a complaint published in December 2015 by the SEC against himself and his firm Law Offices of Feng & Associates, P.C.) argued that the SEC’s claims fail because EB-5 investments are not securities and the immigration lawyer does not act as a “broker” when receiving finder fees. He pointed out that EB-5 investments are primarily motivated by the visa, without expectation of profit, that his commissions were contingent on visa approval rather than in connection with securities sale, and that the attorney role has its own fiduciary duties and that broker requirements are inapplicable – i.e. the EB-5 process and investment and lawyer’s role are fundamentally immigration matters, not securities matters and not the SEC’s business. (My layman’s paraphrase; see the court filings for the actual legal arguments.) The US District Court, Central District of California, however, has come down on the SEC’s side in its Motions for Summary Judgment (June 29, 2017). The decision has the longest discussion I’ve seen yet in support of the point that yes, EB-5 investments are securities. It also enumerates the activities supporting the conclusion that yes, this immigration lawyer acted as a broker, and explains why the fee arrangement details were material and should have been disclosed to investors and regional centers. If you pay or receive EB-5 finders fees, pay attention to this decision. You may also want to review IIUSA’s Best Practices for Engaging with Sales Intermediaries.

Regional Center Compliance Audits
The Regional Center Business Journal has a helpful article by Mariza McKee, Kimberly Hare, and Clete Samson “USCIS Compliance Audits – Preparing Regional Centers for the First Wave”

RC List Changes
USCIS continues to cull the list of approved regional centers, with 50 terminations so far this year. 2017 termination letters haven’t been published yet, but I’ll guess that most of these terminations are for lack of recent activity.

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 6/26/2017 to 7/17/2017:

  • No new regional centers.

New Terminations:

  • North Country EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (New York) Terminated 7/7/2017
  • Guam Strategic Development LLC RC (Guam) Terminated 7/7/2017
  • Good Life EB5 Georgia Regional Center, LLC (Georgia) Terminated 6/30/2017
  • Tri-Cities Investment District, LLC (California) Terminated 6/30/2017
  • Prosperity Regional Center (former name U.S. Prosperity Regional Center) (Florida) Terminated 6/23/2017

Draft legislation, NYC lawsuit, SEC action, RC decision (Path America), RC list changes

New Policy (comments due)

Recall that Wednesday June 28 is the last day to submit comments responding to USCIS’s new policy language on redeployment I appreciate the AILA Comments on the Policy Manual, which explain where the policy goes wrong in imposing an “at risk” requirement after jobs have been created.

Analysis of Draft Legislation (IIUSA, NYU)

IIUSA issued a legislative update on June 22 that comments on draft bills from Senator Grassley/Leahy and Senator Cornyn. I appreciate IIUSA’s thoughtful analysis, and its difficult position when it comes to commenting on contentious issues. The Cornyn bill would make everyone in EB-5 happy by clarifying that investors only (not investors plus family members) should be counted toward the annual EB-5 visa quota. Its TEA proposals would create winners and confirm losers – the winners being projects in rural areas and on closed military bases (which would be incentivized with new visa set-asides) and the losers being projects in distressed high-unemployment urban areas (which would only get 13.5% discount from the standard investment amount). To be fair, the Cornyn proposal would make projects in distressed high-unemployment TEAs slightly more viable than they are currently, since 13.5% is better than 0% — the effective investment threshold differential if projects not in distressed areas can also get TEA designation. But overall the TEA proposal looks designed to support the status quo, with a large percentage of EB-5 investors going to projects in prosperous urban areas and closed military bases.

NYU Scholar-in-Residence Gary Friedland, Esq. and Professor Jeanne Calderon, Esq. have expanded their analysis of paths to TEA reform and other questions in the paper EB-5 Prescription for Reform: Legislation or Regulation? (Draft 6/19/17). The authors review perceived problems in the structure of TEA incentives, summarize proposed changes, and suggest that USCIS expedite reform by finalizing regulations, which could prompt the industry to unite in supporting comparatively moderate EB-5 legislation. The authors throw down a gauntlet by arguing that allocating 100% of job creation by an EB-5-funded project to EB-5 investors overstates the economic impact of EB-5 capital.  They clarify that they do not challenge USCIS’s job credit methodology, but only question citing USCIS job credit methodology as evidence of EB-5’s economic impact. This is a helpful distinction, but I don’t see reformers in Congress accepting it, or liking the idea that EB-5 investors might get credit in practice for job impacts not supported in theory. The industry needs to take up the gauntlet, and explain (preferably with reference to economic theory, practicality, and other programs that require job creation) why and how EB-5 job counts and allocations make sense.

NYC RC Investor Lawsuit

After receiving many error reports, USCIS pulled down their logs of EB-5 petition approvals and denials by regional center. I hope that the logs will be reposted soon with corrections, and in the meantime we can prepare to interpret the data. A natural conclusion could be: if X Regional Center has had many investor petitions approved, then it must be a reliable regional center with happy investors. Coincidentally, I heard in the same week that New York City Regional Center ranks #1 among regional centers for number of I-829 approvals and #5 for volume of I-526 approvals, and also that it is facing a lawsuit by over a hundred unhappy investors in the Battery Maritime Building project. Chen Dongwu et al. v. New York City Regional Center et al. claims that the investors’ “dream turned into a financial nightmare,” with fraudulent misrepresentations and subsequent coverups and fiduciary failures leading up to investors facing the loss of their entire investment.  Presumably the investors in this suit received I-526 approval, but USCIS adjudication is only part of EB-5 investment success.  I’ll look forward to seeing how New York City Regional Center responds to the allegations, which are a big story since this RC is such a big player in EB-5. At-risk investments inherently risk loss, and some will lose, and loss does not equal fraud. Risk does not equal license to shirk responsibility or deceive investors, however, and the defendants need to explain their side of the story. Future filings for the case can be accessed at the New York State Unified Court System website with Index Number 6520242017.

RC Termination Decision

The AAO decision Matter of P-A-K, LLC JUN092017_01K2610 denies motions to reconsider and reopen filed by Path America KingCo regional center.  This decision reiterates that termination decisions “take into account a variety of factors, both positive and negative, that encompass past, present, and likely future actions.” But having reviewed new evidence of the RC’s on-going projects, AAO apparently concludes — almost in so many words — that SEC action against a former principal for fraud and mismanagement is the kind of negative that cannot be outweighed by any number of positives in terms of current management and project progress and prospects. I trust that USCIS/AAO thinking will be challenged and will develop more nuance over time.

New SEC Action

Securities and Exchange Commission v. Seyed Taher Kameli, et al. is a new civil action involving a regional center. The Complaint filed June 22, 2017 alleges that Seyed Taher Kameli and his companies, Chicagoland Foreign Investment Group, LLC and American Enterprise Pioneers, Inc., falsely claimed to foreign investors that their investments would be used to fund an EB-5 qualifying project, but instead diverted millions of dollars to fund other projects, make unrelated payments, and for personal enrichment. As with other SEC actions on EB-5, conflicts of interest are the dominant red flag. The defendant Mr. Kameli controlled the regional center, investment funds, and job-creating enterprises, and also represented many investors as their immigration attorney. This kind of scenario should not be hard for future investors (or even legislators) to avoid.

RC List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 6/6/2017 to 6/26/2017

  • Art District Los Angeles Regional Center, LLC (California) Note: This is not a new RC, but recently added back to the approved list after having been briefly listed as a termination

New Terminations

  • JI Northern Nevada Regional Center, LLC (Idaho, Nevada, Utah) Terminated 6/5/2017
  • Dream Harbor Regional Center (Washington) Terminated 6/1/2017
  • ON Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 6/16/2017
  • Northeast Monument Regional Center LLC (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island) Terminated 6/20/2017
  • Rock Hill Regional Center LLC (New York) Terminated 6/1/2017
  • Texas Mining & Resource Center, LLC (Texas) Terminated 6/20/2017
  • Adirondack Regional Center of New York, LLC (New York) Terminated 5/24/2017
  • Las Vegas EB-5 Inmigration, LLC (Nevada) Terminated 6/14/2017
  • CIG Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 6/5/2017

I continue to update my Terminations Log, though USCIS has not yet posted any new letters for terminations since 2016.

Tally of I-526 and I-829 approvals and denials by regional center (updated)

The USCIS Immigrant Investor Regional Centers page at www.uscis.gov/eb-5centers has been updated with links to documents that list regional center names and tally the  I-526 and I-829 approvals for each RC from January 1, 2014 to May 31, 2017.

UPDATE: The logs formerly posted by USCIS have been replaced by a brief message that “USCIS is reviewing inquiries regarding the previously posted Form I-526 and Form I-829 approval and denial statistics by regional center. To provide feedback on that data, please e-mail USCIS.ImmigrantInvestorProgram@uscis.dhs.gov.” Apparently, a lot of regional centers contacted them to complain of errors. IIUSA wrote a formal letter to IPO reporting discrepancies noted by many members.

[ORIGINAL POST]

These documents — if accurate — can be very valuable for potential investors, and for program integrity. Track record of approvals is a material factor in decision-making that, until now, has been unverifiable. Records can offer investors a way to double-check claims about past approvals for a regional center.

Potential investors should interpret the numbers judiciously. As USCIS notes in the documents: “petitions may be denied for various reasons, some of which may be based on investor specific issues and not related to any project issues.” A large number of denials may be related to investor problems or to sudden USCIS policy changes (or to document errors in these posted reports), not to any problems with the regional center. A large number of approvals says something about the size, aggressiveness, and age of a regional center, but does not necessarily promise quality or reliability or anything about the character of future projects or success of future petitions. Also, keep in mind that the numbers are only for petitions adjudicated, not petitions filed. Considering processing times, I-526 adjudications in 2014 to 2017 (the time period reported) largely reflect investments made in 2013 to 2015. Most investments made and petitions filed through RCs since late 2015 would not show up on this log of approvals and denials. And the log does not show any of the EB-5 petition approvals or denials prior to January 1, 2014.

Regional centers should double-check their records in these newly published logs, and follow the instructions in the docs to alert USCIS of errors. Whoever created this database of approvals and denials made a number of entry errors on RC names (resulting in some double or even triple listings from name variants), so the probability of numerical errors is also high. Especially if the published list shows denials that your RC doesn’t in fact have, hasten to report that and request correction!

The petition tally by regional center provides interesting data on regional center activity. We’ve known that a handful of regional centers have dominated the EB-5 field, and now that phenomenon can be quantified. Assuming that the numbers reported by USCIS are reliable, we can draw conclusions about the distribution of investors by regional center.

No wonder the interests of one metro area and a handful of regional center operators dominate EB-5 politics, when those interests claim such a large piece of the EB-5 pie. The USCIS database indicates that three regional center operators (US Immigration Fund, CMB, and Related) account for nearly a quarter of all I-526 petitions approved since 2014. New York City RC alone accounts for a fifth of all I-829 approvals during that time.  Over half of the approved I-526s petitions since 2014 went through just 21 regional centers, while nearly half of investors with I-829 approvals in that time went through just four regional centers. Meanwhile, over half the regional centers currently on the USCIS list of approved RCs did not have any approved investor petitions from 2014 to the present. (Though these RCs haven’t necessarily been inactive. Long processing times mean that approvals and denials through 2017 only reflect petitions filed/investments made through 2014/2015 — or earlier for I-829. An RC that doesn’t appear with many approvals or denials yet may have many petitions currently pending.)

New EB-5 Policy (Sustaining Investment, Redeployment, and Investors in a Terminated RC)–Updated

We’ve been waiting for years for USCIS to clarify its policy on sustaining investment, and when and how EB-5 capital may need to be redeployed if a project winds up before the investor reaches the I-829 stage. Today, we have this notification:

The USCIS Policy Manual has been updated to provide further guidance regarding the job creation and capital at risk requirements for Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur, and Form I-829, Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions on Permanent Resident Status. Volume 6 (Immigrants), Part G: Investors is effective on June 14, 2017. The Policy Alert is available here: Volume 6 (Immigrants), Part G: Investors (Final date for comments: June 28, 2017)

The Policy Alert from USCIS does not actually say what changed. I compared the the June 14, 2017 version of the Policy Manual with my hard copy of the previous November 2016 version, and highlighted the changes to the new file in red font. (Here is my folder with dated versions of 6 USCIS-PM G). The June 2017 changes — which are significant and touch on material change and termination issues as well as redeployment — are in Chapter 2(A)2, Chapter 4(C), Chapter 5(A)2, and Chapter 5(C).

UPDATES: I’ve copied the new Policy Manual language on redeployment into a separate document and added my attempt to analyze the language and understand the terms. Here is my work so far.

Here are reactions from others to the new policy:

The new policy is effective as of today, before anyone has had a chance to review or comment on it. Indeed, the policy is essentially retroactive since it defines new requirements for investment agreements that current investors may have signed years ago. But USCIS is offering an opportunity to comment, for what it’s worth at this point.

Please send all comments to publicengagementfeedback@uscis.dhs.gov and be sure to include the following to make your comments clear:

    • State the title of the relevant volume and section in the subject line of your message;
    • Refer to a specific portion of the document;
    • Explain the reason for any recommended change; and
    • Include data, information, or authority that supports the recommendation.

Opening & Closing Dates for Comments: June 14, 2017 – June 28, 2017

As background, here are some reactions to the draft policy memo from August 2015 on sustaining investment, and wish lists of features we wish had been included in the new policy.

New EB-5 Regulations: Comments Discussion

We’re waiting on the fate of draft EB-5 regulations published in the Federal Register in January 2017, with a public comment period that ended in April 2017. This post briefly reviews the proposed rules, considers the probability that they will be finalized any time soon, and distills insights from the 323 public comments that I’ve now read. The post is long because the topic is important. I expect EB-5 regulations to be finalized — in my lifetime, even — and the regulation comments include valuable contributions to the debate around EB5 program changes.

Content of Proposed Regulations

Future of Proposed Regulations

Final EB-5 regulations could take effect anywhere from 30 days from now (if a final rule were published today in the Federal Register) to never. (If you’re interested in how the process works, see A Guide to the Rulemaking Process prepared by the Office of the Federal Register.) Here are factors that I know of that could affect timing in this case.

  • DHS can be very slow. For example, the regulation dealing with EB-5 petitions approved 1995-1998 (RIN 1615-AA90) first appeared as a proposed rule in 2003, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was published in the October 2011 Federal Register, the public comment period closed in November 2011, and as of May 2017 the rule has not yet been finalized.
  • Most commenters on the NPRM reminded DHS that Congress has been working to deal with the very same issues through legislation, and that legislation should proceed regulations. Therefore regulations should be withdrawn or put on hold to allow Congress to act. Several speakers at the House Judiciary Committee Hearing on the NPRM supported the point that policy-making belongs to Congress, and it should act first.
  • On the other hand, no one at the House Hearing spoke in favor of cancelling the EB-5 regulations, even if they did come out under Obama, and four influential Congressmen behind EB-5 reform legislation (Goodlatte, Grassley, Conyers, and Leahy) collaborated to submit a comment on the NPRM strongly urging DHS to finalize it, at least with respect to minimum investment amounts. Senator Grassley personally encouraged DHS Secretary John Kelly in January to finalize the EB-5 regulations, and called on him again on May 11 to expedite the regulations. UPDATE: DHS Director nominee Lee Cissna committed on May 24 in his confirmation hearing to finalize EB-5 reform.
  • On May 8, the New York Times quoted a White House statement that the administration “is evaluating wholesale reform of the EB-5 program to ensure that the program is used as intended and that investment is being spread to all areas of the country.” Supporting drastic reform regulations could be a strategic move for President Trump: bombing the EB-5 program would conveniently show that he’s truly not in the pocket of any tangentially-related EB-5 promoters. On the other hand, the proposed regulations would inhibit job creation and impose excessive costs on business – points Trump has committed to avoid in regulations.
  • This Congress has so far officially introduced only one EB-5 bill, but we’ve seen a couple discussion drafts that might emerge as live legislative options.
  • The rule-making process requires DHS to review and respond to public comments. I took a long time just to read all the comments and write this post, and foresee that the final rule will be tough and time-consuming for DHS to write. If DHS takes the good feedback seriously, it will likely come up with another version that’s sufficiently different to justify a second posting and comment period.

Review of Public Comments

The 290 public comments on NPRM #0006 can be roughly divided as follows: brief personal pleas from EB-5 investors (61%), analysis and experience from EB-5 project people operating outside Tier I cities (14%), lengthy and sophisticated comments from the top few big-city regional centers and their surrogates (6%), brief comments on behalf of direct EB-5 projects (6%), feedback from immigration lawyers and other service providers (10%), rants about damn furriners (3%), and comments from Congress (0.3%). I summarize common themes in these groups, and then link to specific comments of interest.

Feedback from Congress

There is only one comment from Congress – a letter signed by Bob Goodlatte and John Conyers from the House and Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy from the Senate – but I lead with this because it’s so significant and seems to have passed unremarked.  These Congressmen have spearheaded EB-5 reform legislation, and their comment reveals their good intentions and dangerous misunderstanding of how EB-5 works. They identify real problems but go very wrong in suggesting solutions.  We particularly need to respond to their counterproductive ideas about job creation and retroactivity. Clearly they haven’t realized that their suggestions would have the practical effect of gutting small, rural, and direct EB-5 projects while lining the pockets of mega-project developers with superfluous cash. (A post with more on this soon – and staffers if you’re reading this, please call me and I will explain.)  While most other public comments ask DHS to wait for Congress to act, these influential Congressmen “strongly urge” DHS to finalize EB-5 regulations, particularly with respect to minimum investment amounts, and also propose additional items that they’d like to see DHS address via regulation (visa set-asides for TEAS, limits on job creation, mandatory I-829 interviews, limits on regional center rental and sale, and limits on job counts).

Feedback from EB-5 Investors

The many comments from investors are generally short and sweet, bringing little data and evidence but a fair amount of appealing personal experience. The dominant message – repeated across most investor comments – is that EB-5 visa backlog problems need to be addressed before any other reforms can be meaningful. Investors from China express distress at finding themselves in a three-to-ten-year waiting line just to get conditional residence, depending on when they invested, and the many problems that flow from that – children aging out and separating families, the high risk of material change, the problem of asynchronous exit strategies, the difficulty of managing enterprises and overseeing investments from overseas, and so on.  Current investors don’t see the program remaining viable for new investment if the required minimum investment more than triples plus the backlog problems aren’t solved. Investors were also united in supporting (and suggesting ways to expand and strengthen) priority date protection, and opposing any retroactive application of new rules. Many proposed granting parole after I-526 filing, and allowing EB-5 investors who have waited more than two years since I-526 approval to file I-829 once a visa becomes available. The comments impressed me with the thought that EB-5 investors need an association that allows them to organize, collaborate, and advocate for their own interests. Past investors are important stakeholders, with distinct concerns and a strong interest in influencing debates around the future of the EB-5 program. But here they are represented by scattered 100-word comments with doubtful punctuation while regional center representatives present sharp 10,000-word essays bristling with footnotes. I see evidence of group coordination in some investor comments, and encourage people to contact me if they have any groups that they’d like publicized.

Feedback from Regional Centers and Project Developers

On the project side, nearly everyone opposes the DHS proposals regarding investment amount (a one-stage 180% increase to the standard investment amount and 270% increase to the TEA investment amount). Commenters argue that this abrupt and dramatic increase would quell demand, make the US investor visa program uncompetitive, reduce the total job creation and investment impact of the EB-5 program, be tough on small projects, and dampen the incentive to invest in a TEA. They make supply-demand arguments (suggesting that any inflation-based increase should be dated from 2008 or so when demand for the program took off, not from the 1990s when it was barely used), propose linking investment amount calculation to factors such as exchange value of the dollar and household income rather than merely considering the Consumer Price Index, encourage DHS to consider Congressional intent as expressed in recent proposed legislation, not just as expressed in 1992, point out the high risks that distinguish the US program from others, and advocate for a phased-in approach and protection for past investors and midstream offerings.

When it comes to Targeted Employment Areas definitions, and the incentive to invest in a TEA, big-city and small-city/rural regional centers part ways. Comments filed on behalf of the big urban regional centers advocate for large TEA areas based on commuting patterns (allowing for TEA projects located at a distance from where unemployed people live) and for a narrow differential between the TEA and non-TEA investment threshold (minimizing the TEA incentive). Comments filed on behalf of regional centers active outside of major cities were generally supportive of TEA changes proposed by the regulations (which would require TEA projects to locate in/very near high-employment areas) and advocate for a meaningful TEA incentive/investment differential. For example Related New York City Metro Regional Center suggests that TEAs should allow for unlimited combinations of areas within an MSA (and with no requirement that the constituent areas be contiguous), and that TEA investment should be only $50,000 cheaper than non-TEA investment. By contrast, Pine State Regional Center (Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee) supports restricting TEA definitions and significantly incentivizing TEA investment (for example taking the $800,000/$1.2M investment levels proposed last year in legislation, which would be a $400,000 differential).  The two points of view were approximately balanced in comments on the regulations (with more voices on the small/rural side and stronger voices on the large urban side), though I note that the big players are winning lobbying (each successive draft of proposed legislation has progressively bargained down the investment differential/incentive to invest in a TEA).

Nearly every commenter (except for a couple thinkers who have never experienced USCIS processing) agrees that DHS absolutely must not enter the business of issuing case-by-case TEA determinations. USCIS designations would be needless assuming that TEA requirements are clarified and codified, senseless considering USCIS’s (lack of) expertise, and disastrous considering USCIS’s existing workload and processing times. These arguments were made very strongly, many times. If the final rule persists in assigning TEA designation to USCIS rather than creating an automated process or giving unambiguous guidelines to state agencies, then we’ll know that DHS just didn’t read the comments. I hope that Congressional staffers working on EB-5 would read these comments as well, for the case against individualized TEA designation by USCIS is extremely clear and compelling.

Many of the EB-5 industry commenters joined investors in arguing for I-526 priority date protection, for measures that would ease the visa backlog by not counting derivatives or recapturing unused visas, for protecting investors who already filed under old rules, and for palliative measures in light of the backlog such as parole after I-526 approval and age-out protection and priority date protection.

The ANPRM #0008, being a just preliminary notice, got little attention and feedback – sadly, because it did ask important questions. Comments that were submitted particularly focused on the proposal to require exemplar approval prior to I-526 filing (granting that this is a good idea only if the processing time can be short, and unworkable otherwise).

A sampling of noteworthy comments

The public comments are useful to help understand what DHS sees as it prepares a final rule, and also as a source for ideas worth discussing and support for arguments that you may want to make yourself. I’ve assembled a short list of comments that make particularly interesting or characteristic points, or that make points in a particularly effective way, with compelling language and evidence.

  • The case for TEA rules that don’t disadvantage urban projects: Jeffrey Carr (gives rationale for TEAs based on commuting patterns, unlimited areas within MSAs, census block groups, and NMTC criteria), EB-5 Investment Coalition (proposes a “9-Step Process” to designate areas that include “Residence Tracts” linked to “Workplace Tracts”), Angelique Brunner and David Morris (propose expanding provision to encompass existing government-designated economic development zones).
  • The case for TEA rules that significantly incentivize projects outside prosperous urban areas: Urban Manufacturing Alliance and  Mount Snow (for distressed urban and rural areas), Invest Atlanta (economic development agency perspective), Gary Friedland (considering the purpose to stimulate investment in undercapitalized areas), IIUSA (for fairness to a broad base of EB-5 users)
  • The case for a different approach to calculating EB-5 investment amount increases: Auray Capital (considers data on currency exchange rates, competitor programs, market threats, and the population of potential investors), Jim Nail, AISA (points out why an inflation-correction approach, if used, should calculate from the TEA investment amount), Centurion American Development (consider investment risk and return, and costs to the regional center), Suman Guduru (too high would discourage startups and entrepreneurs), Deputy Mayor of Columbus, Indiana (too high would discourage investment in small cities),  Alexandre Carvalho (too high would discourage investors).
  • The case against delegating TEA designation to USCIS: Nearly every comment, but for example Elliot Winer and Kimberly Atteberry (technical reasons); Stetson Law and Chanticleer Holdings (positive benefits of state involvement)
  • The case for broadening I-526 priority date protections: Green and Spiegel and AILA and Penny Zhang (for priority date protection not only contingent on I-526 approval),  Meisheng King (for the option of assigning priority date to children), Golden Southern Chicken (priority date protection would allow for better business decisions), Fei Zhiqiang (priority date protection would free investors to act on suspicions of malfeasance)
  • The case against priority date protections: US Chamber of Commerce (could encourage investors to abandon projects that no longer qualify as TEAs), Pacific ProPartners (would further swell the visa waiting line and undermine forecasts)
  • The case for taking EB-5 visa backlog problems seriously: ZeMing Gao and Shiting Yi  (and for those unfamiliar with the backlog problems, here’s my blog post with as much as I know)
  • The case that DHS has and should use the power to modify EB-5 visa availability: EB-5 Investment Coalition (the arguments for eliminating derivatives from the visa count and recapturing unused visas)
  • The case for and against making EB-5 program changes retroactive: Goodlatte/Grassley/Conyers/Leahy (for retroactive application), Fragomen (against). Industry response would have been stronger had we realized retroactivity could even be on the table for regulations. I will write more in response to the comment from Congress, and hope others will as well. Many investor comments speak against retroactivity, but without marshaling sources and evidence.
  • The case for a revised material change policy: American Immigration Lawyers Association (EB-5 material change policy as currently stated can make an EB-5 petition un-approvable even though it was eligible at the time of filing and remains eligible after an interim material change. AILA digs into the law and proposes a more appropriate material change rule that would only focus on changes that involve EB-5 credibility requirements, and only on changes that make a petition ineligible. The argument seems sensible and could solve severe current problems in EB-5 adjudication. I hope more people read, discuss, and promote it.)
  • The case against requiring exemplar approval without a strictly-controlled processing time: Suzanne Lazicki (explaining the process and timing issues), Jillian O-Brien (providing examples). It’s so important for USCIS to understand the practical difference between a requirement to file and a requirement to file plus wait for approval.
  • Thoughts on designation, monitoring, and oversight requirements for regional centers: EB5 Securities Roundtable and Citizen for Responsible Regulation

RC reauthorization to 9/30/2017, Trump statements on reform

The regional center program is now authorized, as part of fiscal year 2017 Appropriations legislation, through September 30, 2017. Updates as they happened:

  • 5/8/2017: In the wake of RC program reauthorization and the flap over an EB-5 project being promoted by the Kushner Companies, the White House has started issuing more EB-5 statements, which I’m collecting in this document.
  • 5/5/2017: President Trump has signed the omnibus appropriations bill H.R. 244 – Senate Amendments to HIRE Vets Act [Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017]. The text still includes clean extension of the regional center program to September 30, 2017 (Title III, Section 542).
  • 5/1/2017: House Appropriations Committee press release: Comprehensive Government Funding Bill Released. The bill text includes this magic sentence on page 734: “SEC. 542. Section 610(b) of the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1993 (8 U.S.C. 1153 note) shall be applied by substituting ‘‘September 30, 2017’’ for ‘‘September 30, 2015’’. If passed, this will give simple extension of the Regional Center program authorization for the reminder of the fiscal year, with no other EB-5 program changes. (Section 610(b) of the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1993 (Public Law 102-395) established the regional center program, page 47.)  Even assuming the bill will pass as-is, this is not time to relax. Congress could still come out with new independent EB-5 legislation at any time — nothing says they have to wait til the last reauthorization minute to act. Senator Cornyn’s office circulated a new discussion draft of EB-5 legislation just this morning. I’ve entered summary details in my bill comparison chart,   and will add link to the full text as soon as someone posts the draft publicly.
  • 4/28/2017: H.J.Res. 99 – Joint Resolution making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2017, and for other purposes has been passed and signed into law, extending government funding and other provisions of Public Law 114–223 (including the regional center program) to May 5, 2017.
  • 4/27/2017: For the first time, I’ve noticed a statement from the Trump administration on EB-5. Washington Post says,
      • The White House issued a statement to The Washington Post this week saying that the Trump administration is weighing changes to the foreign investor visa program. “There are serious concerns held by the administration regarding the EB-5 visa program, in part because it is not being used as it was primarily intended,” said Michael Short, a White House spokesman. “The administration is continuing to evaluate reforms to the program, which we believe is in need of substantial repair.”

    (Update: additional statements linked above at the 5/8/2017 bullet point.)

  • 4/26/2017: House Appropriations Committee Press Release: “House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen today introduced a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) (H.J.Res. 99) to continue funding for federal programs and services until May 5, 2017. …The legislation continues policy and funding provisions included in currently enacted fiscal year 2016 Appropriations legislation.” Here is the text of the CR. It’s set for vote on 4/28.

As a reminder, the history of recent regional center program reauthorizations:

  • 12/10/2016 – RC program is extended unchanged to 04/28/2017 as part of a continuing appropriations act (PL 114-254)
  • 9/29/2016 – RC program is extended unchanged to 12/09/2016 as part of a continuing appropriations act (PL 114-223)
  • 12/8/2015 – RC program is extended unchanged to 9/30/2016 as part of an appropriations act (PL 114-113)
  • 9/30/2015 – RC program is extended unchanged to 12/11/2015 as part of a continuing appropriations act (PL 114-53)
  • 9/28/2012 – RC program is extended (with one small change) to 9/30/2015 as part of immigration-related legislation (PL 112-176)

I-924 Webinar, Amendment Requirements

In case anyone would like to review it, here is a link to my audio recording and copies of the slides from today’s webinar on the revised Form I-924 Application for Regional Center Designation. (6/2017 UPDATE:You can now get the sound and slides together, as USCIS has posted a recording of the webinar.) The big news was a comment that the page for the March 3, 2017 EB-5 stakeholder meeting now contains remarks from Lori MacKenzie modifying what she had said at the meeting about geographic area amendments. My original blog post complained about this buried new policy posting, but shortly thereafter USCIS sent out a stakeholder email and posted a statement prominently on the EB-5 section of the USCIS website.

Update to EB-5 National Stakeholder Engagement Remarks: Regional Center Geographic Area Amendments and Form I- 526 Petition Eligibility
On March 3, 2017, USCIS held an EB-5 national stakeholder engagement.  This national engagement was part of our ongoing effort to enhance dialogue with our stakeholders in the EB-5 program.  Remarks from the EB-5 national stakeholder engagement are available here.

At the engagement, USCIS noted that a May 2013 policy memo had previously provided guidance that a formal amendment was not required to expand a regional center’s geographic area, and permitted concurrent filing Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur prior to approval of the geographic scope amendment.  The May 2013 guidance was superseded by the recent publication of the final  Form I-924 ,the Application for Regional Center Designation Under the Immigrant Investor Program and instructions.  The I-924 revisions included changes to the Form I-924 instructions and require that regional centers file a Form I-924 when seeking an expansion of their geographic area.  The revised Form I-924 became effective on December 23, 2016, following publication of the revisions in draft form in the Federal Register in May of 2016, and a period during which the public had the opportunity to comment.

During the engagement, USCIS addressed questions regarding how requests to change a regional center’s geographic area should be filed and the timing of such a filing.  Specifically, where a regional center has a filed and pending Form I-924 amendment requesting an expansion in geographic area, stakeholders  asked whether or not Form I-526 petitions may be filed prior to approval of the I-924 amendment, relying on such proposed expanded geography.  USCIS has reviewed stakeholder concerns raised during the engagement and has updated the engagement remarks to clarify how the agency is implementing the above policy. Specifically:

  • Where the regional center’s geographic area expansion request was submitted either through a Form I-924 amendment or Form I-526 petition filed prior to February 22, 2017 (the date on which use of the new Form I-924 became mandatory), and the request is ultimately approved, USCIS will continue to adjudicate additional Form I-526 petitions associated with investments in that area under the guidance reflected in the May 30, 2013 policy memo.
  • Any requests for geographic area expansion made on or after February 22, 2017 will be adjudicated under the current guidance; namely, a Form I-924 amendment must be filed, and approved, to expand the regional center’s geographic area.
  • For geographic area expansion requests made on or after February 22, 2017, the Form I-924 amendment must be approved before an I-526 petitioner may demonstrate eligibility at the time of filing his or her petition based on an investment in the expanded area. Form I-526 petitioners who believe they may be unable to demonstrate eligibility at the time of filing on this basis may wish to contact USCIS at ipostakeholderengagement@uscis.dhs.gov.

Sincerely,
USCIS Public Engagement

And here, since the I-924 Form and Instructions are apparently our new venue for policy guidance, is the official word on amendment requirements.

Quoted from the I-924 Instructions (version expiring 12/31/2018), page 1
Request an amendment to a previously approved regional center.
A. You must file an amendment to:
(1) Seek approval for any changes to the regional center’s name, ownership, or organizational structure, or any changes to the regional center’s administration that affect its oversight and reporting responsibilities, or to add or remove any of the regional center’s principals, immediately following the changed circumstances; or
(2) Change the geographic area of a regional center.
B. You may also file an amendment to:
(1) Change the industries of focus of the regional center;
(2) Add a new commercial enterprise associated with the regional center and/or seek a preliminary determination of EB-5 compliance for an exemplar Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Entrepreneur, for that new commercial enterprise, before individual entrepreneurs file their petitions; or
(3) Notify USCIS of changes in the name, organizational structure or administration, capital investment instruments, or offering memoranda (including changes in the economic analysis and underlying business plan used to estimate job creation) for a previously added new commercial enterprise associated with the regional center.
NOTE: An I-924 amendment is not required to report changes of address, contact information, a change of duties among the regional center principals, changes to non-principal managing companies, contracting agents or similar changes, or information described in Item 2.B. above. The regional center must notify USCIS within 30 days of such changes. Notification of these changes can be made by sending an email to the EB-5 Program mailbox at: USCIS.ImmigrantInvestorProgram@dhs.gov. USCIS will review any changes submitted by email and may require or recommend, as appropriate, the regional center to file an I-924 Amendment.

“You must file an amendment to seek approval for….” sounds like it could be discretionary (i.e. you needn’t file an amendment if you’re not seeking approval for…), but apparently it isn’t. (Previously, IPO said that I-924 amendment was recommended to seek approval for management changes, with an option to just notify the IPO email box. No longer.) Today’s webinar slides restated the I-924 instructions as “You must file an amendment in case of…,” and the presenter said that the required amendment must not only be filed but also approved. (But approved “before what”? This point doesn’t go without saying. Before I-526s are filed? Before I-526s can be approved? Before the regional center can take any action at all? IPO needs to clarify the “before what” for each required type of amendment, and whether the requirement is to file or file plus wait for approval.)
Otherwise, today’s webinar mainly just read through the new Form I-924 content, pointing out changes for the benefit of people who hadn’t previously noted just how much the form changed, or implications of those changes. The audience asked few questions. USCIS emphasized two concerns behind Form I-924 revisions: vetting regional center principals and managers, and limiting geographic area. The revisions take effective steps toward the first objective, but make little difference to the second. Geographic area requests are limited only by imagination and chutzpah so long as USCIS continues to allow and even encourage applicants to base their requests on hypothetical/fictitious projects.

Goodlatte statement; IIUSA TEA Analysis

Two important new press releases:

  1. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte announces on behalf of House and Senate Judiciary Committee members that “Lawmakers Remain Committed to Good-Faith Talks to Reform Investor Visa Program Ahead of Expiration” (April 19, 2017)
  2. IIUSA announces First-Ever Comparative Analysis Report on EB-5 TEA Policy Reform (April 20, 2017). This very valuable report and mapping tool  takes a comprehensive look at the impact the different TEA policy proposals would have on the EB-5 Regional Center program at both a national and state-by-state level. For those of you who downloaded my TEA summary earlier, note that I erred in providing a link to an NMTC mapping tool based on old data. You should look instead at the IIUSA interactive mapping tool, which uses the dataset that would actually be required to determine TEA qualification under new proposals.

Meanwhile, a 4/19 post by Miller Mayer reports on a version of EB-5 reform legislation that I haven’t even seen, though Miller Mayer says “all major EB-5 industry representatives have agreed to this tentative compromise.”