I-526 backlog by country and priority date

Last week USCIS announced a process change for I-526 adjudications, replacing the (nominal) first-in-first-out approach with a “visa availability approach” that gives priority to petitioners from countries who have visas immediately available, or soon available. This replaces a system that depends on I-526 priority dates with a system that depends on priority date plus country of origin.

To interpret the change, we need to know the composition of the I-526 backlog, by priority date and country of origin. IPO can, at any time, print out and publish a report of this data. IPO did this once, in October 2018, then deleted the report. IPO now refuses to disclose current data for the currently-pending I-526 itemized by petitioner country and priority date month/year. Why? There are obvious wicked reasons – intent to obscure processing, or gratuitous naysaying – and no good reason that I can think of. Please, reconsider, IPO.

In absence of answers direct from USCIS, here’s my estimate of the I-526 inventory as of October 1, 2019. (I can’t guess for a more recent date, not knowing anything about I-526 receipt or adjudication numbers since October.)

The total inventory estimate (Column A) should be nearly accurate, because it’s based on a Department of State applicant estimate that we can deconstruct into a pending petition estimate, with a few given clues. (Calculation and sources at the base of this post.)

Columns B, C, and D would be nearly accurate, if processing since October 2018 had been FIFO as USCIS claims. (According to the October 2018 pending petition inventory report, 4,630 petitions had priority dates earlier than March 2017, and 9,583 petitions had priority dates from March 2017 to September 2018. USCIS processed 4,673 I-526 from October 2018 to September 2019. So if USCIS processed the oldest petitions first, the remaining inventory as of October 1, 2019 should have no pending I-526 left from before March 2017, while all priority dates since March 2017 would still be pending. Reality contradicts the FIFO theory, judging by the I-526 processing times report and individual experience.  But I leave the theoretical calculation in Table II as a reference, until USCIS finally consents to give us the real numbers.)

Look at my estimated I-526 inventory above, and imagine the difference a “visa availability approach” will make once it starts being implemented in April.

If IPO is guided by the current Visa Bulletin Chart B (where China is in 2014, and all other countries current), then it would take only China I-526 off the table for now. That would cut about 6,000 petitions from the current workload.  At the other extreme, If IPO is guided by Charles’ Oppenheim’s long-range estimates for visa availability, then it could remove the following from the table for now: China priority dates from 2015 on; Vietnam priority dates from 2017 on; India priority dates from 2018 on; and South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil priority dates from 2019 on. That would cut at least 9,800 petitions from the active inventory.

The impact on I-526 wait times, for majority and minority countries, will depend on how IPO interprets visa availability – but even more, on IPO’s decisions about volume of adjudications. If IPO exercises its ability (proven in 2018) to adjudicate over 15,000 I-526 per year, then minority-country I-526 can all be processed in a few months, and majority country petitions not far behind. But last year, IPO approved only 3,660 I-526. If that low performance level continues into the future, then IPO could use up its entire capacity for the year just working on minority-country petitions. That would significantly delay majority country-petitions. (Perhaps not coincidentally, 3,660 is almost exactly the minimum number of annual I-526 approvals needed to produce enough applicants for the 10,000 annual visa quota, given the historical average visas per principal. I hope IPO isn’t taking the visa quota as an excuse to shirk I-526 adjudication responsibilities, take resources away from I-526, and let the backlog of fee-paid petitions gather dust as long as can possibly be excused by visa waits.)

Theoretically, the I-526 wait time ( w ) for a petition equals inventory (i) of petitions with priority to get adjudicated earlier than that petition, divided by number of petitions that can get adjudicated per period (t). w=i/t  The visa availability approach changes i – making it smaller for minority countries and larger for majority countries, with obvious results for w. For what it’s worth, I can calculate i for different countries and priority dates, and quantify the effect of FIFO vs. visa availability approach on i.  But my EB-5 timing estimates page is still empty for the moment, as I don’t know what to make of t. Was last year’s very low volume an aberration, as IPO Chief Sarah Kendall suggested when asked about it last year, or a new strategy to be continued? I hope we can get some sense at the stakeholder meeting next month.

And finally FYI, the detail of my I-526 inventory estimate above. The sources: Department of State report of EB-5 Applicants with Petitions on file at NVC and Estimated USCIS Applicant Data as of 10/1/2019 (slide 8 in this IIUSA presentation), Department of State report of average percentage of EB-5 principal investors in visa applications (slide 15 in this IIUSA presentation), USCIS’s FY2019 quarterly I-526 data report (linked here), and the log of pending petitions as of October 2018 (my version of the file formerly posted on the USCIS website saved here).



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2/2020 Visa Bulletin India FAD

The February 2020 Visa Bulletin has a Final Action Date of September 1, 2018 for India.  This represents another dramatic jump (with the January visa bulletin having a May 1, 2018 final action date). I previously wrote about overall EB-5 visa timing in 2020. This post attempts additional clarifications specific to EB-5 petitioners and applicants born in India.

February’s visa bulletin does mean:

  • that visas can be issued in February to qualified Indian applicants with priority dates before 9/1/2018 (Qualified applicants are at the visa stage, having already received I-526 approval)
  • that there are few Indian applicants at the visa stage (A note at the end of the January 2020 visa bulletin explains that the India final action date will proceed rapidly in 2020 so long as demand is low — i.e. so long as few Indians are in a position to apply for a visa)

February’s visa bulletin does not mean:

  • that India demand is low at the I-526 stage
  • that visas are available to people with pre-9/1/2018 priority dates whose I-526 are still pending
  • that USCIS has processed or will soon process most India I-526 with pre-9/1/2018 priority dates
  • that Department of State has already finished issuing visas to all Indians with priority dates before May 1, 2018 (the final action date in January 2020’s visa bulletin)
  • that having reached September 2018, India’s final action date will continue to advance in the future, and will not turn back

In fact, USCIS indicates that it is currently working on I-526 filed 32.5 to 49.5 months ago (i.e. 2015 to 2017 priority dates). I-526 adjudications are not guided by the visa bulletin. Ideally, USCIS would process petitions in the order received, so that people reached the visa stage more or less in order by priority date. But evidently, this is not the case. Some 2018 priority dates are getting visas now even as some earlier priority dates remain at the I-526 stage.

We know that Indians filed at least 525 I-526 petitions from January through August 2018. (That’s how many I-526 were pending from those priority dates as of October 2018, when USCIS published this I526list report.) Over 500 I-526 would conservatively result in over 1,000 visa applications. Over 1,000 visas would take over one year to issue. So when the Visa Bulletin jumps from January to September 2018 in just three months, it’s evident that most people with those priority dates just haven’t even reached the visa stage. If they had, the visa bulletin would slow down to the time needed to issue over 1,000 visas.  And recall the 781 Indian I-526 with pre-2018 priority dates that were still pending at USCIS at the end of 2018 — some of those must still be in the system as well.

For Indians with priority dates before 2019, I suggest gazing at the I526list report from October 2018. Add up the number of pending I-526 with priority dates before yours. Estimate the number of visa applicants associated with those I-526. Subtract the number who could possibly have received visas since then, considering the number of I-526 adjudicated worldwide and number of visas issued to Indians since October 2018. The result estimates the number of people still with priority to get a visa before you do — assuming they can reach the visa stage. That result divided by 700 is your approximate wait time, in a FIFO world. But we’re not in a FIFO world, as the disconnect between USCIS processing time reports and the visa bulletin shows. As things stand, some people from India will get a visa unexpectedly early, and some unfairly late.  The visa bulletin will jump around, depending on who reaches the visa stage when. There’s room for hope, and room for fear — just not much predictability at this stage.

 

FY2019 Q4 Petition Processing Statistics

USCIS has published processing data on the Immigration & Citizenship Data page for July through September 2019 (FY2019 Q4).

I eagerly awaited this update, with three questions in mind. Would IPO start to recover processing volume in Q4, considering that previous reductions were credited to relatively minor and temporary factors (the RC authorization lapse in Q2 and I-526 training in Q3)? Would denial rates remain high? How large was the I-526 filing surge ahead of the regulations?

Now we know that IPO performance did not recover — yet —  in Q4. I-526 and I-829 denial numbers have not increased significantly. The I-526 denial percentage rose in Q3 and remained elevated in Q4 because approval numbers were so much lower than before.  People who filed I-526 by the end of September apparently got in before any significant pre-regs I-526 surge.

I-924 was a minor part of IPO’s FY19 workload, with few receipts and few pending forms. Denial numbers are remarkably high, but I suspect that many are actually withdrawals due to delayed processing. I-924 requests for exemplar approval lose value to the applicant if not adjudicated quickly.

I have a few questions for IPO Chief Sarah Kendall.

  1. IPO adjudicated 2.8x more forms in FY2018 than FY2019. Please explain.
  2. In one year under your leadership, IPO reversed five years of processing improvements, regressing to 2013 performance levels. Do you consider this reduced processing volume a problem that you plan to fix, or an expected outcome in your overall strategy?
  3. IPO had almost twice as many staff in FY19 as it had in FY15 (214 vs 110), yet adjudicated 41% fewer forms in FY19 than FY15. Productivity per staff member was 69% lower in FY19 than it was in FY15. Do you consider this productivity loss a problem that you plan to fix, or an expected outcome in your overall strategy?
  4. Looking at service-wide processing data between FY18 and FY19, EB-5 forms are the only EB forms that fell behind – other EB forms show increased approval numbers year-on-year. In fact, Form I-526 and I-924 rank #3 and #1 for worst performance in the entire service (with, respectively, 74% and 88% fewer approvals in FY19 and FY18). Only Form I-821 for Temporary Protected Status can compete, with approvals falling by 87%. Should we take a political message from these facts? Or does DHS see a problem and plan improvements in 2020?
  5. Do you recognize the connection between efficiency and integrity? Do you see the problem in denials that come too late to stem bad deals, and approvals that come too late to save good deals? Do you have a plan to strengthen program integrity by improving efficiency?
  6. If IPO continued FY19 processing volume into the future, then the current I-526 backlog would take three years to process, and the current I-829 backlog would take six years to process. How does IPO plan to improve going forward, to avoid such long times becoming the reality?
  7. What is your goal for processing volume in FY2020? How do you plan to reach that goal?

EB-5 Visa Timing in 2020

At least 70,000 people are currently in the stage between I-526 filing and receiving visas (conditional permanent residence). Who will receive EB-5 visas in 2020? The answer depends on visa availability, I-526 timing, and the role of country caps.

Visa Availability

Thanks to roll-over of unused numbers from other categories, EB-5 has a few more visa numbers than usual to work with this year.  Department of State has allocated 11,111 visas to EB-5 in FY2020, of which any one country can get up to 778 visas (7%) under the country caps.  (China is the exceptional case, having access to 288 visas by right plus – in practice – all the numbers unclaimed by low-volume countries. About 5,200 EB-5 visas will be leftover and available to China in FY2020, DOS estimated in October – almost 1,000 more than last year.)

I-526 Timing

For many people, I-526 processing time is the major factor determining the visa wait time. We have three primary sources of information about petition processing times: the USCIS Check Case Processing Times page (which has updates about twice monthly that I log here), the Historical Average Processing Times Page (with annual averages), and the Immigration & Citizenship Data page (which has quarterly updates on processing volume). The sources present this puzzle about I-526 processing times to date:

  • the Check Case Processing page currently reports an estimated time range for I-526 processing of 32.5 to 49.5 months, and has reported times in the range of 27 to 52 months since June 2019;
  • the Historical Average Processing page says that I-526 were pending an average of 19.8 months in FY2019;
  • the January 2020 Visa Bulletin has a final action date of May 1, 2018 for India, suggesting that there are Indians who filed I-526 21 months ago and already at the visa stage
  • the Immigration & Citizenship Data page last reported 13,000 I-526 petitions pending as of June 2019. That workload could possibly take 3-5 years to process only if USCIS processed fewer than 4,000 petitions a year going forward. But as recently as 2018, USCIS was processing that many I-526 every quarter.

Looking at the puzzle (and at my charts below, which plot the bi-monthly processing time report updates against the reported annual average), I incline toward the theory that USCIS started, mid-FY2019, to inflate the months reported on the Check Case Processing page to discourage complaints and inquiries, not because the average I-526 petition has been or will be pending 3-5 years. But we’ll have a better sense of the processing reality when more recent volume numbers get published. I hope that USCIS processing improvements will be a major focus of efforts in 2020 to improve EB-5 program integrity and viability.

Visa Timing by Country:

EB-5 investors today can expect to apply for a visa promptly upon I-526 approval, unless they are from China, Vietnam, or India – countries whose demand currently exceeds the 7% of annual EB-5 visas available to each country under the country cap. The country cap adds a constraint to the EB-5 process, creating backlogs and wait times for high-demand countries while keeping the path clear for new applicants low-demand countries. This status quo has been challenged by the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. H.R.1044 passed the House in July 2019 (365 – 65), and Senator Mike Lee has worked tirelessly since then to push the companion S.386 in the Senate, negotiating his way progressively through blocks from Senator Paul, Senator Purdue, and most recently, Senator Durban. The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act bill has been around for five Congresses without ever becoming law (with a previous version also passing the House in 2011 before dying in the Senate), so I do not really expect it to pass now. But I also do not ignore the possibility, considering the intense lobbying push in 2019, and the bill’s major consequences. If by chance it passed, the bill would remove the country cap from all EB visas, thus decreasing the EB-5 visa wait for the backlog of China applicants while increasing the wait for people with more recent priority dates. If passed, new EB-5 investors from any country could expect to wait about seven years for conditional permanent residence, based on the size of the total EB-5 backlog. Most people currently awaiting I-526 approval would face a 3-7 year wait for visa availability, depending on priority dates, if the bill passed.

Visa Bulletin

Assuming no statutory change, the January 2020 Visa Bulletin provides the following projections for EB-5 visa availability through April/May 2020:

  • The EB-5 category will remain “current” for most countries, meaning that people from most countries can file visa applications as soon as they qualify, regardless of priority date.
  • The final action date for China “may be possible to advance at a slightly faster pace.” (The China FAD advanced an average of just one week per month in 2019, and is at November 22, 2014 as of January 2020.)
  • The final action date for India will “likely to advance at a very rapid pace until the level of demand increases.” (The India FAD has advanced a year since being set in July 2019, and jumped from 1/1/2018 in December 2019 to 5/1/2018 for January 2020.)
  • The final action date for Vietnam will likely have “limited forward movement.” (The Vietnam FAD advanced 26 weeks in 2019, and has reached 12/8/2016 for January 2020.)

Here are the stories I see behind the Visa Bulletin projections:

  • EB-5 will remain current for most countries, because most countries have fewer than 778 people who could possibly reach the EB-5 visa application stage this year.
  • The China final action date may advance due to an increase in visa supply, but the advance will likely be slight due to concurrent increase in visa demand. DOS expects to have nearly 1,000 more EB-5 visas to give China in FY20 than in FY19, as discussed above. Greater capacity would help the queue advance more quickly. However, Chinese filed over 3,000 more I-526 in FY15 than in FY14 (13,530 vs 9,722, to be precise). The Visa Bulletin is moving into that filing surge as it starts to accept visa applicants for FY15 priority dates. Greater volume of visa applicants for FY15 priority dates would tend make the line advance more slowly.
  • The India final action date has advanced rapidly because “the level of demand” has been low, and expected to remain so. “Demand” means the number of Indians documentarily qualified for a visa – i.e. with I-526 approval and visa application or I-485 in order. That number is low only because USCIS is slow and erratic with I-526 adjudication. Charles Oppenheim estimates that there were 4,000 to 5,000 Indians in line for an EB-5 visa in 2019 – enough to claim many years of visas.  But about 85% of that queue was stuck in the I-526 stage, and thus not yet qualified to demand a visa. Department of State has 788 visas to give Indians this year. Which of those 4-5K Indians in the queue gets one of the 788 visas depends on which I-526 USCIS can approve this year. So long as USCIS is very slow, only approving a few petitions, and particularly delaying old petitions, the Visa Bulletin will continue to advance the India FAD to open the door for those few who have reached the visa application stage. If USCIS increases volume of I-526 approvals, then more Indians will be able to compete for this year’s visas. In that event, the India FAD will slow its advance, or even move back in time to accommodate an influx of applications with older priority dates. Personally, I expect the India FAD to retrogress this year. Indians filed at least 330 I-526 petitions from January to May 2018, enough to absorb at least a year of visa numbers. Indians filed at least 806 I-526 petitions between April 2017 and May 2018 (April 2017 being the near end of the estimated time range for I-526 processing, according to the current USCIS processing times information page). That’s enough to absorb more than two years of available visas. All that demand will pull the India FAD back, assuming it can ever emerge from I-526 processing.  The Visa Bulletin FAD for India advanced from May 2017 to May 2018 in just seven months, and from January 2018 to May 2018 in just one month – which tells us that DOS simply hasn’t yet received the surge of visa demand that’s on the way from those early priority dates. The 300 or so Indian investors plus family from early 2018 could not possibly have all received visas in December 2019. When the petitions stuck in I-526 processing finally arrive at the visa stage, the visa bulletin will have to recalculate and may retrogress the India FAD.
  • The Vietnam FAD is expected to advance slowly from the current date of December 8, 2016. One would expect the movement to be slow because Vietnamese filed many I-526 in FY2017 – 523, to be precise, as compared with 404 petitions filed the previous year. This higher volume means that FY17 priority dates will take longer to move past the visa window than FY16 priority dates. Meanwhile, many FY17 petitions have completed I-526 processing, and thus the applicants are qualified and ready to claim available visas. However, we can see that the full surge of FY17 demand from Vietnam has not yet hit the visa stage, since the Visa Bulletin Chart B is still current for Vietnam, and USCIS is still allowing applicants to file I-485 using Chart B. That window could close as the pool of qualified Vietnamese applicants grows.

Visa Retrogression

People from China, Vietnam, and India who apply for visas through adjustment of status will be interested in this document, which gives helpful Q&A on visa availability and the I-485 process: USCIS Responses to Questions from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)

RC List Updates

And to close the year, an update on changes to the USCIS lists of approved regional centers. Note that I update approvals on my blog RC List page (together which such contact info as I can find) and terminations in my Excel Terminations log (together with a log of termination reasons and links to all termination letters posted so far by USCIS).

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 08/27/19 to 12/30/19.

  • EB5 Affiliate Network Southeast Regional Center, LLC (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee)
  • Plymouth Park Regional Center, LP (Texas)
  • Protogroup, Inc. (Florida) — Reinstated after termination in 2018
  • Southeast Regional Center LLC (Alabama, Georgia)

October 2019 Oppenheim EB-5 wait time estimates

Department of State Visa Control Office Chief Charles Oppenheim presented about EB-5 visa availability at the IIUSA conference on October 29, 2019. Here are his presentation slides and my recording. (Update: Lee Li of IIUSA has written a helpful slide-by-slide commentary on Oppenheim’s presentation in his article Data Analysis on Fiscal Year 2019 EB-5 Visa Number Usage & Estimated Visa Waiting Lines.)

The October 2019 presentation suggested encouraging headlines: shorter wait times and faster-moving visa bulletin dates than previously predicted. Behind the headlines lies a vexed story that I shall tackle in this difficult post.

Post Agenda:

  1. Put Oppenheim’s October 2019 EB-5 timing estimate in context of past estimates
  2. Discuss how to read the “EB-5 Applicants with Petitions on file at NVC and Estimated USCIS Applicant Data” slide in Oppenheim’s presentations
  3. Review the factors that can cause the EB-5 backlog to grow and shrink
  4. Collect available data relevant to interpreting Oppenheim’s estimates for China, Vietnam, and India
  5. Interpret Oppenheim’s estimates for India
  6. Discuss how backlog data relates to estimated Visa Bulletin final action dates

1. October 2019 Presentation in Context

Oppenheim estimates total EB-5 backlog size (actual applicants at the National Visa Center plus estimated applicants associated with pending I-526) and then calculates wait times as a function of backlog divided by annual visas available.  The following table compares key results from Oppenheim’s October 2019 presentation with previous presentations on October 30, 2018 and May 6, 2019.

Summary of Oppenheim Estimates 10/2018 to 10/2019
Potential year wait to visa availability if I-526 filed “today” October 30, 2018 Presentation May 6, 2019 Presentation October 29, 2018 Presentation
Brazil 1.5 1.6 1.4
China mainland 14 16.5 16.2
India 5.7 8.4 6.7
South Korea 2.2 2.4 3
China Taiwan 1.7 2 1.9
Vietnam 7.2 7.6 7.1
Backlog size (total applicants) as of… October 1, 2018 April 1, 2019 October 1, 2019
Brazil                    1,010                    1,114                        977
China mainland                  52,828                  49,537                  48,589
India                    4,014                    5,851                    4,707
South Korea                    1,513                    1,676                    2,121
China Taiwan                    1,162                    1,386                    1,342
Vietnam                    5,008                    5,269                    4,971
Worldwide Total                  69,060                  73,157                  70,198

Note that Oppenheim’s backlog and wait time estimates fell between May and October this year for all countries except South Korea, with particularly significant  reduction in the wait time estimate for India. I didn’t expect that, considering reports of a flood of I-526 filings ahead of the November 21 regulations deadline. What’s the story? Are there indeed fewer people in line for an EB-5 visa now than there were back in May, or has there been a change or omission in Oppenheim’s calculation? If fewer people in line, how did that happen? If a change or omission in the calculation, what is it, and should that cause us to rethink Oppenheim’s past or current wait time estimates? Read on…

Interpreting the “EB-5 Applicants with Petitions on file at NVC and Estimated USCIS Applicant Data” slide

The data quoted above comes from this key slide, a version of which is included in each of Oppenheim’s IIUSA presentations since 2018.

This slide is important because Oppenheim’s wait time estimates are calculated from the orange column. For example 977/700=1.4 year estimated wait for Brazil. 4,707/700=6.7 year estimated wait for India. The calculations assume average 700 visas available per year under the country cap, though the total can vary by year. The denominator for China is less predictable. Oppenheim estimated a 16.2-year wait for China in October 2019, which means that he must have been assuming 48,589/16.2 = 3,000 annual visas available on average to China going forward. (Aside: Oppenheim did not explain why he chose the 3,000-visa assumption for China. China received 4,326 visas in FY2019, and Oppenheim estimates that 5,270 visas will be available to China in FY2020. Average visas available to China going forward will only average as low as 3,000 if rest-of-the-world demand continues to rise going forward, which seems unlikely considering impending investment amount increases. Note also that the wait time estimates should have been tagged for petitions filed as of October 1, 2019–since that’s the date of the data upon which they are based–not for petitions filed as of October 29, 2019. Considering the likelihood of a filing surge in October 2019, this distinction could be significant.)

In his October 2019 presentation, and in follow-up discussion in person, Oppenheim clarified these points about how to read the EB-5 Applicants slide:

  • The “Actual Number of Applicants at NVC” column is just what it says: an accounting of the actual applicants with petitions on file at the National Visa Center as of October 1, 2019. This column does not include people who have I-526 approval but without active petitions on file at NVC for one reason or another. It does not include applicants currently seeking a visa through adjustment of status with USCIS. The column includes no assumption about the number of actual applicants at NVC who may eventually get denied. The NVC column is most significant to Oppenheim’s visa bulletin calculations, because it indicates how many people are ready to claim a visa. (The I-526 column estimates potential future demand. But no one in that column is currently qualified to claim a visa, and Oppenheim does not know for sure when and if those potential applicants will emerge from the I-526 process and become qualified.)
  • “DoS ESTIMATED Number of Applicants with Petitions on File at USCIS” refers specifically to I-526 petitions, and does not include I-485 petitions. This column estimates the future visa applicants associated with pending I-526 using this formula: actual I-526 pending at USCIS * assumption about approval rate for these I-526 * assumption about average visas per approved I-526. The pending I-526 data and approval rate assumption come from USCIS. The visas-to-I-526 assumption uses the “average percentage of EB-5 principal investors” Department of State data point that divides EB-5 visas issued to investors by total EB-5 visas issued to investors plus family. Oppenheim could not disclose the specific numbers used to calculate this column for October 2019. I’m particularly sad that he couldn’t disclose what USCIS told him about pending I-526 by country. He did volunteer that the I-526 approval rate assumption in the 10/2019 DoS estimate is the same for all countries, and lower than the approval rate assumption used for previous estimates. He further indicated that the “percentage of principals” assumption in the 10/2019 DoS estimate varies by country, is based on averages for visas issued in FY2019 and FY2018.
  • “Estimated Grand Total” equals the blue column plus the green column. Oppenheim has not been counting I-485 applicants anywhere in the table because historically a small percentage of EB-5 visas have gone through adjustment of status. He agreed that it would be a good idea to count pending I-485 applicants in future backlog estimates. (Another hint that the “Estimated Grand Total” might be missing something: Oppenheim estimates about 48,600 total applicants for China. This seems unexpectedly low considering that at least 35,500 Chinese filed I-526 since the start of FY2015, per USCIS data, and few of those Chinese could’ve received visas yet considering that the visa bulletin still has a November 1, 2014 final action date for China. So either the China backlog has in fact experienced major attrition along the way — plausible, considering sentiment among past Chinese investors — or some category of Chinese who still could apply for a visa are not being counted in the NVC or I-526 columns.)

Potential Factors in Backlog Total Change

The size of the EB-5 backlog is constantly changing, as people enter the line by filing I-526 and bringing family, and leave it by losing eligibility or receiving visas. To review specific factors that can cause change over time to the numbers in Oppenheim’s backlog calculations, and/or the actual backlog:

Number of “Actual Number of Applicants at NVC”

  • Decreased by applicants receiving visas
  • Decreased by applicants being denied visas or losing eligibility (e.g. aging out, I-526 revoked)
  • Decreased by applicants abandoning their petitions (need to contact NVC annually to avoid this)
  • Increased by more investors receiving I-526 approval and filing visa applications (thus moving from the green column to the blue column)

“DoS ESTIMATED Number of Applicants with Petition on File at USCIS”

  • Increased by I-526 filings
  • Decreased by I-526 approvals and denials
  • Increased or decreased by changes to the DoS assumption about number of pending I-526 that will be approved
  • Increased or decreased by changes to the DoS assumption about how many family members will be associated with each principal applicant

“Estimated Grand Total”

  • Increases if increases from incoming I-526 filings plus approval rate and family member assumptions exceed decreases from outgoing applicants who received visas or lost eligibility.
  • Decreases if the opposite data and assumptions prevail.
  • Could increase if Oppenheim started to count populations not included in the “Actual at NVC” and “Pending at USCIS” columns. This includes EB-5 applicants on pending I-485, and possibly other people with potential eligibility (I-526 approval) who do not currently have active petitions at NVC.

Data

Here is my spreadsheet that collects data particularly relevant to questions about Oppenheim’s wait time estimates in 2018 and 2019 – basically, available data related to the above bullet points.  I gaze at and play with these numbers as I to try to back calculate Oppenheim’s estimates, answer questions, and interpret a story. I’m not showing my messy calculations, but present the inputs for the convenience of others working with the similar questions. Curating this spreadsheet was not easy.

Example Interpretation and Application

Take India as an example of the challenge to interpret Oppenheim’s estimates.

Oppenheim’s estimated India wait time fell by 1.7 years between April 1, 2019 and October 1, 2019 because Oppenheim estimated that the India backlog fell by 1,078 applicants during that period —  Q3 and Q4 of FY2019. This backlog reduction is the net of 66 additional applicants at NVC and 1,144 fewer estimated applicants associated with pending I-526.

DOS issued 252 visas to Indians in Q3-Q4 of FY2019. (We don’t know how many visa applications were denied.) 252+66=318, so apparently the 1,144+ applicants who left the I-526 column between May and October did not all transfer over to the NVC column.

It could be that many applicants were indeed approved out of the I-526 column but then disappeared into uncounted categories—ie the pending I-485 pool and the still-preparing-a-visa-application pool. If that were true, then those people are out of Oppenheim’s calculation but not out of the queue in reality. In that case Oppenheim’s latest wait time would be an underestimate.

Or, maybe few applicants were actually approved out of the I-526 column, but the I-526 column slimmed nevertheless thanks to downgraded assumptions about I-526 approval rates and family size. Oppenheim confirmed in follow-up conversation that he did indeed change assumptions about future approval rates (significantly) and family sizes (insignificantly) for the October 2019 calculation. If I-526 receipts and adjudications were about equal in Q4 (as they were in Q3), then a changed visas-per-pending-I-526 assumption could explain the entire 20% change in estimated  applicants associated with India I-526. If I-526 receipts in fact exceeded adjudications in Q4 – as I would’ve thought considering the expected pre-regs filing surge and continually lengthening processing times reports – then the visas-per-pending-I-526 assumption must have fallen by even more than 20%. If Oppenheim’s revised visas-to-investor assumptions are more accurate than his previous assumptions, then the wait time estimates from May 2019 and October 2018 were overestimates. If not, the October 2019 estimate is an underestimate.

Oppenheim’s backlog estimate does not count applicants on pending I-485. In FY2018, consular processing accounted for over 90% of visas issued to China and Vietnam, and 67% of visas issued to Indians, according to the Annual Report of the Visa Office. If there continue to be a significant number of Indian EB-5 applicants on I-485, then Oppenheim is undercounting the India backlog. For China and Vietnam, it appears relatively safe to only look at NVC numbers.

Oppenheim’s backlog estimate does not make an assumption about the number of applicants pending at NVC who will not end up claiming visas. However, this factor might be significant in reality, as suggested by Oppenheim’s commentary on the visa bulletin. The India final action date jumped in August and September 2019 thanks to an unexpectedly large return of visa numbers. Those returned numbers represent people who had been at the head of the NVC queue but then were denied at the visa interview, or missed the interview. Their disappearance resulted in visas that had been marked out for them returning to NVC and becoming available to people who had expected a longer wait time.

Overall, contemplating the numbers for India, I conjecture:

  • That there can’t after all have been much of an Indian I-526 filing surge at least up to September 30, 2019 (Indeed, only South Korea clearly experienced a major filing surge in FY2019 Q4)
  • That Oppenheim must now be estimating an I-526 approval rate well under 75%
  • That a relatively low approval rate going forward is plausible, given trends at USCIS, and would mean that previous wait time estimates assuming higher future approval rates were overestimates
  • That the current India wait time estimate is likely still an underestimate because it does not count I-485

But such conjectures are exhausting and unsatisfying. I’ve temporarily suspended my EB-5 timing estimate service, because it’s so tedious to try to navigate and quantify all the “if/thens.” And then any estimate must be so laboriously and frustratingly qualified. Until now, I have generally used Oppenheim’s point-in-time estimates as anchors for priority-date-specific timing estimates. But that doesn’t work as well when Oppenheim’s assumptions change between the points in unknown ways.  When USCIS finally publishes I-526 data for FY2019 Q4 (and even better, FY2020 Q1), we’ll at least have a few more facts to anchor estimates and to help interpret Oppenheim’s estimates. And please please please USCIS, why can’t you continue to publish data on pending I-526 by country and month of priority date? This is so important to program integrity, and not justifiable as a state secret.

Backlog Estimates and the Visa Bulletin

Oppenheim’s IIUSA presentation gave predictions for Visa Bulletin final action dates.

Oppenheim Final Action Date Predictions on October 29, 2019
December 2019 Visa Bulletin October 2020 Visa Bulletin Prediction
China Mainland November 15, 2014 Best case: March 8, 2015

Worst case: February 15, 2015

India January 1, 2018 Best case: current

Worst case: November 2017

Vietnam December 1, 2016 Best case: June 1, 2017

Worst case: April 1, 2017

 

Again, the India case is a challenge. How could the October 2020 Visa Bulletin possibly become “current” for India in one year (meaning visas available to qualified applicants for all priority dates) if Oppenheim doesn’t expect October 2019 priority dates to have visas available for another 6+ years? This becomes possible if the pool of qualified applicants remains small despite the large total backlog. In other words, if most of the 6+-year India backlog remains bogged down in slow I-526 processing, and thus unable to claim available visas. Oppenheim apparently foresees that Department of State could find itself in October 2020 with 700 visas to give India and well under 700 Indian applicants pending at NVC. That could happen if USCIS keeps up its low volume of approvals. This situation is less likely for Vietnam and China, because there are already significant NVC backlogs for those countries from back when USCIS adjudicated more petitions.

Among the many bad consequences of slow and chaotic I-526 processing: it devalues priority dates. In December 2019, Department of State offers visas to Indians with priority dates up to January 1, 1018, according to the visa bulletin.  Meanwhile, USCIS is processing investor petitions filed 29 to 50 months ago,  according to its processing times report. That means that Indians with late 2017 priority dates can be claiming visas now, ahead of Indians with 2015, 2016, and 2017 priority dates who are still stuck in I-526 processing. Obviously, the backlog is not moving in order by priority date.  In a queue system, a person’s wait time should be a function of the number of other people already in line at the time he or she entered the queue. That would allow for fairness and predictability. But the EB-5 queue is falling into disorder thanks to the two-step process. When USCIS is slow to adjudicate I-526 petitions, and apparently advances them out of date order, then priority dates lose their predictive value. It’s not fair that an Indian with a November 2017 priority date can claim a visa today, while an Indian with a November 2015 priority date isn’t even outside of normal I-526 processing times according to USCIS. It’s not fair when wait time estimates have to ask not only “how many people were in line before me” but “how many people will be able cut in line before me thanks to disordered USCIS processing?” But that’s the fact that we face today, thanks to USCIS processing failures.

Ironically, the “best case” scenario for the October 2020 visa bulletin assumes a worst case scenario for I-526 processing. If USCIS speeds up after all, approving more I-526 and thus advancing more applicants to the visa stage, than future visa bulletin final action dates will move further back.

Conference Rumors (partial investment, visa wait times)

I heard IPO Chief Sarah Kendall and Department of State Visa Control Office Chief Charles Oppenheim speak last week at the IIUSA conference in Seattle.  I’ll blog in detail about these talks and other news and insights from the conference as time permits, but first to quickly address a couple misconceptions that may affect current decision-making.

Rumor credits Kendall’s talk with announcing that it’s now acceptable to file I-526 with less than $500,000 before November 21, and Oppenheim’s talk with announcing that EB-5 backlogs have fallen. These impressions are not quite accurate, in context.

Sarah Kendall confirmed a point related to TEA requirements as they intersect with the “investing or actively in the process of investing” requirement. Her comments did not create or change the “actively in the process of investing” alternative to investing the full amount prior to I-526 filing.  Partial investment remains an option that’s just as available, narrow, and risky as it has always been. For discussion, see Joey Barnett and Vivian Zhu’s article “EB-5 Minimum Investment Amount Increases to $900,000 November 21, 2019 – Can an EB-5 Applicant Invest Less Than the Full $500,000 Now and Still Qualify?” and Robert Divine’s article “Member Perspective: EB-5 Implications from IIUSA Conference Leading up to November 21 Effective Date of Regulations” (and his previous cautionary words about skeletal filings.) Personally, I would not file I-526 with less than $500,000 invested because USCIS makes it so tough on the business side to prove that funds not actually in the enterprise account still qualify as “at risk” in the enterprise, as required. For examples of petitioners who invested less than the minimum amount before I-526 filing, and specific problems that they faced, see: FEB012017_01B7203, Oct262009_01B7203, Apr162009_01B7203, Nov032008_01B7203, OCT072005_01B7203. The official policy is here in the policy manual.

In his presentation on October 29, 2019, Charles Oppenheim estimated EB-5 visa wait times for current investors from China, India, and Vietnam that are shorter than the wait times he had estimated back in April 2019. This reflects a reduced estimate of the total backlog of EB-5 applicants (visa applications+ estimated applicants associated with pending I-526). However, the number of investors in line for an EB-5 visa has likely not fallen since April 2019, considering the number of of I-526 filings and adjudications and visa issuances since then. Oppenheim’s total backlog estimate fell due to revised assumptions about the number of visas to eventually be claimed by those investors. Specifically, he’s now estimating fewer visa applicants associated with pending I-526, because he increased the I-526 denial rate assumption for all countries, and decreased the family size assumption for some countries. I’ll blog and spreadsheet the detail when IIUSA publishes the slides, which Oppenheim promised would include some data not in the conference presentation. But to the bottom line: Oppenheim’s revised estimates are mixed news.  Considering the surge of people starting the race, it’s worrisome to see Oppenheim looking at the finish line and estimating that a reduced number of people will make it to the end to claim a visa.  For EB-5 investors considering risks, they must assume (a) solid success rate with associated long wait times, or (b) shorter wait times predicated on high failure rate. It’s one or the other, considering demand. (B) is unfortunately plausible, considering IPO’s recent behavior, so I don’t necessarily question Oppenheim’s revised predictions with shorter wait times.

FY2019 Q3 EB-5 Forms Processing Data

In her talking points for the EB-5 Modernization Stakeholder Call (September 9, 2019), Investor Program Office Chief Sarah Kendall made the following statement regarding processing times.

  1. IPO UPDATES AND PROCESSING TIMES

USCIS continues to process applications from regional centers and petitions from immigrant investors in a manner that strives to ensure timely adjudication while maintaining program integrity.

Over the past few years, IPO has been working diligently to reduce processing times by onboarding additional personnel, resulting in adjudicating more than 14,900 Immigrant Petitions by Alien Entrepreneur (Form I-526) in fiscal year 2018, which was an approximate 69% increase over the average completions for the previous five fiscal years.

During fiscal year 2019, the sunset of the Regional Center program during the last part of December and through most of January, cost IPO adjudicative time even after the program was reauthorized. IPO was forced to pivot to stand alone petitions and I-829 work and halted production on I-924s and I-526s associated with a Regional Center.

Additionally, IPO has taken significant steps in building more robust quality assurance and control programs to better ensure consistent adjudication practices, including conducting an extensive training session for all I-526 adjudicators and economists.

These reasons, along with temporary assignment of some staff to other agency priorities, have resulted in longer processing times, which you may have noticed with the May update to our online processing times.

These talking points do not suggest a crisis. The statement leads by emphasizing strong performance in 2018, and attributes the “longer processing times” that we “may have noticed” in 2019 to temporary factors: the few-week lapse in regional center authorization in December/January, a training session, and temporary reassignment of staff. There’s no suggestion of a major and persistent problem.

USCIS has now published FY2019 Q3 processing data for EB-5 forms on the Immigration and Citizenship Data page, and the numbers are concerning.

  • IPO is approving dramatically fewer I-526 than ever before:
    • Completion rates for I-526 have fallen 63%, comparing FY2019 with FY2018 year-to-date.
    • In FY2019 Q3, IPO processed fewer I-526 than ever before in its history – only 579 completions for the whole quarter, as compared with 3,000-4,400 completions per quarter last year.
    • In FY2019 Q3, a record number of I-526 decisions were denials — 42%. The average I-526 denial rate is 20% in FY2019 YTD, as compared with 9% in FY2018 YTD.
  • IPO is processing dramatically fewer forms in total than ever before:
    • Completion rates across EB-5 forms (I-526, I-829, I-924) have collectively fallen 59%, comparing FY2019 with FY2018 year-to-date. This demonstrates that IPO is not merely reallocating resources internally, but has become less productive across the board.
    • In FY2019 Q3, IPO processed more I-829 than in the previous quarter, but still a low volume – lower than average 2017/2018 performance for I-829.
    • Both IPO and the industry seem to have given up on I-924, with just a few handfuls of I-924 receipts and completions in the last two quarters. (And no wonder, when the current Processing Times report indicates that an I-924 is only considered “outside normal” processing after 90 months.)
  • Reduced performance combined with backlogs threaten long processing times.
    • FY2019 Q3 processed 579 Form I-526, and ended the quarter with 13,070 pending I-526. If IPO were to continue at the same processing volume, then the pending I-526 would take 13,070/579=23 quarters=5.6 years to process. If IPO had kept up (or can soon return to) last year’s volume of 3,000+ completions per quarter, then the same backlog would take just one year to process.
    • FY2019 Q3 processed 613 Form I-829, and ended the quarter with 9,295 pending I-829. If IPO were to continue at the same processing volume, then the pending I-829 would take 9,295/613=15 quarters=4.8 years to process.
  • The processing crisis at IPO is reflected in every quarter so far of FY2019, with each quarter worse than the last, and all together much worse than IPO’s performance from 2015 through 2018. I very much hope that the contributing factors are temporary, as Sarah Kendall suggested. I wish that she’d mentioned any expectation or intent to improve any time soon — at least to previous performance levels. Otherwise, one’s left to suspect an unspoken reason: that IPO has a new policy to maximize time spent per petition. But that would be a terrible move for program integrity. Long processing times benefit fraudsters, who can flourish in the expectation of years before USCIS gets around to reviewing investor petitions and catching the fraud. The worst harm and deterrent from long processing times falls on the best users — projects that genuinely need EB-5 investment and care about their investors. I hope that USCIS recognizes this important integrity issue, and soon improves — at least returning to the performance levels achieved in recent years.
  • Meanwhile I-526 receipts remain low, with the pre-regulations surge not in evidence yet as of June 2019.

For links to previous articles on processing data, see my EB-5 Timing Page.

FY2019 Q2 EB-5 Petition Processing Report

USCIS has updated the Immigration & Citizenship Data page with data for petitions processed in FY2019 Q2 (January to March 2019).

The results are shocking. Instead of recovering from the already-dramatic 37% decrease in processing volume last quarter, IPO processing volume fell another 60% in Q2. To look at raw numbers, IPO was processing over 4,000 I-526 per quarter this time last year, but processed less than a 1,000 I-526 in FY2019 Q2. Four times fewer! USCIS apparently does not deign to hold EB-5 stakeholder meetings anymore, so we do not know what is happening behind the scenes. But a huge reduction in output has a limited number of possible explanations: drastic reduction in staff at IPO, drastic increase in time spent per petition, and/or decision to limit output. Has IPO lost resources in recent months? Is there just a pause on adjudications, for some reason? Perhaps IPO is focused, as it should be, on the oldest case in the backlog, and taking an unconscionable time over those cases?

We care about output, because processing volume determines processing times. If IPO is processing four times fewer petitions per quarter than last year, then obviously the backlog will reduce more slowly than we’d thought in 2018, and processing times will increase accordingly. The following scary chart allows visualizing how many quarters would be required to process the backlog, if FY2019 Q2 volumes were to continue going forward.

Nevermind the 25-40-month range for I-829 in the current USCIS processing times report; the average I-829 filed on top of the backlog in January 2019 would take 93 months to process if FY19 Q2 volumes continue. But surely this exponential output reduction must be an unnatural aberration and cannot continue indefinitely! In all its history, IPO has never shown such meager performance across the board as in the last two quarters. Meanwhile, note that receipts remain low.


See my EB-5 Timing page for links to past reports, and the EB-5 Timing Estimates page for customized timing analysis. Considering recent fluctuations, I’ve updated my estimate templates to facilitate modeling alternate scenarios.

Understanding the Visa Bulletin

The forthcoming Visa Bulletin for July 2019 includes an EB-5 final action data for India for the first time, and no change from June to the EB-5 final action dates for China and Vietnam.

Chart A. Final Action Dates for Employment-Based Preference Cases [excerpt from July 2019 visa bulletin]

Employment-
based
All Chargeability
Areas Except
Those Listed
CHINA-
mainland
born
INDIA VIETNAM
5th Non-Regional Center
(C5 and T5)
C 01OCT14 01MAY17 01OCT16
5th Regional Center
(I5 and R5)
C 01OCT14 01MAY17 01OCT16

Chart B. Dates for Filing of Employment-Based Visa Applications [excerpt from July 2019 visa bulletin]

Employment-
based
All Chargeability
Areas Except
Those Listed
CHINA-
mainland
born
INDIA
5th Non-Regional Center
(C5 and T5)
C 01NOV14 C
5th Regional Center
(I5 and R5)
C 01NOV14 C

For people who want to understand these charts, I suggest: ignore us bloggers and read the visa bulletin itself from top to bottom. Department of State takes care to explain clearly what the dates and charts mean, and what to expect going forward. The internet, on the other hand, is currently awash in confusing and faulty information.

So read the bulletin, and try this quiz. Are the following statements true or false?

  1. The EB-5 category is current, and expected to remain current, for everyone except applicants born in China, Vietnam, and India. Current means that EB-5 visa numbers can be issued to all applicants as soon as they are qualified, with no wait for visa availability.
  2. During July 2019, India-born EB-5 applicants abroad can still continue to submit documents to NVC regardless of priority date, but only those with priority dates before May 1, 2017 can receive visas.
  3. During July 2019, I-485 can be neither filed nor approved for India-born EB-5 applicants with priority dates more recent than May 1, 2017.  Those with priority dates before May 1, 2017 are free to file I-485 and may receive visas.
  4. In general, I-485 filings must follow the Final Action Dates in Chart A, not the Dates for Filing in Chart B, unless USCIS specifies otherwise on its www.uscis.gov/visabulletininfo page.
  5. During August and September 2019, Department of State does not expect to issue any EB-5 visas to India or Vietnam. It expects to use up 2019 visas available to those countries in July. It’s possible that a few more EB-5 visas may be issued to China-born applicants in August and September.
  6. A final action date in the July 2019 visa bulletin means that DOS counted up known qualified applicants of June 6, 2019, and determined that qualified applicants exceeded the number of visas available for the year. Known qualified applicants include people documentarily qualified at the National Visa Center and adjustment of status applicants, as reported by consular officers and USCIS.
  7. The final action date for India means that May 1, 2017 marks the head of the line of Indian applicants who can’t yet move forward with the visa process. It means that  DOS thinks it has only enough 2019 EB-5 visas left to accommodate currently-qualified Indian applicants with priority dates of April 30, 2017 and earlier.
  8. When 2020 visas become available in October 2019, then the final action dates for Vietnam and India will move forward again. In October, Department of State expects to start issuing EB-5 visas to Indians with priority dates in summer or fall 2017, and to Vietnamese with priority dates in fall or early winter 2016.
  9. The July 2019 visa bulletin applies to July 2019. While it’s still June, we operate under the June 2019 visa bulletin, which has no final action date for India.

The above statements are all true, according to the visa bulletin.

  1. Answered in the Visa Bulletin Chart A (in the Employment Based section) and Section G (near the bottom of the page)
  2. Answered in the Visa Bulletin Chart A and B (in the Employment Based section)
  3. Answered in the Visa Bulletin Chart A and B (in the Employment Based section)
  4. Answered in the Visa Bulletin opening paragraph #2
  5. Answered in the Visa Bulletin Section F and G (near the bottom of the page)
  6. Answered in the Visa Bulletin opening paragraphs
  7. Answered in the Visa Bulletin opening paragraphs
  8. Answered in the Visa Bulletin Section F and G (near the bottom of the page)

And to again combat a persistent and pernicious misconception, a reminder: today’s visa bulletin does not provide a visa time estimate for today’s investors.

Here’s a story problem. Let’s say you enter an office and pick a number that determines when you’ll be served. The office had opened at 6 am, and started issuing numbers at that time starting with number 1. The office can serve about 700 people per hour, and has been operating at capacity since 6 am. When you arrive, you get number 5,852.  While you were arriving, the intercom was announcing, “now serving #1,750, Fred Smith.” How do you calculate when you will be served? Which information provided is relevant to solving the problem?

The simplest answer is 5,852/700=8.4.   6 am + 8.4 hours = 2:24 pm for expected service. The intercom announcement when you walked in the door is irrelevant to your time. Fred’s wait time does not bear on your wait time.

A guy at the door may point to the intercom and reassure you “Don’t worry, the wait won’t be long. Listen, Fred Smith is already getting service and it’s only 8:30 am – so the wait must be 2.5 hours at most.” Ignore that guy. Your time of service results from the time it takes to process the 5,851 people who got into the office before you did. Your wait time is unlikely to match the wait of someone with 1,749 people earlier than he was.

Now to align this analogy to EB-5. A couple months ago, Charles Oppenheim estimated that there were 5,851 Indians in line for EB-5 visas as of May 6, 2019, and therefore an India-born investor entering the end of that line on May 6, 2019 would wait 8.4 years for a visa. The wait time for someone with a May 6, 2019 priority date is determined by the time it takes to move the applicants with earlier priority dates through the system at a rate of approximately 700 per year. Today’s visa bulletin announcement is irrelevant to the 2019 investor’s wait time. Someone will say “Don’t worry, the wait won’t be long. Look, the July 2019 Visa Bulletin says the Indian applicant with April 2017 priority date can get a visa in July 2019 – so apparently we’re looking at a modest visa wait of 2.5 years.” Ignore that. The wait time for the person with a 2017 priority date does not translate to someone entering with a 2019 priority date at the end of a larger backlog.

Consider the May 2015 visa bulletin, which gave China its first final action date of May 2013. “Just two years to wait, not bad,” thought some new investors, and the market continued to flourish in ignorance. But Chinese who invested in May 2015 are still not even close to getting a visa now, four years later. The May 2015 visa bulletin gave a wait time for May 2013 petitions, not for May 2015 petitions. China-born investors in May 2015 needed to know, instead, the size of the China backlog in May 2015, and the number of visas available going forward.

Back to India, what can we do with this equation: 5,852/700=8.4

8.4 years is not a good number for marketing to India. Many would say that’s too long to wait for conditional permanent residence, and creates too much risk from material change and redeployment during the wait time. And the time has only been getting longer as more people have invested and added to the backlog.

We need a result less than eight years, which means that the numerator (5,851+applicant backlog) needs to be smaller, or the denominator (about 700 visas per year)  needs to be larger.  Some promoters with knowledge of the market make the numerator smaller by asserting that Department of State/USCIS have unreliable data that overestimated the number of people in the backlog. These promoters estimate that the true backlog is at least 50% smaller, and wait times thus at least 50% shorter, than estimated by Charles Oppenheim. The numerator will become smaller if many past investors give up or lose eligibility over the course of the wait time. Meanwhile, our people in Washington are, we hope, trying their best to make the denominator larger by advocating for more visa numbers. So long as the country wants a lot of investment, it must have enough visas to accommodate that investment. Otherwise, wait times are discouraging for potential investors from China, India, and Vietnam who believe the backlog data and do the math, and tragic for previous investors who were not informed about the backlogs.

Finally, a reprise of my handy image of the EB-5 process. And a few reminders. My data repository is on the EB-5 timing page. I set up an EB-5 Timing Estimate Service for anyone who wants a mathematical time estimate and explanation specific to his or her own priority date, or to the priority dates of their investors. And for those more worried about China than India, IIUSA promises to have a new post up soon that gives further analysis of Oppenheim’s China wait calculation from May 2019.

Petition Processing Times Report Change, RC List Updates

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

RC List Changes

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

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

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

New Terminations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FY2019 Q1 EB-5 Petition Processing Statistics

USCIS has updated the Immigration & Citizenship Data page with data for petitions processed in FY2019 Q1 (October to December 2018).

The data shows that the Investor Program Office had an unproductive first quarter, with the fewest EB-5 forms processed since 2016. No wonder processing times remain long. Sometimes the data reflects a workload trade-off (e.g. fewer I-526 but more I-829 processed), but FY19 Q1 just had very low output overall. What’s up, IPO? Are you losing staff? Burning time with extreme-vetting RFEs? I-526 and I-829 receipts were up from the previous quarter, but still relatively low.

The All Forms report is interesting as a reminder of just how small EB-5 is in the grand scheme of employment-based petitions, and because the report now has separate line items for I-924 and I-924A.

All regional centers that want to remain in good standing should file the I-924A annual report between October and December, yet the report shows only 322 I-924A receipts for Oct-Dec 2018. Did the rest of the 885 currently-approved regional centers decide that designation isn’t worthwhile anymore? Or does the report not capture actual I-924A submissions? Certainly I-924 filings remain very low. No surprise considering the high form fee, the difficulty of operating in the current environment, and the fact that exemplar approvals have no value if they come too late to be usable.

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

RC List Updates

There has been little activity on the USCIS regional center list since the beginning of the year.

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 12/31/18 to 04/19/19

  • BC East Coast Regional Center LLC (Pennsylvania)
  • EB5 Affiliate Network Washington, D.C. Regional Center, LLC (District of Columbia)
  • Pride Capital, LLC (New York)
  • Greystone EB5 Southeast Regional Center LLC (former name Greystone Florida Regional Center LLC) (Florida) (This RC had previously been terminated for inactivity — termination letter here.)

Removed from the approved list, but not added to the terminated list

  • Three Streams Mid-Atlantic Regional Center (Maryland)

New Terminations

  • San Francisco Regional Center (California) Terminated 2/13/2019
  • Midwest Investment Fund, LLC (Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio) Terminated 2/5/2019

FY2018 Q4 Petition Processing Data

USCIS is finally starting to update its Immigration & Citizenship Data page with data for petitions processed in FY2018 Q4 (July to September 2018). As usual, I’ve made charts to highlight salient features.

I like to look at annual trends in receipts and adjudications, because this reflects demand and allows understanding and predicting processing times at the Investor Program Office.

The backlog of pending petitions grows and processing times increase when IPO receives more petitions in a year than it can process in a year. That happened for I-526 from 2010 to 2017, when IPO finally started to catch up. In 2018, IPO surged ahead, processing more than twice the number of I-526 received. At this rate, the entire backlog of I-526 pending as of year-end 2018 will be adjudicated in 2019, and new I-526 can expect processing times of less than one year. I-526 processing times were a major factor for people who filed during peak demand in 2015 and 2016, and thus faced years-long processing on average. I-526 processing times will fade as a consideration, as new petitioners can expect months-long waits on average. (My I-526 prediction spreadsheet forecasts future processing times from petition volume.) Meanwhile, I-829 faces continued long processing times because adjudication volume is so small compared to the backlog. So long as IPO can only process less than 3,000 I-829 in one year, it will take 2-3 years just to get through the backlog of 7,660 I-829 pending as of October 2018. But we hope to see I-829 volumes improve considerably in 2019.

IPO’s total output was about the same in FY2018 Q4 as in Q3, just with a few more I-829 processed at the expense of a few fewer I-526. Meanwhile, the number of forms received by IPO remained relatively low in Q4. There was a small I-526 surge in advance of the September 30, 2018 regional center program sunset date, but nothing like in previous years. There continue to be very few new regional center applications and amendments, and high denial rates for previously-filed I-924.

I’m putting out my PayPal link again, particularly as an appeal to industry colleagues who depend on me to research and report news. How much more work would you have to do, if blog.lucidtext.com weren’t here to watch for and process EB-5 updates? If this blog saves you considerable time and effort, consider helping to make it worthwhile for me. (I am also contemplating advertising options, but have not settled on a strategy for appropriate and effective presentation within the constraints of the blog format.)

Retrogression Math

Retrogression — as people imprecisely call the visa wait times resulting from oversubscription — is my least favorite EB-5 topic. The problem threatens my market, and I’d love for it to go away. There are two ways to make the retrogression problem go away: solve it or ignore it. Solving retrogression requires convincing Congress to give EB-5 more visa numbers, or to change allocation. More visas = smaller backlogs = shorter wait times. Different allocation = spreading out the backlog impact = shorter wait times for some.  But solving retrogression is hard because of Congress, so that leaves ignorance. Ignoring retrogression is easiest if one shrouds it in mystery and doubt.  If EB-5 visa availability and wait times seem impossibly complicated and uncertain, then it’s natural to ignore the issue because what else can one do. But that’s not responsible. In fact, retrogression is in the realm of math, not of myth. China is exceptional (the future demand factor introduces need for a crystal ball, and results in variable/unreliable timing forecasts for China), but future EB-5 visa availability and wait times for other countries are calculable. Investors from countries nowhere near demanding 700 EB-5 visas annually need not fear retrogression. For countries that are over (Vietnam) or near (India) the approx. 700 limit, the risk from retrogression can be calculated from the accruing excess over that limit.

For India, we have ballpark figures for number of visas already spoken for as of the end of 2018, and know something of priority dates within this backlog. The fixed number of annual visas available to India simplifies the calculation for wait times implied in past and potential future demand. The math isn’t fun – especially when calculating the wait time for a particular priority date, because of course people at different places in line face different waiting times, and variables vary over time. But still, workable estimates can be made based on available data, with areas of variation and uncertainty accounted for with math plus judgment. “We just can’t know, no one can really predict” gave an alibi for China wait times and backlog buildup, but that excuse is not available for India.  We can’t know exactly but we can generally predict how long someone investing today from India will need to wait for conditional permanent residence. We can predict the result of looking to India for billions of dollars in EB-5 investment, so long as fewer than 700 EB-5 visas are available per year for India.

I collect all relevant data that comes to my attention in my Backlog Calc file, available to anyone undertaking his or her own analysis.  And do undertake your own analysis, because who is motivated and able to do it well for you? (Even some industry veterans have misconceptions.)

I put several analysis worksheets into my Backlog Calc file as a starting point.  For example, here’s a screenshot of the India Calc tab.

This sheet breaks down the data, assumptions, and equations behind Charles Oppenheim’s estimate for the India backlog and wait time as of Q1 2019, and offers models for calculating scenarios and the impact of future EB-5 capital raises in India. Being in the realm of math, when you doubt a conclusion, you can examine the variables, trace assumptions to underlying data, rethink the equations, and test alternate assumptions. My spreadsheet is your spreadsheet. Download the Excel and play with it on the big screen. Let clients play with it and reach their own conclusions. Just don’t tell prospective EB-5 users “we can’t know, it’s a mystery,” because predictions are possible and necessary.

We must try to be realistic about timing, because EB-5 isn’t only about waiting for a visa. It’s about tying up investor capital, and putting issuers on the line to deploy and redeploy capital for as long as it takes investors to get visas. Projects care whether they have to deal with EB-5 investors for 5 years or 10 or 20. Investors care whether their life savings are deployed at risk with negligible interest for 5 years or 10 or 20.  And lawmakers need to know if our current EB-5 visa limits soil the past, and gut the present and future economic potential of EB-5.

We need “real visa capacity relief,” as IIUSA says in a recent blog post. I’ll be interested to hear more about what specifically IIUSA can and will do toward visa capacity relief, which has historically not been a plank of the advocacy platform. (Not that the industry hasn’t wanted it, but that Congress hasn’t been willing to hear about it.) Certainly, the issue has become central to the long-term health of the EB-5 program.

NOTE: I’ve added a EB-5 Timing page to collect links to data and posts related to EB-5 visa availability, visa allocation, and wait times.

FY2018 EB-5 Visas by Country

The US Department of State has published Report of the Visa Office 2018 Table V Part 3, which gives a tally of visas (conditional green cards) issued by country for the Employment Fifth preference (EB-5) in FY2018. The major story in the FY2018 report is the increase in EB-5 visas issued to applicants born outside of mainland China.

EB-5 in the early 2000s used relatively few visa numbers overall, and only really took off with the increase of EB-5 interest from/in China after 2008. Then China-born investors drove growth and claimed a majority of visas until the total number of EB-5 visas possible to issue hit its ceiling: the annual quota of about 10,000 visas. Since that ceiling was reached in FY2014, there’s been no room for EB-5 to grow — China and the rest of the world just have to jockey each other for the available annual visas. The decreasing number of EB-5 visas issued to China-born applicants since 2014 does not primarily reflect decreasing demand from China (China still dominates the backlog), but increasing demand from other countries that decrease the number of visas available to China.

FY2018 data shows a marked increase not only in total number of applicants from outside China, but also in the number of countries supplying those applicants, and in the number of countries with a relatively large number of applicants each. EB-5 marketers care about this, because it helps identify the range and depth of market potential outside of China. Past China-born investors care about this, because their future wait times depend on the nature of incoming non-China demand (with best case scenario being demand concentrated in a few countries that will become blocked by the per-country cap, and worst case being large total demand spread out over many countries).

We want to read EB-5 visa reports and draw conclusions about demand for EB-5 investment opportunities. So a few reminders to qualify such conclusions:

  • The Visa Office report indicates the number of green cards issued for conditional permanent residence. To track visa numbers back to investor detail, it’s necessary to factor in the time between investment and visa issuance (about 1 to 5 years in 2018 depending on investor origin and I-526 processing time), and the number of visas per investor (about 3 on average).
  • The Visa Office report only directly reflects demand for countries that take significantly less than 700 visas (ie less than the 7% per-country cap). For countries that exceed the cap, the number of visas issued is not the number they demanded, but the number they could get. In FY2018, Vietnam got 7% of total EB-5 visas pursuant to the per-country cap, regardless of how many Vietnamese were ready to apply, and China got 48% of visas because that’s what was left for the oldest applications after demand from undersubscribed countries was satisfied. On the other hand, India remained under the per-country cap in FY18, so its 585 visas directly reflect the number of FY18 applicants (more than threefold increase from the previous year). But keep in mind, lengthy I-526 processing times mean that the FY18 surge in India visa applications reflects a surge in investments from India that happened 1-2 years ago. For a better sense of recent demand trends, see the log of pending I-526 by country and priority date that USCIS published in October 2018.

I’ve expected to see an increasing number of visas associated with direct EB-5 investments, but that hasn’t been true so far. Regional center investments accounted for 94% of EB-5 visas issued in FY2018, as compared with 93% in FY2017 and 91% in FY2016. For reference, here is my post on FY2017 EB-5 Visas by Country

I haven’t had time yet to update and recalculate my backlog calculation spreadsheet. But I will add one table here as follow-up to ILW’s article EB-5 Industry Misunderstands Retrogression (12/31/2018). The article estimates that “India generated close to $500 million in EB5 investments in 2018, and it is on track to generate $1 Billion in 2019 and $2 Billion in 2020. Indian EB-5 is a $3 Billion opportunity in the coming two years.” The article goes on to rightly correct misconceptions about how EB-5 visa allocation works, but omits one important calculation: what happens if one puts $3 billion dollars (12,000+ visa applicants) from one country in line to a gate that can only issue about 700 visas annually.

If we want to make Row A in that table a reality, and how wonderful that would be, then we have to deal with the constraints that turn successful markets into backlog tragedies. Let’s put the pressure on Congress for visa relief. Otherwise, ethical promoters will have no option but to reduce the amount of investment they try to raise, or to support proposals dramatically increasing the minimum investment per investor.

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

 

Applying data to questions (I-526 timing, visa timing)

This post applies data that’s recently become available to practical questions that EB-5 issuers and past/potential investors keep asking. [FYI: many edits made since first posting.]

Question 1: How long does I-526 take?

This question has a nice answer for new petitioners: much less time than before.

As inventory falls and flow rate increases, processing times fall. People who filed I-526 in 2016/2017 entered at the top of a mountain of pending petitions (as illustrated in Figure 1), and have suffered long processing times as a result. But people who file I-526 now in November 2018 are just standing on a molehill by comparison, plus benefiting from improved completion rates. They can expect their petitions to be processed in less than a year, I estimate. (I estimate processing times based on USCIS data for pending and processed petitions. See my I-526 time spreadsheet.)

As I-526 times improve, the many countries in the world with no visa wait (all but China, Vietnam, and (soon) India) will be able to enjoy EB-5 as a fast track once again. And project companies, investors, and program integrity all benefit from prompt attention by USCIS to investor petitions.

Question 2: If I’m a Vietnam-born person with pending I-526 or pending visa application, how long can I expect to wait for EB-5 visa availability?

This question has a better answer than many people fear. Last month when Charles Oppenheim of Department of State predicted a 7.2-year wait for Vietnam-born, he was giving a prediction for one point: people filing I-526 on October 30, 2018. If that point-in-time prediction is correct, then the wait time will be less than that for everyone who filed I-526 before October 30, 2018. The blue columns in Figure 3 mark the data points we have: actual wait times for past applicants (calculated by subtracting Final Action Date from Visa Bulletin Date in past Visa Bulletins), and Oppenheim’s future predictions. Fit a trend line through those points, and you can estimate wait times for other priority dates, between the past actual and future predictions. (The trend won’t turn out neatly linear in real life, but I think this is good for a rough estimate. If you want a better trend line, you can factor in quarterly fluctuations in I-526 filing and approvals, and guidelines for allocating visas by quarter. Or you could push for legislative/administrative fixes that would change the picture entirely.) These charts and source data are in the “Vietnam Calc” tab of my Backlog calculation spreadsheet.

[NOTE: When I first put up this post, I included a Figure 2 for China with linear trend through past visa bulletin waits for 2014 priority dates up through Oppenheim’s 14-year prediction for Chinese filing in October 2018. But the more I thought about it, the more I disliked the China chart — because that 14-year estimate for 10/2018 is questionable, and because complicating factors will likely make the China trend look more like the craggy mountain in Figure 1 than a slope. So I edited out Figure 2.]

Question 3: If I’m an India-born person with pending I-526 or pending visa application, can I expect to get a visa number in FY2019, before visas for India get used up for the year (i.e. before Department of State sets a Final Action Date for India)?

This question is tough, because the answer depends on predicting which petitions get adjudicated in the next few months, and how many. Table 1 and Table 2 below highlight the data points (from among those provided in the 10/30/2018 presentation by Charles Oppenheim) that I consider particularly relevant to the question. (These tables are also in the “India Calc” tab of my Backlog calculation spreadsheet.)

The worst case scenario is that in the next couple quarters, USCIS approves a lot of the I-526 pending for India-born people who filed I-526 in 2013-2017. If that happens (and the newly-approved petitioners quickly become documentarily qualified for a visa), the result could be that no one born in India who filed I-526 more recently will get a visa number in FY2019, no matter how quickly their I-526 was/will be processed or when they filed I-485 or the visa application. This risk exists because visa numbers get issued to qualified applicants in order by priority date, not based on when they filed their visa applications. The risk is accentuated by the fact that Charles Oppenheim at DOS is required by statute to dole out available visas gradually over the course of the fiscal year (no more than about 27% each quarter in the first three quarters), not all at once to as many people as qualify for them. That delay gives time for the pool of documentarily qualified applicants to grow, as USCIS approves more petitions.

The best case scenario is that in the next couple quarters, the pool of India-born people qualified for a visa doesn’t grow much, and additions to the pool mainly consist of people who filed I-526 recently. In that case, everyone already qualified for a visa as of Q1 FY2019 (500+ people) could actually get a visa in FY2019. Plus a few more people (about 60 investors with their families) who will get I-526 approval and become documentarily qualified in FY2019 may also get allocated visas before the approx 700 visas available for FY2019 run out. The best case scenario is possible because expedited projects have been popular with Indians, USCIS can be slow to process older I-526 (and has a lot of older petitions in the backlog from countries besides India), and the process between I-526 approval and becoming documentarily qualified can also be very slow.

The facts in Table 1 and Table 2 suggest to me that an India-born person filing I-526 today is unlikely to get a visa number in FY2019, regardless of how quickly they can get I-526 approval and qualified for a visa. There are just so many older petitions and applications already in the system. I don’t have my life savings and family on the line, however.  If you do have a major life decision depending on EB-5 timing, you should spend more time with the reports and spreadsheets to make your own estimate between the best and worst case possibilities. And talk with the immigration lawyer about limitations and benefits of being at various points in the process (I-526 pending, I-526 approved but not yet documentarily qualified, I-485 pending, documentarily qualified at NVC…) at the time when DOS publishes a Final Action Date for India.

For anyone who doesn’t manage to get a visa number in FY2019, don’t be too discouraged. India will have a trend line, like Vietnam as discussed above. You don’t automatically wait 5.7 years for a visa by virtue of having been born in India. Your wait time will depend on your priority date, with dates before October 2018 promising shorter wait time.

My post EB-5 Visa Waiting Line and Visa Allocation explains in more detail how visa allocation works. FYI, the Telegram group https://t.me/EB5VisaGroup notified me that they assembled their own India prediction spreadsheet. I’m not posting it here because I don’t know how to explain all their calculations and sources, but you can reach out to the group to request their additional analysis.

To the extent that my analysis and reporting benefits your decision-making, please consider my PayPal contribution option (corrected link). My spreadsheets and posts take a lot of time and thought that can only be rewarded if others share their benefit. I hope the work helps my clients who need information, and an industry that needs transparency, but it’s a sacrifice for me personally as a service provider dependent on new EB-5 business.

AILA/IIUSA Forum Updates (Kendall, Oppenheim, visa availability)

Last week I attended the 2018 AILA & IIUSA EB-5 Industry Forum, which featured appearances by new IPO Chief Sarah Kendall and Department of State Visa Control Office Chief Charles Oppenheim.

Ms. Kendall is a career civil servant and spoke accordingly. She gave the impression of being competent, in control, and unlikely to say anything unexpected. I didn’t note anything major in her speech that I hadn’t already heard from the USCIS Policy Manual, OMB Unified Agenda, or previous stakeholder meetings. (UPDATE: Here is a copy of Ms. Kendall’s prepared remarks.) The headlines: no update on regulations beyond what OMB said, and no significant new input on the hot issues of redeployment, bridge financing, material change, or minors as investors. Stakeholder meetings are not the proper venue for policy announcements, so I suppose there’s really not much to do but repeat existing guidance and say “thank you, we’ll consider it,” for everything else. One would expect Ms. Kendall to have a law enforcement orientation, considering her background. And indeed she stated that “focus must be on program integrity,” and listed these objectives for IPO: improve transparency, protect national security, lawful administration of our nation’s laws.  I appreciate that she started with transparency, which is foundational to the other two objectives. And it was gracious of Ms. Kendall (and former Interim Chief Julia Harrison) to attend the AILA/IIUSA event and take time to chat with attendees.

In the past I’ve sometimes felt like a lone crusader with my spreadsheets and numbers reports. I attended the AILA/IIUSA forum in person partly because I suspected that Charles Oppenheim would give information about visa numbers and wait times that my clients need to know, and no one else would process it or publicly report on it. But I was wrong. A wonderful panel on visa numbers not only provided a very extensive data set but analyzed and drew actionable conclusions from it, and then IIUSA made the right choice to promptly publish the full presentation where anyone can access it. And now other people are already reporting on it, without pausing to worry about messaging. Integrity depends on transparency – an important lesson for everyone.

Here is the gold mine: Presentation Materials from Department of State Visa Control Office Chief Charles Oppenheim (UPDTATE: IIUSA has also published commentary on the presentation.)

The slides provide the most comprehensive and current set of visa-availability-related data yet, with helpful interpretation and conclusions. Bottom line: how long should an investor filing I-526 on October 30, 2018 expect to wait for an EB-5 visa number?  Mr. Oppenheim made the following prediction: China, 14 years; Vietnam, 7.2 years; India, 5.7 years; South Korea, 2.2 years; China-Taiwan, 1.7 years; Brazil, 1.5 years. Here’s the famous slide:

These time predictions refer to the time between I-526 filing and visa availability for people filing I-526 on October 30, 2018. People who filed I-526 before October 30, 2018 have fewer people ahead of them in line, and thus can expect correspondingly shorter wait times. People who file later can probably expect longer waits (unless trends or rules change, as they could). The predicted visa wait times for South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil are now short enough as to be likely imperceptible (i.e. even shorter than I-526 processing time). Mr. Oppenheim foresees that South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil will remain current (no cut-off date) through 2019 and probably 2020. The predicted wait time for an India-born investor filing today has lengthened since the last prediction from April, but not as much as I’d feared. Mr. Oppenheim now predicts that the Visa Bulletin will have a Final Action Date for India “no later than July 2019.” In other words, the annual EB-5 visa allocation available to India in FY2019 is expected to run out in July. In October 2019, when new FY2020 visas become available, India will have a Final Action Date in 2017, meaning that India-born applicants with priority dates before the 2017 Final Action Date will then be able to apply for visas.  As for China, Mr. Oppenheim predicts that by October 2018, the Final Action Data for China-born applicants will progress to 10/22/2014 (best case) or 10/8/2014 (worst case), and that China will advance (at best) two months in 2019. Mr. Oppenheim expects to be able to move Vietnam’s Final Action Date as far as September 2016 this year, before the FY2019 visas available to Vietnam run out.

For the full background to these predictions, and very helpful commentary on how the visa process and allocation work, potential variability, and what we do and do not know, see the full slide presentation and my voice recording of the panel. (And if you want all the backlog-related data I know, though all you really need is Charlie’s predictions, see my backlog spreadsheet.)

A shout-out to other colleagues reporting on the conference:

Wolfsdorf Rosenthal is holding a free webinar on 11/8 to discuss the DOS data and implications.

See also the conference program/RCBJ Business Journal available online. I particularly recommend these articles:

Regarding legislation and potential developments in Washington, I did not hear anything particularly newsworthy. Industry lobbyists say that they see hope for the future because they are finally united for the first time. This talking point would be more encouraging if we hadn’t heard the same statement last year, before the last attempt at EB-5 legislation that excluded most of the industry until the 11th hour and then met with industry discord. The panel last week did not specify compromises or concessions that have been made since then, and did not reflect specifically on what went wrong. The panel foresaw possibility for renewed legislative efforts in 2019, initiated in the House. EB-5 has best chance of getting attention after border wall funding and DACA are no longer taking all available oxygen, and after more representatives have been educated on EB-5. The panel hinted that we might be looking at more continuing resolutions in December, particularly for DHS funding if Democrats do well in the midterms. The proposal to eliminate per-country caps (in the Yoder amendment to the House version of the DHS funding bill, and H.R.392) got little mention, and no one said they thought it likely to be enacted.

FY2018 Q3 EB-5 Form Processing Statistics

After months of famine we suddenly have a feast of EB-5 numbers: data for FY2018 EB-5 form completions through September 2018 from the USCIS/IIUSA meeting on October 5, data for pending I-526 as of October 2018 from an IPO mailbox response to my blog reader, per-country I-526 data through FY2017 on sale by IIUSA, data relevant to the EB-5 visa waiting line from a wonderful panel with Charles Oppenheim at the AILA/IIUSA conference, and now official figures from USCIS for EB-5 forms received, approved, denied, and pending in the third quarter of FY2018 (April to June 2018). I’ve already reported on the first two data sets, and will cover the Oppenheim presentation in a forthcoming post when I’ve had time to process the information. As time permits, I may also do a post that tries to make sense of how these various data sets intersect, and some apparent contradictions and mysterious gaps. But for now, here are my charts highlighting trends in the official FY2018 Q3 data. The numbers come from the USCIS Immigration and Citizenship Data page, with Form I-526 and I-829 data in the Employment Based subsection, and Form I-924 data in the Forms subsection in the “All Forms Report.”

A few notes:

  • Overall, IPO is receiving fewer forms and processing more forms than before. That should be a good sign for processing times at least, and will result in smaller backlogs. However, performance improvement is currently all focused on I-526. Q3 showed a record-breaking number of I-526 processed (22% improvement over the previous quarter) but drop in number of I-924 and I-829 processed.
  • Q3 I-526 receipts were lower than any quarter I’ve recorded since 2013, likely reflecting concerns about visa wait time.
  • In Q3, I-829 receipts exceeded I-526 receipts for possibly the first time ever.
  • I-829 completion rates look terrible, with an almost-linear 65% drop in completions over the last four quarters. What’s happening, I-829 team? Why are you getting fewer and fewer I-829 adjudicated? IPO should put more resources on I-829 adjudication, considering the receipt trend across all forms.
  • A surprising 51% of Form I-924 adjudicated in Q3 were denied. The denial rate for I-829 was higher than usual, at 13%. The I-526 denial rate remained at 9%.
  • USCIS is not infallible when it comes to inconsistencies, and the Q3 reports contain significant revisions to the Q2 and Q1 numbers previously reported. In the I-829 reports, for example, the May report indicated 1,046 receipts in Q1, the July report indicated 694 receipts in Q1, and now the October report indicates 862 receipts in Q1. You make us doubt that you know what happened in with I-829 in Q1, USCIS! This should make USCIS recognize and sympathize with the difficulty of reporting consistent numbers, even with the best of intentions. FYI, here is my file on the ongoing mystery of the pending petition count.

Pending I-526 by country as of 10/2018

There’s an EB-5 Support page on the USCIS website that provides an email address for IPO, and instructions for how and when to communicate through the IPO mailbox. I’ve dismissed this contact option, having only heard and experienced reports that emailing the IPO mailbox yields nothing but a canned response and no action. But what do you know, sometimes it works. On October 25, 2018, IPO responded to an email from one of my readers with this extremely valuable information: “Shortly after replying to your email, Immigrant Investor Program Office management asked the webmaster to post online a table containing I-526 data. Here’s the link: https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Working%20in%20the%20US/i526list.pdf” The link leads to a table that breaks down all I-526 pending at IPO as of October 2018 by investor country of origin and priority date. (UPDATE: USCIS removed the file in July 2019. Here is the copy I saved.) Thank you IPO management for this transparency! Program integrity depends on informed decisions, which in turn depend on information. We understand that these figures are probably subject to change since they’re so recent, and haven’t gone through the months-long review process that normally precedes public data posting. That’s just fine — our decisions need data timeliness far more than minute precision. And thank you reader for making the request and for bringing the answer to public attention. Otherwise this data treasure might have rested unnoticed on the USCIS website, or been hoarded by a few.

The charts and tables below highlight features of the data that I consider particularly interesting. The pending I-526 numbers by country help explain why Department of State predicts backlogs and visa wait times for certain countries. The pending I-526 numbers by receipt date illustrate how long currently-pending petitions have been waiting for adjudication. And the figure for total pending petitions, combined with data from other sources, suggests that I-526 receipts may have plummeted in FY2018. That’s bad news for the US economy, job creation, and destitute business plan writers like me whose revenue depends on new EB-5 demand. But it’s good news for EB-5 program sustainability. So long as the EB-5 visa cap remains at about ten thousand for investors plus family, the program can unfortunately only sustainably accommodate three to four thousand investor I-526 per year on average.

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

USCIS meeting with IIUSA (regs, redeployment, processing times), Analysis of Litigation

Report on USCIS Meeting with IIUSA

Thank you USCIS for posting a complete transcript of the USCIS Meeting with IIUSA on October 5, 2018. Such transparency is so helpful. Program integrity suffers from general lack of information, and from the industry’s inclination to promote asymmetry for what little info is given.

At the meeting, USCIS Director Cissna spoke about current developments in EB-5, IIUSA representatives described areas of concern for the industry, and new IPO Chief Sarah Kendall commented on IPO performance.

The entire transcript is worth reading, but here are the most newsworthy elements from my perspective:

  • Regulations: Director Cissna, speaking in October, did not make it sound as of the EB-5 Modernization regulations (regarding investment amounts and TEAs) were on the brink of finalization. He said: “So on the main one, the proposed rule that has yet to go final, it is going to go final. We’re just not ready yet. We’re still working on it. You might have seen, I testified in front of the Senate a few months ago, back in June, and I got screamed at because Senator Grassley was wanting that regulation to be final even quicker. So I told him what I’ll tell you is the answer hasn’t changed. We are going to finalize it; just we’re not done yet. It’s a lot of work to finalize a regulation. But that should come soon.” And then later “Well, I think, I mean, you asked, you know, what are our priorities for the next fiscal year. I think, you know, putting aside the regulations which we already discussed, I think the main one is continuing to ensure the integrity of the program. That’s what it’s about. The reg., it might take a while yet before it gets finally published.” This is a grain of salt to go with the “last chance in November 2018” marketing pushes currently fueled by the OMB Fall 2018 Unified Agenda, which estimated 11/00/2018 for a final rule.
  • Redeployment: IIUSA representatives spoke strongly for the need to clarify policy around redeployment. USCIS sounded receptive but vague — not as if they are currently working on redeployment policy. Kathy Neubel Kovarik, Chief of the USCIS Office of Policy and Strategy, threw out a couple ideas:  that the industry might submit suggestions for how to clarify the policy, and what if USCIS published the details of approved redeployments for industry reference. IIUSA pointed out pros and cons.
  • Processing Times/Petition Backlog: The USCIS website has only published EB-5 petition data through March 2018, and we desperately want to know numbers for filing and adjudication volume for the year. This meeting transcript includes charts with completion information at least. The charts show a heartening increase to processing volume across all EB-5 forms in 2018 vs 2017: +21.9% for I-526, +2.5% for I-829, and +72.5% for I-924. Ms. Kendall acknowledged that I-829 (or as the transcriber tellingly heard it, “oh, no, we’re not,” haha) has “a bit of a bump going on.” She indicated that “in the next year we anticipate putting additional resources to the [I-829] so that we can address the needs of that particular line of adjudication.” She reports that IPO is now fully staffed with 200+ personnel, spread across FD&S, Fraud Detection and National Security, and Adjudications Management, plus “an excellent support team.”

I will report further when IPO Chief Sarah Kendall speaks at the AILA/IIUSA conference in Chicago next week.

Litigation in EB-5

I’m behind in reporting on litigation and enforcement actions in EB-5, but Friedland and Calderon have picked up the slack with a paper analyzing the couple SEC actions and flurry of investor-initiated litigation this year. Here is their helpful introduction to the paper.

In December 2017 when we released the first edition of “Understanding EB-5 Securities: NYU Stern Database of SEC EB-5 Securities Enforcement Actions,” we were skeptical as to whether there would be sufficient developments in this area to justify annual updates. However, any doubts were removed during the first 10 months of 2018.

Below is a link to our latest paper, entitled “EB-5 Securities – New Developments and Updated NYU Stern Database – 2018 Edition,” with the updated database as an appendix.

Topics covered by this paper include:

  • The pending litigation in the CMB Century Park Hotel case, with a detailed analysis of the Investment Company Act of 1940 aspects of the case, as well as discussing the relevance to this case of the recent SEC Order against CMB even though the Order relates to unrelated projects
  • The 2018 SEC enforcement action, the DOJ prosecution and the pending bankruptcy auction of the Palm House Hotel where an affiliate of the Related Companies is apparently the stalking horse bidder
  • The immediate impact of the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in SEC v. Kokesh based on recent SEC testimony before Congress
  • The SEC settlement with Ariel Quiros, the mastermind of the Jay Peak fraud; a comparison of the distribution of proceeds with the distribution under the Raymond James Financial settlement; and possible SEC Whistleblower awards
  • The pending litigation against USIF alleging a secret restructure of the EB-5 investors’ capital, in its atypical role as an in-house regional center
  • DOJ criminal prosecutions in 2018, as well as expected future prosecutions
  • Unregistered broker-dealer actions, including the recent enforcement action against an immigration attorney wearing multiple hats, and a 2018 US Supreme Court decision prompting a rehearing of aspects of the Hui Feng decision
  • The pending litigation against People’s United Bank for its role in Jay Peak and its potential impact upon other banks’ willingness to establish and maintain EB-5 subscription escrows
  • Updates to our SEC EB-5 Securities Enforcement Action Database
  • Our dim outlook on the likelihood of enactment of EB-5 integrity reform measures, although a recent announcement by OMB, DHS and USCIS provides a glimmer of hope

Link to new paper: EB-5 Securities – New Developments and Updated NYU Stern Database – 2018 Edition

Link to webpage on NYU Stern CREFR site listing our EB-5 research:
EB-5 Research Papers and Articles by Gary Friedland and Jeanne Calderon