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

EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program Engagement July 13

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

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

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

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

EB-5 and Securities Law

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

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

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

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

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

  • No new regional centers.

New Terminations:

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

RC Terminations, investor litigation victory, China trends, agent ethics, RC list changes

Regional Center Termination Reasons

USCIS has terminated 109 regional centers over the past decade, and 23 regional centers in May 2017 alone. This month USCIS also initiated a page for Regional Center Termination Notices, with most notices up to November 2016 posted so far. The page explains that “USCIS will remain consistent and committed to transparency in the EB-5 program by proactively publishing Regional Center termination notices as they become available. This is an important step in assisting investors, the EB-5 industry, and the public to understand the reasons why a regional center has been terminated and what types of regional center activities may trigger the end of a regional center’s designation.”

I’ve started a Termination Log spreadsheet (also linked to my RC List page for ongoing reference) to correlate USCIS’s terminations list with its notices list, and facilitate analysis. Pivot table analysis of this log provides a quick overview of termination reasons (from the 69 termination notices posted so far) and timing.

In fact the termination notices are not very informative (most reference Notices of Intent to Terminate, which are not attached, for specific reasons), but we can generally learn that about 77% of RC terminations from 2008 through November 2016 occurred for one of two reasons: failure to file an I-924A annual report, or the fact that the I-924A report reflected inactivity (i.e. no investor petitions in three or more years). Just 12% (notices for eight regional centers) referenced problematic behavior by the regional center as a basis for termination. Other reasons include the regional center’s voluntary request to withdraw from the program. One letter dated July 13, 2016 explains “USCIS notes counsel’s request to withdraw from the program. The mechanism to end a regional center’s designation, whether initiated by the regional center or USCIS, is termination of the designation.” (This particular letter could’ve raised on-going FBI investigation as a termination issue, but that’s another story.) The Final Fee Rule published 10/24/2016 confirms that a regional center may elect to withdraw from the program, but does not offer an exit more dignified than termination. “A regional center may elect to withdraw from the program and request a termination of the regional center designation. The regional center must notify USCIS of such election in the form of a letter or as otherwise requested by USCIS. USCIS will notify the regional center of its decision regarding the withdrawal request in writing.This is a pity, as the terminated regional center list looks like a walk of shame, and I think voluntarily withdrawal should be treated differently from termination initiated by USCIS.

Legal Win for EB-5 Investors

Investors who think they’ve fallen victim to errors by USCIS will be interested in this long but ultimately successful battle by a group of EB-5 investors.

  • 2013: Twelve EB-5 investors file I-526 petitions based on investment in a regional center hospital project that sought to qualify as a troubled business
  • 2013-2015: USCIS denies the I-526 petitions, and then denies Motions to Reopen filed by the petitioners. The petitioners appeal the denials to the Administrative Appeals Office.
  • March to May 2016: AAO posts decisions dismissing appeal of I-526 denials (for example, MAR252016_02B7203)
  • April 2016: Four petitioners file civil action against USCIS in district court: Wei Gan v. USCIS
  • May 2017: USCIS and the plaintiffs resolve the case
  • May 2017: AAO posts decisions sustaining appeal of the previously-denied I-526s (For example, MAY182017_01B7203. Other May 18 2017 decisions sustain appeals for other investors in the same project)

Trends, Pitfalls, and Ethics in Working with Overseas Agents

China Market Demand Trends
Ronald Fieldstone reflects on a recent China trip in his post EB-5 Marketplace Measurement – China and Beyond (May 25, 2017). We’re reminded of the extent to which demand shapes supply in EB-5 investment.

Agent Marketing Claims
The Kushner Companies EB-5 roadshow in China continues to reverberate, with Senator Grassley mining it for yet another press release, this one calling for investigation of the Chinese agent involved, and its sales claims. (Grassley Seeks Investigation of Companies’ Promises of Green Cards 5/25/2017.) The regional center has protested to journalists that the senator’s allegations are baseless in this case, but all regional centers can take the reminder to double-check what their agents overseas are saying and posting online. Also keep in mind IIUSA’s best practices for engaging with sales intermediaries.

Ethics for US Lawyers Retained by Migration Agents
Lawyers who deal with overseas agents in EB-5 may be interested in a March 2017 Ethics Opinion by the New York State Bar Association. The opinion discusses conditions under which a lawyer may enter into an arrangement whereby a nonlawyer “foreign migration agent” hires the lawyer on behalf of the client and assists the lawyer in communicating with the client. Cyrus Mehta explores the matter further in his post EB-5 Green Card, Ethics and Trump (May 22, 2017).

DHS Director and EB-5

Lee Francis Cissna, President Trump’s nominee for Director of USCIS, committed to finalizing EB-5 reforms in his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week. In other words, new EB-5 regulations are still on the table. Mr. Cissna spent much of the past two years working for Senator Grassley on immigration issues, and reportedly wrote dozens of the letters sent under the senator’s name to Homeland Security officials. This does not bode well for his attitude to immigration generally or EB-5, though he made a nice statement at the hearing.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 05/08/2017 to 05/30/2017

  • Atlantic Casino & Entertainment Group Regional Center (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania)
  • New York Immigration Regional Center (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania): www.goeb5nyc.com/
  • American Family Regional Center (Washington)

New Terminations

  • Dallas Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 5/22/2017
  • East Plumas County Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 5/22/2017
  • Immigration Funds LLC (former name United States Investors Regional Center) (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire) Terminated 5/22/2017
  • Ohio Regional Center, LLC (Ohio) Terminated 5/21/2017
  • EB5 Express Regional Center (California) Terminated 5/18/2017
  • Arkansas Regional Economic Development Center, LLC (Arkansas, Oklahoma) Terminated 5/16/2017
  • Art District Los Angeles Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 5/16/2017 (this RC was removed from the terminated list and added back to the approved list on 6/19/2017)
  • The Z Global Corporation Regional Center (California) Terminated 5/16/2017
  • Mariana Stones Corporation Ltd. (Guam) Terminated 5/15/2017
  • NatureAll Co., Inc. EB-5 Regional Center Terminated 5/15/2017 (New Jersey)
  • USA Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 5/15/2017
  • Eight Islands Regional Center, LLC (Hawaii) Terminated 5/3/2017
  • Diamond City Montana EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Montana) Terminated 5/10/2017
  • New York Pioneer Regional Center (New York) Terminated 5/3/2017
  • Optima Arizona Regional Center, LLC (Arizona) Terminated 5/3/2017
  • Puget Sound RC, LLC (Washington) Terminated 5/3/2017

Washington Updates (new draft bill), New Form I-526, RC list updates

Washington Updates
It’s still not clear what will happen in the next couple weeks before the next regional center program sunset date on April 28, and whether we’re likely to see EB-5 program changes first from legislation or from new regulations. In an advocacy update sent to members last week, IIUSA noted that the appropriations package to fund the government past April 28 is likely to be larger than a continuing resolution. Thus it could be a vehicle for EB-5 legislative reform, were any reform proposals ready. Right now there are three active bills – two that would terminate EB-5 entirely, and Rand Paul’s rosy wish list of improvements. Yesterday EB-5 Insights reported that the Senate Legislative Council is circulating another staff discussion draft of EB-5 reform legislation, and speculates that the RC program may get a short-term extension of a few weeks (with government funding) while Congress works out other appropriations details. I’ve added the staff draft dated 4/15/2017 to my Bill Comparison Table and updated my TEA Incentive Summary for reference. (5/11/2017 update: I’ve now revised the TEA Incentive Summary.) The new draft is basically the same document (with a few changes) as the 12/2/2016 staff discussion draft, which in turn was based on the Goodlatte/Conyers legislation from 09/2016. We shall see whether it goes anywhere this time around.

New Form I-526
There’s a new edition of the Form I-526, which everyone must use starting June 9, 2017. Wolfsdorf Rosenthal and EB-5 Insights discuss what’s new in this version of the form.

Petition Processing
The new IPO processing times report does not look good, with the “processing petitions as of date” date having regressed for every category (back almost a week for I-829, back nearly 3 weeks for I-526, and back nearly 5 weeks for I-924). If you’re new to this blog, here’s a link to a post with everything I know about interpreting processing time reports.
Also, a sharp-eyed reader pointed out to me that the number of pending I-526 petitions that USCIS reports every year does not, as one would expect, equal the number of pending petitions at previous year-end plus current-year receipts minus current-year approvals and denials. (The quarterly numbers don’t add up either.) Anyone know why this is so? If not, I’m submitting a question for the next stakeholder meeting.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 04/03/2017 to 04/17/2017

  • Atlas Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Hawaiian Palms Regional Center (Hawaii)
  • Hope Investment Regional Center (California)
  • Washington Free Life (Washington)

New Terminations

  • Leaf Fischer Investment Group, LLC (Florida) Terminated 3/6/2017
  • Idaho Global Investment Center, LLC (Idaho) Terminated 3/6/2017
  • FreeMind Films Regional Center (California) Terminated 3/15/2017
  • Green Card Gateway Regional Center (Illinois) Terminated 3/30/2017
  • Florida Gateway Regional Center, LLC (Florida) Terminated 4/12/2017

Washington updates, articles, RC list updates

Washington Updates

  • Legislation: Another piece of EB-5 legislation has been thrown into the ring – this one from Rand Paul: S.727 Invest in Our Communities Act. Dianne Feinstein made an extreme bargaining statement with S.232, which threatens to eliminate the EB-5 program entirely, and Rand Paul’s bill takes the opposite pole – offering to make the regional center program permanent with more visas for everyone, better processing times, more investor protections, reasonably limited integrity measures, and no changes to the investment amount or Targeted Employment Area incentive. I’ve entered S.727 in my bill comparison chart, but I guess it lacks sufficient compromise to gain traction (and the similar S.2122 from Mr. Paul in 2015 didn’t go anywhere) . I can’t guess what will happen between now and April 28, but am following what The Hill has to say about prospects for a continuing resolution or omnibus spending bill. UPDATE: An April 6, 2017 letter from Senators/Representatives Grassley, Leahy, Conyers, Goodlatte, and Feinstein encourages Congressional leadership not to extend the RC program on April 28 unless accompanied by reforms. (Then why don’t any of these people introduce reform legislation??)
  • Regulations: Recall the April 11 deadline if you want to comment on USCIS proposed EB-5 regulations USCIS 2016-0006 and USCIS-2016-0008. So far, 0006 (with proposed TEA and investment amount changes) has 54 comments and 0008 (the advance notice requesting feedback on regional center designation issues) just 11 comments.

Other Resources

  • Wolfsdorf Rosenthal and EB-5 Insights have posts about a new kind of source of funds RFE that requests SOF evidence for people transfering funds on behalf of an EB-5 investor.
  • Carolyn Lee of Miller Mayer discusses the newly-unveiled regional center compliance audit program.
  • A journalist called to ask me for the story behind the surge of regional center terminations in 2015 and 2016. In case anyone else is interested in this topic, here are the sources I sent him.

RC List
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 03/01/2017 to 04/03/2017:

  • Coastline Regional Center (Washington)
  • Extell Utah Regional Center (Utah): eb5extell.com
  • Mainsail Florida Regional Center (Florida)

Removed from the list of terminated RCs, and restored to the list of approved RCs:

  • South Dakota International Business Institute (SDIBI) (South Dakota)

New Terminations:

  • San Gabriel Valley Regional Center (California) Terminated 3/15/2017
  • Washington Center for Foreign Investment, LLC (Maryland) Terminated 3/28/2017

By the way I work hard to keep my blog Regional Center List complete and consistent with information from USCIS, but the task is not easy and I welcome regional centers to correct my information.

Articles (Project Oversight, Redeployment, TEA Changes), RC list changes

EB-5 Articles

What to do if you suspect your EB-5 project is in trouble (February 17, 2017) by Catherine DeBono Holmes, Esq., Daniel B Lundy, Esq. and Jeffrey E. Brandlin, CPA, CIRA, CFF
This article gives practical advice for managers and investors in EB-5 investment funds. It offers a checklist of warning signs that an EB-5 project may be in trouble, defines a role for a construction monitor/accountant and lists tasks that person should accomplish, describes monitoring systems that should be in place, suggests steps for investors to take if they are not satisfied with monitoring and reporting, and begins to address the question of what EB-5 investors should do in case of a fraud enforcement action. I particularly recommend this article to EB-5 investors, as a reminder of what they can demand and what they should do after investment. EB-5 managers are not necessarily motivated to meet a high and expensive standard for oversight (a manager affiliated with the project owner may not see the need, an unaffiliated manager may prefer to keep at arms length from the project, and the odd bad actor lives on opacity). EB-5 investors, however, certainly benefit from exercising their rights to active and on-going due diligence. People drafting EB-5 legislation and regulations may also be interested in this article, as they consider appropriate requirements for EB-5 managers.

Standards and Guidelines for Redeployment of EB-5 Investment Funds – A White Paper (February 21, 2017) by Klasko Immigration Law Partners, LLP, Arnstein & Lehr LLP, Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP
This article steps into the grey area that USCIS has left by failing to finalize or replace its DRAFT guidance on the Job Creation Requirement and Sustainment of the Investment for EB-5 Adjudication of Form I-526 and Form I-829 (8/10/1015). At issue is the question of what EB-5 enterprises can do with EB-5 money considering that (1) an EB-5 investor’s funds are required to remain at risk in the enterprise throughout the investor’s conditional residence period, (2) visa backlogs mean that the investor might not be reaching the I-829 stage until up to 10 or more years following the initial investment, and (3) most EB-5 deals involve loans due to be repaid to the enterprise in less than 10 years. The draft guidance memo suggested that “to the extent that all or some portion of the new commercial enterprise’s claim against the job-creating entity is repaid to the new commercial enterprise during the sustainment period, the new commercial enterprise must continue to deploy such repaid capital in an ‘at risk’ activity for the remainder of the sustainment period” and “the capital will not be considered ‘at risk’ if it is merely being held in the new commercial enterprise’s bank account or an escrow account during the sustainment period.” Although this suggestion is questionable, and not final policy, it’s the only indication we have of USCIS’s thinking, and the authors of the above-linked article suggest practical ways to satisfy that standard for sustained investment. The authors explain why investment in publicly-traded or privately-held securities or real estate investment should comply with the “at risk” requirement, and they suggest guidelines for making such investments in a manner that complies with Federal securities laws and state law fiduciary obligations.

EB-5 Proposed Regulations: A Missed Opportunity, Next Steps for Reform (Rev. 2/14/17) by NYU Scholar-in-Residence Gary Friedland, Esq. and Professor Jeanne Calderon, Esq.
In this article, the authors once again address the sticky issue of EB-5 Targeted Employment Areas from an academic rather than industry perspective. They discuss TEA changes in proposed regulations and proposed legislation with reference to their database of EB-5 projects, which is dominated by the kind of large big-city projects that make poster children for TEA reformers. The EB-5 industry will not join the authors in lamenting that the draconian proposed regulations appear doomed by timing, but it should account for and consider effective response to the evidence that the authors present in support of TEA reform.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 02/04/2017 to 02/22/2017

  • Invest Guam Regional Center (Guam)
  • Universal Regional Center (California)
  • Discovery Northeast, LLC (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Star EB5 Group (Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)

S.232 Update, SEC & Attorneys, RC list changes

S.232 Update
Senator Feinstein and Senator Grassley have finally published text for and issued a joint press release on the long-shot S.232 – A bill to terminate the EB-5 Visa Program. The statement from Senator Grassley clarifies what this piece of legislation is really about: “For years, I’ve worked with bipartisan colleagues in good faith to reform it. Unfortunately, despite its many flaws, EB-5 proponents are apparently content with the status quo, and that’s unacceptable. I was hoping that it would not come to this point, but absent serious efforts to bring about reforms, we need to take the necessary steps to wind down the program and completely mitigate fraud, abuse and threats to our security.” S.232 expresses frustration at the progress of EB-5 legislation and makes a hardball negotiating statement: “if you don’t respond to my concerns, here’s what could happen.” The proposal to eliminate EB-5 entirely must be too drastic to gain much support or pass into law, but we should still take the frustration seriously. I can understand why EB-5 industry advocates in Washington DC would settle on a “protect the status quo” platform, that being the path of least resistance to industry consensus, but we cannot afford a reputation for being unserious about reform. We should address each of the concerns that Feinstein and Grassley raise in their press release. We can clarify points that are factually wrong (EB-5 is not green card sale and does not avoid waiting lines, as Feinstein assumes), respond constructively to valid concerns (for example support effective protections in response to past instances of fraud, address questions raised by GAO and Commerce studies on job counts), and have the leadership to offer some considered concessions on the fundamentally divisive issues (such how the targeted employment area incentive should be used, what investment amounts should be). We must not leave oxygen for S.232, or give it excuse to become anything more than a negotiating threat.

SEC Issues for Attorneys
IIUSA has reposted 10 Observations from Reviewing Evidence in an SEC Civil Enforcement Action, an article with good advice for attorneys based on the author’s review of documentary evidence in a civil enforcement action brought by the SEC against an attorney for taking commissions as an unregistered broker-dealer.

RC List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 12/06/2016 to 02/04/2017

  • Health and Welfare EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (New Jersey, Pennsylvania)

Additions to the list of Terminated Regional Centers:

  • Medical Investment in Texas Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 1/23/2017
  • Pacific Proton Therapy Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 1/26/2017

Regulations freeze, SEC action (San Francisco), RC List Changes

Progress of Proposed Regulations
As EB-5 stakeholders process proposed new EB-5 regulations, they are thinking (1) how can I dissuade USCIS from the changes that would be most harmful for me personally; (2) how can I take best advantage of this golden opportunity to explain to USCIS how EB-5 works in the real world; and (3) how early could the proposed regulations become final, effective regulations? We know at least that regulations can’t proceed to the next step until after the public comment period closes on April 11, 2017, and now the new administration has put another hurdle in the road.

President Trump’s first Presidential Memorandum is addressed to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies with the subject Regulatory Freeze Pending Review (January 20, 2017). It does not put a moratorium on new federal regulations, but does require that any new or pending regulations be presented for review and approval of a Trump-appointed agency head before proceeding any further. This means that proposed new EB-5 regulations will need to go before General John Kelley, the newly-confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security. Would General Kelley allow new EB-5 regulations to move forward? The tireless Senator Grassley met with General Kelley on January 13, and reported that “In addition, we talked about new proposed regulations published by the Department today that would go a long way to restoring the EB-5 immigrant visa program to the way Congress intended it to be used: to help bring much-needed jobs and capital to rural and economically distressed areas. I [Grassley] expressed my strong desire that these rules be kept in place and allowed to go forward to ensure that this program fulfills its original intent.” I don’t know what input General Kelley may get from other directions, or whether the flood of lobbying dollars out of New York will have an impact. IIUSA indicates that its official comment submission to DHS will seek to demonstrate the negative effects that proposed changes would have on the industry.

New SEC Action
People drafting new EB-5 regulations and legislation are motivated, in part, to implement reforms that can help preempt the kind of situations that end in SEC action. When cases appear, we have a post-mortem opportunity to consider: what went wrong here, and how might problems have been prevented or at least detected earlier? Last week the SEC published a complaint against San Francisco Regional Center, Thomas Henderson, and related parties. This case has the usual allegations (commingling, misuse, and misappropriation of funds), but offers a relatively challenging “what-if” analysis. The regional center’s website and offering documents (as quoted in the suit) appear to make all the right representations about account transparency; it just happens that the RC apparently didn’t follow through on these representations, and a third-party co-owner with apparently every right and motivation to monitor proper use of funds had to resort to a lawsuit to claim his right to oversight and eventually apply the breaks. Retrospective armchair due diligence isn’t as easy for this case as for some others. I wonder – what different policy or different industry practices could have contributed to improved policing in this situation?

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 11/29/2016 to 12/06/2016.

  • Advantage America Seattle Regional Center (Washington): www.aaeb5.com
  • CP Northern Regional Center (Michigan, Wisconsin)
  • California Agricultural Greenhouse Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • California Bond Finance Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Greystone EB5 Northeast RC, LLC (Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia): www.greystoneeb5.com
  • QueensFort Capital Texas Regional Center, LLC (Texas): queensforteb5.com
  • Texas Crown Regional Center, LLC (Texas)

Renamed:

  • Civitas Pacific Northwest Regional Center, LLC (former name Civitas Northwest Regional Center) (Oregon, Washington)

New terminations:

  • American Development and Investment Regional Center (California) Terminated 1/5/2017
  • Bay Area Regional Center LLC (California) Terminated 12/22/2016
  • Path America Sonoco, LLC (Washington) Terminated 11/23/2016

Election and EB-5 (updated), RC list changes

Political Changes and EB-5
In the new political climate, Regional Center EB-5 has an interesting position: it’s an immigration program whose strongest criticism has been that it unfairly benefits wealthy New York real estate developers. Perhaps we’re about to see EB-5 become an immigration program whose saving grace is its benefits to big developers (including President-elect Trump’s family). Or maybe EB-5 will be crushed between judiciary committee chairmen (still to be Senator Grassley and Rep. Goodlatte in the new Congress) who want reforms and a new administration that may aim to cut down on immigration generally? Maybe the Regional Center program will be simply ignored and punted down the road with more short-term extensions as the lame-duck Congress focuses on bigger spending bill issues and the Judiciary Committees get caught up in Supreme Court hearings? I don’t know. Preliminary comments on the election’s immigration and EB-5 impact: IIUSA letter to members, EB-5 Insights Post-Election Immigration Update, Klasko Law post on the Election Impact on EB-5. In the article Leahy to press ahead with EB-5 reforms in lame duck session (Nov. 16. 2016), VT Digger quotes sources saying that Senators Leahy and Grassley are continuing to push even now for any regional center reauthorization to be accompanied by reforms. However, the impression I get from reading political news is that Congress as a whole is determined to do and decide just as little as possible until Trump is President. House Republicans have already agreed it’s a good idea to extend government funding from December 9, 2016 into 2017 with another short-term spending bill, in order to defer big decisions until next year. It’s probable that the Regional Center program will piggy-back on that additional extension of existing appropriations and authorities, as it did before — if for no other reason than that Congress would have to make extra effort and go out of its way to specially exclude it. (Update: a CR has indeed extended the RC program with government funding through April 28, 2017.)

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 10/03/2016 to 11/01/2016

  • EB-5 Fund CA, Inc. (California)
  • Home Paradise Texas Regional Center, LLC (Oklahoma, Texas): ushpic.com

Renamed:

  • CanAm Los Angeles County Regional Center, LLC (former name Los Angeles Film Regional Center) (California)
  • Central Southern Regional Center (previously USA South Regional Center) (Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas)
  • Rural Economic Development Center LLC (former name 1900 Gulf Street Partners Regional Center LLC) (Kansas, Texas)

Removed, but not listed as terminated:

  • Los Angeles County Regional Center (California)
  • Mountain States Center for Foreign Investment (Utah)

New Terminations:

  • Montana Energy Regional Center LLC (former name USA Montana Energy Regional Center) (Montana) Terminated 11/1/2016
  • Dominion Mid-Atlantic Associates, Inc. (Virginia, Virginia) Terminated 10/20/2016
  • Mariana’s Investment Co, LLC (Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands) Terminated 10/27/2016
  • Northern Illinois Regional Center (Illinois) Terminated 10/13/2016

Visa Usage, GAO TEA Report, RC List Updates

Visa Usage
Here is a chart that visualizes how EB-5 fits into the big picture of U.S. immigration. The main chart is lifted from a New York Times article this week that discusses immigration levels. I added the box with detail on numerical limits within EB preference visas.
greencards
It’s worth gazing at this chart and considering how we feel about the allocations. The pie is unlikely to get larger: the message I hear from Washington is that no one has the political will to push for a greater total number of immigrants to the U.S. The pie  could be divided differently, if Mr. Trump or Ms. Clinton gets a chance to make comprehensive immigration reform happen. EB-5 is currently limited to barely 1% of the annual total (7.1% of the EB category), and EB-5 investors get still fewer numbers since they share the allocation with family members. This wasn’t a problem for years when the program didn’t really work, but now is a shame as EB-5 is working overtime and thousands of people eager to invest in US business and bring their resources to the US are stuck in years-long waiting lines. (For sobering figures on wait times, and thoughts about how to alleviate the problem, see the slides from Symposium on EB-5 Visa Usage at the IIUSA EB-5 Industry Forum October 2016.) The employment-based category as a whole is bursting at the seams as it tries to accommodate needs from health care to Silicon Valley with only 15% of total visas, so EB-5 stakeholders aren’t the only ones agitating strongly and loudly for a better piece of the pie. As the New York Times points out, the current legal immigration system prioritizes family reunification over employment-based preferences. Mr. Trump says he wants “to choose immigrants based on merit, skill and proficiency” (so far so good for EB-5, though his idea of reducing total immigration could pull the rug from under EB-5 visa numbers), while Ms. Clinton’s immigration platform keeps the focus on families. One or the other will probably get elected next month, and we’ll wait with bated breath to see what happens next with immigration. Maybe either will solve the problem by reducing the likelihood that a million sensible people a year will even want U.S. immigrant visas. (FYI: my chart and NYT’s chart aren’t exactly in parallel, since theirs shows percentages used in a given year while mine shows numerical limits — percentages that may not match actual usage in 2014.)

GAO Report
The Government Accountability Office has another EB-5 report, this one titled Immigrant Investor Program: Proposed Project Investments in Targeted Employment Areas (September 19, 2016). The report is addressed to Senators Grassley and Leahy and Representatives Goodlatte and Conyers, and responds to their request for information on EB-5 projects in recent I-526 petitions, specifically “(1) proportion of petitioners that did or did not elect to invest in a TEA; (2) proportion of petitioners basing a high unemployment TEA on various types of geographic areas; and (3) EB-5 investment as a proportion of the total investment in petitioners’ TEA projects.” GAO answers these questions with statistics from a random sample of 200 I-526 petitions filed in FY2015 Q4. The report will interesting for people who don’t already know where most EB-5 money goes, in terms of geography and industry, and how EB-5 normally fits into a project’s capital stack. The report is a gift to journalists itching to write a headline with “gerrymandering” in the title (though it also indicates that the majority of combined-census-area TEAs are actually quite small areas, comprising fewer than 11 tracts). I’ve gathered that Grassley et. al.’s ideal EB-5 project is a business with no non-immigrant funding in a thoroughly blighted Midwestern town, and the GAO report reflects the fact that indeed few EB-5 petitioners have chosen such projects. Of course TEA incentives are only one factor in this reality. Market factors also determine the kind of project that entrepreneurs are willing to undertake and investors are willing to fund. But the GAO report will inform the talks on EB-5 legislation that need to resume before December 9.

Regional Center List Updates
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 9/16/2016 to 10/03/2016:

  • Eagle EB-5 Regional Center (California)
  • McCormick Regional Center LLC (Washington)
  • NY Entrepreneurs Fund, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)

Restored to list of approved RCs (apparently removed by mistake last week):

  • Benefield California Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • HS Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • SAA Cedisus EB-5 Projects – SW Indiana Regional Center, LLC (Indiana)
  • Western Energy Regional Center (Oklahoma)

Renamed:

  • American Islands Regional Center (former name United States Virgin Islands Regional Center) (U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI))

New Terminations:

  • Northern Illinois Regional Center (Illinois) Terminated 10/16/2016
  • Arizona Alternative Energy Center, LLC (Arizona) Terminated 10/6/2016
  • Detroit Immigrant Investor Regional Center (Michigan) Terminated 9/30/2016
  • Yellowstone Montana Regional Center, LLC (Montana) Terminated 9/28/2016

RC program extension to 12/9, reauthorization history, new RCs

Regional Center Program Authorization
The regional center program has been reauthorized through December 9, 2016 as part of the Continuing Appropriations and Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017, and Zika Response and Preparedness Act signed today by the President. I held off on reporting this because I couldn’t find RC program reauthorization in the bill. But IIUSA assures me that they’ve gotten confirmation from multiple Congressional offices that RC program extension is in Division C (p. 125-127), so we’ll go with it. (UPDATE: If you’d like the detail, here are emails I received from a couple kind attorneys who explain how the language works. See also the article Congressional Research Service Analyzes Validity of EB-5 Program Extension.) The extension gives only a very short reprieve. Lawmakers are now leaving Washington and won’t be back until November 14, leaving just a few weeks to figure out what comes next — or (probably more likely) to redeploy short-term measures to defer substantial lawmaking to the next Congress.

For reference, I’ve compiled a timeline of regional center program legislation to date. Notice the varying authorization periods, the fact that new legislation has usually been finalized nearly on and sometimes after the sunset date, that RC program extension has usually been part of appropriations legislation, and that previous program extensions have been associated with few to no program changes.
rctimeline

  • 11/29/1990 – EB-5 is established as part of an immigration act (PL 101-649)
  • 10/6/1992 – RC program is established as a pilot within EB-5 and authorized for five years as part of an appropriations act (PL 102-395)
  • 11/26/1997 – RC program is authorized for an additional two years (with one small change) as part of an appropriations act (PL 105-119)
  • 10/30/2000 — RC program is authorized for an additional three years (with a couple small changes) as part of immigration-related legislation (PL 106-396)
  • 11/2/2002 – Significant changes are made to EB-5 as part of an appropriations act, but no change to the RC program sunset date (PL 107-273)
  • 12/3/2003 – RC program is authorized for an additional five years (with a few small changes) as part of standalone EB-5 legislation (PL 108-156)
  • 9/30/2008 – RC program is extended unchanged to 3/6/2009 as part of a continuing resolution (PL 110-329)
  • 3/11/2009 – RC program is extended unchanged to 9/30/2009 as part of an appropriations act (PL 111-8)
  • 10/28/2009 – RC program is extended unchanged to 9/30/2012 as part of an appropriations act (PL 111-83)
  • 9/28/2012 – RC program is extended (with one small change) to 9/30/2015 as part of immigration-related legislation (PL 112-176)
  • 9/30/2015 – RC program is extended unchanged to 12/11/2015 as part of a continuing resolution (PL 114-53)
  • 12/8/2015 – RC program is extended unchanged to 9/30/2016 as part of an appropriations act (PL 114-113)
  • 9/29/2016 – RC program is extended unchanged to 12/09/2016 as part of a continuing resolution (PL 114-223)

To be continued….(Note that Googling the PL number will readily bring up the legislation, and in most cases you can locate the RC program reference in the document by searching for 610(b).) We hope that the regional center EB-5 will eventually have the stability of a permanent program.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 09/12/2016 to 9/16/2016

  • American Southern Regional Center, LLC (Georgia)
  • California Bohong Premier Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • KCI Capital Limited (Colorado)
  • TLQ Partnership, LLC (California)
  • TriHaven Investment Group LLC (California)

Mysteriously re-added to the approved regional center list, though they’re also still listed on the page for terminated regional centers

  • Path America KingCo, LLC (Washington)
  • The Lawrence Economic Development Corporation (Ohio)

Removed from the regional center list (but not listed as terminated)

  • DC Partners Regional Center (Texas)
  • FP Advisors LLC (Colorado)

Regional center terminations:

  • American EB-5 Centers (Florida) Terminated 9/28/2016
  • Virginia Center for Foreign Investment and Job Creation (Virginia) Terminated 9/29/2016

Q3 2016 EB-5 Petition Stats, GAO Report, RC List Updates

Path to Reauthorization
I’ve been updating my post Looking toward RC program reauthorization as significant developments come to my attention. I’ll make a new post when the text of new legislation is released. The days between now and September 30 will be interesting. At least the regional center program is less controversial than the Zika virus, so far.

FY2016 Q3 EB-5 Petition Statistics
The USCIS Immigration and Citizenship Data page now has EB-5 petition statistics for the third quarter of fiscal year 2016. IPO processed fewer petitions overall in Q3 than in Q2 2016. I-526 receipts were slightly up from Q2, but still relatively low, and IPO processed more I-526s than it received in Q3. An unusually large number of I-829 petitions were denied in Q3. The backlog remains dire. My charts summarize data for I-526 and I-829 receipts, approvals, denials, and pending petitions from the USCIS reports. I also added bonus charts estimating the amount of investment and number of immigrants associated with petitions filed since 6/1/2015 (to help visualize the impact of retroactive rule changes, and why we don’t want them), and showing IPO staffing levels as reported by Mr. Colucci in EB-5 stakeholder meetings (since staff increases have been a major strategy for tackling the petition backlog) and recent processing time reports.

GAO Report
The U.S. Government Accountability Office has posted a follow-up to its August 2015 EB-5 study that identified weaknesses in USCIS’s fraud mitigation activities. The title of the 9/13/2016 report summarizes the GAO’s new findings: Immigrant Investor Program: Progress Made to Detect and Prevent Fraud, but Additional Actions Could Further Agency Efforts. The 2016 GAO study mentions a number of fraud mitigation measures that USCIS has implemented for EB-5:

  • The Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) unit has grown to 25 FTE staff, and IPO has created a specialized group focused on regulatory compliance.
  • FDNS is using overseas staff to attempt to identify potential sources of fraud stemming from any false statements by immigrant investors regarding their source of funds.
  • FDNS has planned at least 50 site visits in four states, and anticipates conducting additional site visits on a continual and as-needed basis. The first site visits began in August 2016.
  • FDNS has conducted risk assessments, and identified securities fraud as the most frequent source of fraud in the program.
  • USCIS has updated I-526 and I-829 forms to help capture additional information about petitioners and applicants that could be used to potentially identify fraud.
  • USCIS conducts selected background checks on all of its immigrant investors and regional-center principals, in cooperation with partners such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
  • USCIS recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and anticipates conducting additional reviews to help identify potential fraudulent actors and fraudulent financial activity in its regional centers.
  • USCIS will use I-829 interviews to expand collection of information that could be used to identify fraud. (But so far a comprehensive interview strategy has yet to be developed.)
  • USCIS hopes to implement a case management system for tracking and reporting data related to EB-5 investments and job creation. Project completion is “tentatively planned for some time in fiscal year 2017.”
  • USCIS is developing standard operating procedures for adjudication staff for each investor form, and hopes to finalize these procedures by Q1 of FY2017.

GAO found that USCIS continues to be hindered by a reliance on time-consuming reviews of paper files that preclude certain potential fraud-detection activities such as the use of text analytics to help identify indicators of potential fraud. The continuation of planned efforts to digitize the files, including the supporting evidence submitted by applicants and petitioners, could help USCIS better identify fraud indicators in the program.

Regional Center List Updates
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 08/29/2016 to 09/12/2016

  • APIC Regional Center California (California)
  • AmerAsia EB5 Regional Center SF, LLC (California)
  • American Investment Fund Regional Center, LLC (Oregon, Washington): www.aif-rc.com
  • Invest Atlanta Regional Center (Georgia): www.investatlantarc.com
  • KOIT Global Investments (Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee): www.koitglobal.com
  • Southern California Investments Regional Center (California)
  • Sun Island Regional Center (California)
  • The Flame Regional Center, LLC (New Mexico, Texas)

Renamed:

  • Montana Energy Regional Center LLC (former name USA Montana Energy Regional Center) (Montana)

New Terminations:

  • Resource Regional Center Michigan, LLC (Michigan) Terminated 8/31/2016

8/29 USCIS meeting (policy timeline, minor petitioners, RFC, more), AAO decisions (exit, investors in terminated RC), legislation comments, NASAA advisory

EB-5 World kept busy during my annual wilderness week, so this post is a long one. Before I get into detail, here are a few headlines: No new EB-5 policy or guidance likely this year, IPO steps up scrutiny of parties involved in regional centers and emphasizes due diligence responsibilities, Minors face challenges in qualifying as EB-5 petitioners, Wyoming gets its first regional center.

8/29/2016 EB-5 Stakeholder Meeting

USCIS hosted an EB-5 stakeholder teleconference on 8/29/2016 – ostensibly to review content that we couldn’t hear in the 7/28 engagement, but stakeholders wisely took the opportunity to ask new questions. Nicholas Colucci and Julia Harrison made new statements supplementing the prepared remarks for the 7/28 engagement. IIUSA has shared a recording with members. I was not able to record the event, but have summarized highlights for you.

  • USCIS Timeline for New Policy and Regulations: USCIS expects to finalize the EB-5 chapters for the USCIS Policy Manual by the end of this fiscal year or at least calendar year, and to hold off on releasing new policy and guidance until after those foundational chapters on existing policy have been published. Mr. Colucci described the policy manual as “a compendium of all existing policy of the EB-5 program, putting it all into a single document. As we draft new guidance with respect to the EB-5 program, what we will do is generally put it out for notice and comment and then finalize it in that manual. So it will be a document that gets added to as it goes along.” It will be nice to have existing policy gathered in one place, but what we really want is new policy. In her statement for the 7/28 meeting, Lori Mackenzie promised that “Among the topics we hope to further expand upon are issues associated with the requirements for job creation and investment sustainment that apply to EB-5 investors and the impact of misappropriation of funds on those requirements.” But for now, Mr. Colucci and Ms. Harrison declined to make statements about sustaining investment or dealing with investors following regional center termination, saying that these points would wait to be covered in future policy manual amendments, after the foundational content is completed (ie after this year). The draft Guidance on the Job Creation Requirement and Sustainment of the Investment for EB-5 Adjudication of Form I-526 and Form I-829 (first posted for comment in August 2015, and urgently needed) is now off the table until it can be issued in revised form for comment as a policy manual amendment. Regarding revised regulations, Mr. Colucci said “We are working on an EB-5 regulation. We don’t have a timeline for the publication of that regulation, but we continue to actively work on it.” He did not say anything about a November 2016 target (mentioned last month by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson).
  • I-924 Requests for Clarification (RFC): Mr. Colucci pointed out that IPO has been issuing a number of RFCs to regional center applicants who did not respond completely to Form I-924 Part III(D), which asks for a list of principles, agents, individuals and entities that are involved in the management, oversight, and administration of the regional center. “What we’ve been finding is oftentimes this is left blank when the form is submitted. But as we review the supporting documentation, we see in fact a number of other names that should’ve been included in this section. What we’re doing as part of this Request for Clarification is determining whether other individuals are involved with the regional center, and if so, we’re seeking their identifying information.” I think we can assume that USCIS wants that complete list and identifying information for broader vetting and accountability – perhaps proactively implementing reform proposals from reauthorization bills that Congress hasn’t managed to pass yet.
  • Customer Service Issues: Mr. Colucci stated that IPO would not respond to duplicate requests sent to the Customer Service Mailbox within 15 days of the original request, but reminded people of the escalation process. (See the EB-5 Customer Support page.) USCIS.gov has added a Chinese translation of the support page, and a FAQ page addressing common questions from investors. In response to Q&A, USCIS invited people to use the customer service mailbox to notify USCIS of factual errors in an RFE or NOID notice, and said that USCIS may issue a replacement notice.
  • Minors as EB-5 Investors: Julia Harrison responded to questions about minors under the age of 14 being able to invest in the EB-5 program. She said “Just to clarify, for USCIS the statute and regulations don’t have an age limitation. However, it is important to understand that a minor normally lacks the legal capacity to enter into the various types of contracts that are necessary to demonstrate the qualifying investment. So, while the eligibility for any minor to enter into the contract would depend on the specific facts of the particular case, it could be difficult for them to be the principle petitioner because of the concerns related to their capacity to contract and the presumptive voidability of contracts signed by minors. When a minor does enter into a contract, the petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating via preponderance of the evidence that the minor or legal guardian who enters into this agreement on their behalf will be – that it will be binding on the minor petitioner in the relevant jurisdiction. And again that’s up to the petitioner to demonstrate that evidence when they submit their application to USCIS. For a child less than 14 years old, a parent or legal guardian may sign on their behalf, but you also need to be prepared to demonstrate, with evidentiary requirements, proof of the parent-child relationship.” In response to questions, Ms. Harrison suggested that it might be acceptable for parents to transfer investment on behalf of a minor child, so long as it’s clear that the capital belongs to the minor petitioner, not the parent. She further stated that IPO was not in a position to specify the nature of proof required to overcome a presumption of voidability, or even to give general guidance, but would adjudicate on a case-by-case basis. I wonder if Ms. Harrison was basically saying: IPO currently does not see how it’s practically possible for a minor to be an EB-5 petitioner, but is open to being convinced otherwise. Catherine DeBono Holmes has written articles Using the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act for Minor Investors in EB-5 Investment Funds (September 23, 2016) and Suggested Procedures and Possible Options for Accepting Minors as Investors in EB-5 Investment Funds (June 23, 2016). See also blog posts by Klasko Law and Wolfsdorf Rosenthal on minors as primary EB-5 applicants. These articles take a positive approach, but note that I’ve heard other prominent EB-5 lawyers express strong questions and reservations about the practicalities of minors as EB-5 petitioners.
  • The Rent-a-Center model: I’ll quote this from Mr. Colucci’s published remarks for the 7/28 engagement, since it seems to be a warning shot: “To uphold the integrity of the program, USCIS is focused on ensuring that regional centers exercise due diligence in the oversight of the capital investment and job-creating projects they sponsor. As the program has become more popular, the paradigm of regional center relationships has expanded. But let me remind everyone in the EB-5 community that due diligence, monitoring and oversight are the obligations of the designated regional center entity, and central to the integrity of the program. When we become aware of any threats to the integrity of the program, we seek to take corrective action.” IPO appears to be giving notice that they don’t like a hands-off regional center relationship. Regional centers that use a “rent-a-center” model, licensing third parties to use their designation for projects, should take note and take care to implement sufficient due diligence, monitoring and oversight.
  • Other Points: The teleconference was unusually rich in good questions that solicited new answers – though the answers are marginally bankable since they’re just off-the-cuff in context of a call. But for what it’s worth, I heard: Yes, the first I-526 in a pooled direct investment case establishes deference for subsequent I-526s (and USCIS is considering process adjustments that will make this more workable in the direct context); Yes, IPO accepts a loan secured by equity investment in the petitioner’s own business as an acceptable source of funds (but note a different story in the Ibrahim case being litigated, Ed.); No, USCIS does not defer to previous source of funds determinations, but only to the items listed in the Policy Memo deference policy; No, USCIS does not necessarily require proof of non-EB-5 funding already in the bank but looks for general preponderance of evidence (e.g. things like letters of commitment and term sheets); Yes, it should be sufficient to sustain an investment during the 2-year conditional residence period (implying that the investment need not also be sustained during the period when I-829 is pending); No, I-526 petition processing is not exactly FIFO but happens in a range that’s pegged to when IPO received the first I-526 for that project; No, IPO is not considering new policy to implement the Child Protection Act (and specifically, declines to hold I-526s in abeyance to add time in order to help protect child eligibility); No, IPO does not think that CPA practices for I-130 family-based petitions can be applicable for EB-5.

New AAO Decisions

AAO continues to dismiss appeals of USCIS denials of I-526 cases. Here are the most recent issues.

  • Investor Exit Strategies: JUL272016_01B7203, JUL272016_02B7203, and JUL272016_03B7203 discuss three petitioners in the same deal whose petitions were sunk by these two sentences in the Operating Agreement: “Members who are holders of the Class B Interests may demand a return of the capital contributions upon receipt of the approval of the I-829 Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services” and “In the event of the denial of the I-829 Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions, at the end of the five-year compliance period, following the USCIS’s Request for Evidence in connection with their I-829 petition, the Company intends to refund that member’s $1,000,000 subscription amount paid within 120 days if feasible.” More specifically, the petitions were sunk by two words — “demand” and “$1,000,000” — which USCIS and AAO agree flagged an impermissible redemption agreement. Using the word “demand” (i.e. “claim as due” “require”) profiled the petitioner as effectively a lender (and the investment no more at-risk than a loan), and naming a dollar figure triggered the Matter of Izummi prohibition against assuring the petitioner of a set repurchase price from a willing buyer. (The three cases are identical except that _01 has an additional source of funds issue.)
  • Investors in Terminated Regional Center: AUG032016_01B7203 through AUG042016_04B7203 represent six additional petitioners in the same position as the JUL182016_01B7203 case. All these investors were in the stage between I-526 approval and receiving conditional permanent residence (CPR) when their regional center was terminated. All had their I-526 approvals revoked, with identical justifications based on the policy prohibiting material change during the period between I-526 approval and green card. AAO agreed with USCIS in these cases. I hear through the grapevine that USCIS has gone further and revoked CPR for investors who were further in the process when their regional center was terminated – a very serious development, if the rumor proves to be true and to represent general practice. Material change policy wouldn’t justify such revocations, but we may not be able to discover USCIS’s practices and justifications until we see decisions on investor appeals. In yesterday’s conference call, IPO said they “don’t have guidance yet” for how investors are treated in the event of RC closure – but obviously they do, since they’re busy sending out notices of intent to deny and revoke to some investors, and apparently just unwilling to publicly disclose the current logic guiding their actions. Do people at IPO not care about their own job security, at least? How much adversity and uncertainty do they think the EB-5 program and investors can take, and still be there to provide the “investor program” in “investor program office”? Please, give us some transparency!

Publications of Note

  • Regional Center Program Reauthorization: A group of securities attorneys got together and redlined proposed legislation with comments and corrections from a securities perspective, and have submitted the document to Congress. You can read the EB5 Securities Roundtable suggestions here. With so many arguable points in last years’ proposals, it’s hard to imagine Congress finalizing anything substantial in the next couple weeks, but we’ll take a deep breath and see what happens. We’re now just days away from September 30, the next deadline for Congress to reauthorize the regional center program.
  • International Entrepreneur Rule: USCIS is proposing a new International Entrepreneur Rule which would allow certain international entrepreneurs to be considered for parole (temporary permission to be in the United States) to start or scale a U.S. businesses. This rule is quite unlike EB-5 and not related to EB-5, but – if implemented – could provide a narrow alternate path to U.S. residence for foreign entrepreneurs. Michele Franchett of Stone Grzegorek Gonzalez has a helpful summary, and Ron Klasko comments on the rule’s (non)relevance for EB-5 investors.
  • Sanctions for Brokering EB-5 Investment: Three Immigration Lawyers Sanctioned by the SEC for Brokering EB-5 Investments (August 24, 2016) discusses how and why the SEC is making examples of immigration lawyers who appeared to receive transaction-based compensation in connection with recommending a regional center or assisting in purchase of an EB-5 limited partnership interest. The most recent cases involved minor violations and relatively little money, but the SEC perceives immigration lawyers as gatekeepers for EB-5 and is going after them accordingly.
  • NASAA EB-5 Investor Advisory: The North American Securities Administrators Association has published an investor advisory for potential investors in EB-5 projects. The notice provides a due diligence checklist that’s handy for investors, and also for people who think about how to structure and write up proposals that will satisfy investor questions and concerns.

Regional Center List Updates

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 07/27/2016 to 08/29/2016:

  • America California Construction, LLC DBA American California Regional Center (California): www.madisonrealtycompanies.com
  • America Commonwealth Regional Center (Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia): acrc.us
  • American Heritage Regional Center, LLC (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia)
  • American Immigration Fund Regional Center (Florida)
  • EB5 of Ohio, LLC (Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio): www.eb5ofohio.com
  • CanAm Texas Regional Center (Texas): www.canamenterprises.com
  • F2E Regional Center, LLC (Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming)
  • USASIA Pacific, Inc (Washington): usasiapacific.com
  • WAHA EB-5 Regional Center of New Orleans, LLC (Louisiana, Mississippi)

Renamed:

  • Global Pacific Regional Center (former name American Sun Regional Center) (California)

New Terminations:

  • EB-5 South Florida Regional Center, LLC (Florida) Terminated 8/3/2016
  • Alabama EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Alabama) ) Terminated 8/3/2016

7/28 Meeting Notes (RC site visits & audits, I-829 interviews, redeployment), New AAO Decisions (RC geography, indebtedness)

7/28 Stakeholder Meeting

If you would like to review today’s USCIS EB-5 stakeholder engagement, best talk to someone who attended the meeting in person in Miami. I’ve uploaded my recording as usual, but much of it is barely audible. (Updates: USCIS emailed on 7/29 to apologize for the sound quality for phone participants, and published prepared remarks from Colucci and Mackenzie on 8/16 at the above link. Also, Cletus Weber has posted a summary more comprehensive than mine on the IIUSA blog.) Here are points of significance that I think I heard:

  • New Policy: IPO has a new Policy and Performance Division responsible for drafting policy. They’ve been working on revised EB-5 forms (i.e. revised Form I-526 currently out for comment) and on chapters on EB-5 for the in-progress USCIS Policy Manual. Eagerly-awaited policy on the requirement to sustain investment through the period of conditional residence (including the issues of redeployment and what happens to investors in case of regional center termination) will be part of these forthcoming policy manual chapters or amendments to the manual. USCIS will send this policy out in draft form for comment before finalizing it. We can expect to see the draft “in the near future” but “not tomorrow.” Until then, we can look back to the August 2015 draft memo to “see what we’re thinking,” but may also expect changes based on public feedback to that draft and IPO’s consultation with securities professionals.
  • New Regulations: No update on when exactly we may see new regulations published for comment.
  • Compliance: IPO Chief Colucci reports that his office is in contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the SEC at least weekly, and again encouraged the public to submit tips on any suspected EB-5-related malfeasance. Contact IPO through the website (https://www.uscis.gov/eb-5) or call the Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) team directly at (202) 357-9326.
  • Regional Center Site Visits and Audits: IPO provided this information:
    • Site visits will generally be at the job-creating enterprise site, unannounced, performed by local FDNS staff, and mostly observational (not necessarily interacting with people on site). Their purpose will be to assess whether what’s happening at the JCE site is consistent with what was proposed/represented to IPO.
    • Regional center audits will generally be at the regional center’s office, announced (by letter and by telephone call to the RC principal), involve interaction with management and staff, and may last a week or more. Their purpose is to assess RC compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and they will be conducted in accordance with generally accepted goverment audit standards.
  • I-829 Interviews: IPO is in a beta/testing phase with I-829 interviews, and developing a strategy for them in response to last year’s GAO report recommendations. Interviewees are currently selected at random. Interviews are conducted by video. It is understood that the petitioner may not have exhaustive info about the investment ready to hand, and petitioners will have opportunity to supplement the record in writing after the interview.
  • Processing: IPO has 25,000+ petitions pending. Premium processing continues unlikely as the Congressionally-mandated fee limit is low enough that nearly all EB-5 applicants could be expected to take advantage of PP, were it offered to them. Meanwhile, prospective investors are apparently starting to wonder whether even a lifetime is sufficient time to complete the EB-5 process. IPO addressed a number of questions on the topic of “what happens if the petitioner dies before I-829 is adjudicated” (short answer: case-by-case determination) and “can someone under 18 apply as the primary petitioner” (short answer: yes and no — not prohibited under the regs but IPO foresees practical issues such as capacity to enter into contracts that are binding on the petitioner).
  • Other items:
    • The Commerce Department study commissioned by IPO to assess the EB-5 program’s economic impact is “in the final stages of review” and will be released “in the next couple weeks.” The study covers FY2012-2013, so old news now, but its impact assessments are reportedly higher than estimates for the same period by industry groups (who had less data to work with).
    • Congress has approved funds for IPO to implement a new data system (hooray!) that will allow for better tracking.
    • I won’t bother repeating what Mr. Lyons said about feasibility studies (the obvious – IPO doesn’t require one by default, but may ask for one if the project’s feasibility isn’t established by other means) and pro forma financials (the obvious – that a business plan had better include them). I do appreciate clever Mr. Lawler’s insight into what would encourage Mr. Lyons to repeat himself so we all could hear.
    • Mr. Colucci emphasized that due diligence by regional centers is essential to the integrity of the EB-5 program, and that IPO is focused on regional center responsibility for monitoring and oversight of projects.
    • IPO is translating some EB-5 web content.

New I-924 AAO Decision: Geographic Area

Matter of R-T-E-R-C-, LLC (JUL152016_01K1610) addresses a grey area for regional center designation – how to justify a request for a certain geographic area. The statute and regs say that a regional center is to be designated for a “limited geographic area,” but naturally applicants want to claim the largest area possible. The common way to accomplish this goal, especially since the May 2013 policy memo, is to formulate a hypothetical project (often flag hotels, because they are easy to write up and pack a fairly wide economic impact) and then hypothetically locate that project at strategically chosen locations throughout the desired geography – strategically chosen so that the aggregate impact areas of each project essentially blanket the desired geography. USCIS has approved many RC applications and amendment requests that use this method, but apparently the amendment request in JUL152016_01K1610 came before a new adjudicator who didn’t feel right about designating a huge geographic area (all of Texas and part of New Mexico) just based on seven hypothetical projects. AAO agreed that “it is particularly challenging to define the geographical scope for a regional center that has only proposed hypothetical projects,”  but AAO was compelled by the applicant’s arguments that commuting patterns show that the hypothetical projects would, if real, affect 249 of Texas’ 254 counties, and that worker spending habits and supply chain would also contribute to state-wide impact. AAO also found that “while the Form 1-924 instructions require that the geographic area be contiguous, there is no requirement for an applicant to show contiguous – for example, county-by-county – economic growth throughout the requested geographical area.” The appeal was sustained.

New I-526 AAO Decisions: Source of Funds

The latest AAO decisions on I-526 appeals (JUL072016_01B7203, JUL072016_02B7203, JUL112016_01B7203) continue to press the point that indebtedness only counts as capital placed at risk if secured by the petitioner’s own assets. JUL072016_02B7203 finds that USCIS remarks on indebtedness at the 4/22/2015 stakeholder meeting are a correct reading of relevant statutory and regulatory requirements. JUL112016_01B7203 further argues that remarks at that meeting were not a new rule or new policy, instituted without due procedure, but were just clarifying existing requirements. JUL112016_01B7203 adds a reminder that capital is not at risk if the NCE is overcapitalized (doesn’t show a use for the full amount of investment) and fails to present sufficient evidence of the actual undertaking of business activity (just entering into a lease is insufficient).

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 07/05/2016 to 07/27/2016.

  • 5 Starr Regional Center LLC [ID1504052589] (Oklahoma)
  • Advantage America Southern California Regional Center, LLC (California): www.aaeb5.com
  • AmerInvest Regional Center East, LLC (Connecticut, New York)
  • AmerInvest Regional Center West, LLC (California)
  • CV West Coast Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Golden State Northern California Agriculture Development, LLC (California)
  • One World Development Fund, Inc. (Texas): www.oneworldrc.com

New Terminations:

  • US EB5 New York City Regional Center (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) Terminated 7/13/2016
  • Harris Real Estate Fund LLC (former name U.S. Federal Investment Immigration Fund, LLC) (Arizona) Terminated 7/13/2016
  • California Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 7/12/2016
  • Harris Investment Immigration Fund, LLC (California) Terminated 7/13/2016

New Regs, TEAs, RC Audits, RC Designation AAO, RC List Changes

New EB-5 Regulations Update
In testifying before the June 30, 2016 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of Homeland Security Operations, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson briefly commented on forthcoming EB-5 regulations. To quote from the exchange at about hour 2:25 of the hearing (video linked above):

Senator Grassley to Secretary Johnson: You and I have had a few discussions about the EB-5 program and I thank you. At least two occasions we’ve had long discussions about that, so thank you. I know you share my concerns about the program. I appreciate the fact that you are working to issue regulations that mirror reforms that Chairman Goodlatte, Senator Leahy, Congressman Conyers, and I have been pushing. Will the regulations you planned roll out soon, and finally do away with gerrymandering to prevent regional centers from using an unlimited number of census tracts to build in affluent areas even though they are not high unemployment areas as the law envisions?

Secretary Johnson: Limiting gerrymandering was one of the changes that we are developing, consistent with your recommendations, sir. And as I think we discussed the other day, we intend to put these changes out for notice and comment, I think in November – as soon as November. That is on the list, yes sir.

That “I think” and “as soon as” don’t sound very confident, but it’s nice to see a possible date mentioned.

01/11/2017 Update: USCIS published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking  “EB-5 Immigrant Investor Regional Center Program” (Docket No. USCIS-2016-0008)  and Notice of Proposed Rule-making EB-5 Investor Program Modernization (DHS Docket No. USCIS 2016-0006).

Targeted Employment Area Debate
Speaking of targeted employment areas, the debate on this issue has taken an intriguing turn. EB-5 industry groups have thought of a way to make concessions while removing the sting from concessions, and have proposed accepting more limiting TEA definitions while at the same time closing the difference between TEA and non-TEA investment amounts. Here’s how the logic looks:

  • TEA definition restrictive to needy areas + substantial monetary incentive to invest in a TEA = substantial incentive to invest in needy areas (This is the theory behind the TEA concept)
  • Loose TEA definition that can encompass prosperous areas + substantial monetary incentive to invest in a TEA = little incentive to invest in needy areas, and an extra incentive for investment in prosperous areas (This is how Senator Grassley and other critics perceive current practice)
  • TEA definition restrictive to needy areas + minor monetary incentive to invest in a TEA = minor incentive to invest in needy areas, and little competition to the natural advantages of prosperous areas (This is the compromise being proposed by industry groups – conceding on TEA definitions while effectively protecting the status quo by changing the monetary incentive variable.)

I’ll be interested to see whether any TEA critics take the industry’s proposed compromise seriously. Can we count on Senator Grassley to be so focused on gerrymandering that he’ll be satisfied with concessions on that point and overlook the other part of the TEA incentive equation? Will he be impressed by IIUSA’s map of sites that would be privileged under its virtuously restrictive proposed TEA parameters, and not consider that definitions are irrelevant if investment levels erode the advantage of being a TEA? (IIUSA leadership suggests $700,000 for non TEAs $600,000 for TEAs which would narrow the gap to insignificance and also – accounting for inflation — make both TEA and non-TEA investments cheaper than they were in 1990, when the $1,000,000/$500,000 thresholds were set.) If there has to be change at all, the industry proposal is the kind of change that successful regional centers and EB-5 investors would naturally like to see.

Regional Center Audits
Joseph Whalen has pointed out a job posting on USAJobs.gov that provides insight into what USCIS plans for its regional center auditors to do. IPO is looking to hire people with accounting, business, and legal background and experience to “conduct audits of regional centers and associated entities; provide written reports to support an agency action/adjudication; and utilize audit findings to conduct statistical analysis to develop risk mitigation strategies.” The listed duties focus on financial auditing and analysis of financial documentation.

Regional Center AAO Decision
I’m late in commenting on this year’s first AAO decision on an I-924 application (APR282016_01K1610 Matter of A-C-R-C-, LLC), but the case is worth reviewing for people interested in regional center application content requirements. The case discusses a regional center application based on actual and hypothetical projects, and addresses several points of ambiguity: (1) How much evidence is needed to qualify an actual project in a regional center application? (2) If an actual project plan has deficiencies, can it be modified to cure the deficiencies or removed from the application without triggering a material change problem? (3) If a hypothetical plan has deficiencies, can it still form a basis for approving a regional center application? In denying the application, USCIS apparently gave or implied the following answers (1) a lot (including evidence such as feasibility study, market study, and research citations); (2) no; (3) yes. In reviewing the appeal, the AAO sends the case back to USCIS to further explain or revisit its determinations.

I’m particularly interested in the hypothetical plan issue. In Matter of A-C-R-C-, LLC, USCIS identified a few deficiencies in the hypothetical business plan and economic analysis (specifically in the data cited and in the estimated timeline), but then sidelines these deficiencies as irrelevant, since the hypothetical projects would not be receiving deference anyway. But can the quality of hypothetical analysis be disregarded, if a regional center can be designated based on hypothetical projects? (In 2014, 65% of initial I-924 approvals were based on hypothetical projects only, and I expect to find the 2015/2016 average even higher.) I hope that USCIS rethinks this issue in forthcoming policy/regulations, because the EB-5 community does not benefit from a flood of new regional centers that were not necessarily required to present reasonable and credible proposals for how they might deploy EB-5 investment. We don’t want the bad old days of requiring all I-924 projects to be so-called shovel-ready (that’s not realistic considering year+ processing times, and not in line with the base requirement for regional center applications to present “a general proposal, for the promotion of economic growth”). But even projects in the hypothetical planning stage can and should be held to standards of credibility and reasonableness, and have a bar higher than that set in the May 2013 EB-5 Policy Memo (which defined “hypothetical” simply as “a project proposal that is not supported by a Matter of Ho compliant business plan.”). I think of Pacific Proton Therapy Regional Center, which was initially designated in 2012 based on a hypothetical plan. Four years later the SEC is bringing charges, having discovered that the principals raised and spent quite a bit of money while their project never did become any more than hypothetical. Perhaps USCIS should have pressed for more evidence upfront that the applicants really had the connections and resources and a viable game plan to make their ambitious project possible to realize.

For those who like to see processing time case studies, here is the history for Matter of A-C-R-C-, LLC: Form I-924 filed in July 2013, USCIS issues RFE in July 2014, applicant responds to RFE in October 2014, USCIS issues notice of intent to deny in April 2015, applicant responds to NOID in May 2015, USCIS denies application in August 2015, AAO remands application to USCIS in April 2016.

RC List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 06/10/2016 to 07/05/2016.

  • American Lending Center Colorado Regional Center, LLC (Colorado): usa-rc.com
  • American Lending Center Virginia Regional Center, LLC (District of Columbia, Virginia): usa-rc.com
  • Benefield California Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • George Washington Immigration Group, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • HS Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Huana Group (U.S.), Inc. (California)
  • New Genesis Gulf South Regional Center, LLC (Louisiana, Mississippi)
  • SAA Cedisus EB-5 Projects – SW Indiana Regional Center, LLC (Indiana): saacedisus.com
  • San Diego EB-5 Regional Center (California): sdeb5.com
  • Texas Capital Advisors Regional Center (“TCARC”) (Texas)
  • TriHaven Investment Group Southern California (California)
  • Western Energy Regional Center (Oklahoma): wercregionalcenter.com

Terminations:

  • Washington Development Regional Center (Washington) Terminated 6/17/2016
  • American Gateway Investments, LLC (New Jersey) Terminated 6/7/2016
  • The Lawrence Economic Development Corporation Terminated 6/6/2016(Ohio)

Changes from DHS and/or Congress? RC List Updates

01/11/2017 Update: USCIS published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking  “EB-5 Immigrant Investor Regional Center Program” (Docket No. USCIS-2016-0008)  and Notice of Proposed Rule-making EB-5 Investor Program Modernization (DHS Docket No. USCIS 2016-0006).

Regulatory Changes

How close are we to getting the revised EB-5 regulations promised by USCIS? My best guess is: pretty close — at least by Spring 2025. The rulemaking process for a federal agency (according to Wikipedia) goes like this:

  1. give advance notice of proposed rulemaking
  2. publish actual proposed regulatory language (“notice of proposed rulemaking” or NPRM) in the Federal Register
  3. public comment period, which may last 30 to 180 days or so
  4. if comments precipitate drastic revisions, a second draft may be published in the Federal Register for further comments
  5. the proposed rule becomes a final rule, with minor modifications and full response to comments submitted by the public
  6. the final rule becomes effective (with most rules becoming effective some time after initial publication to give regulated parties time to come into compliance)

So far, DHS has accomplished Step 1 in this process for new EB-5 regulations, publishing Rule 1615-AC07 in the Office of Management and Budget’s Spring 2015 Rule list (and reposting in Fall 2015 and Spring 2016). The 2015/2016 OMB notice indicates general content areas for revision to EB-5 regulations: create distinct regulations for direct and regional center investors; and make changes to regulations for the designation of Targeted Employment Areas, indirect job creation, the required investment amount, material change’s effect on conditional residency, the regional center designation process, and monitoring for regional center compliance. USCIS held a stakeholder meeting and online feedback session on possible revised regulations in April 2014 and again in April 2016. But that’s all still Step 1, and we have no indication of when the process could progress to Step 2 and beyond. [UPDATES: DHS Secretary Johnson testified on 6/30/2016 that he foresees progressing to Step 2 as early as November 2016. IPO Chief Nicholas Colucci said in the 8/29/2016 EB-5 Stakeholder meeting that his office was actively working on the regulation but had no timeline for publishing it. The Fall 2016 OMB list notice gives a target date of 01/00/2017 for Notice of Proposed Rulemaking]

The entire rulemaking process could theoretically happen within a year, and there’s been plenty of talk about its urgency, but I’m not holding my breath. For context, the regulation dealing with EB-5 petitions approved 1995-1998 (RIN 1615-AA90) has appeared as a proposed rule the OMB agenda biannually since 2003, the proposed regulatory language was finally published in the October 2011 Federal Register, the public comment period was completed in November 2011, and the rule entered the final stage March 2015. It remains to be seen whether the promised new EB-5 regulations can be promulgated in less than thirteen years. We’ve heard since 2014 that USCIS is actively working on them, so two years down, at any rate.

If USCIS drags its feet on regulations, it can also make changes by publishing new policy. For example, you can now provide feedback on a new Interim Policy Memo on the topic (not EB-5 specific, but relevant to EB-5 applications and petitions) of Signatures on Documents Filed with USCIS. (UPDATE: In the 8/29 EB-5 Stakeholder Meeting, IPO reported that they are currently compiling existing policy for the EB-5 chapters for the USCIS Policy Manual, and expect to issue future new policy as amendments to the manual.)

Legislation
How close are we to getting new legislation that affects EB-5? The tidbits and rumors I hear suggest (1) that we’re unlikely to see a substantial reform/reauthorization bill before September 30, considering the few Congressional workdays left and the election, (2) that substantial reform legislation is still in active discussion (Grassley and Leahy staffers met just last week with securities attorneys to discuss a forthcoming edition of the S.1501), (3) that the regional center program will probably get another clean short-term extension beyond September 30, 2016, to give more time for substantial legislation, and (4) that the next short-term extension is likely to be genuinely short, considering that the leaders motivated to insist on urgent program changes have even more ammunition and motivation than they did last year.

The House has a couple new bills with some relevance to EB-5. H.R.5203 – Visa Integrity and Security Act of 2016 would tweak the application and review process for all visa categories (not EB-5-specific, but could affect some EB-5 investors). The EB-5 Insights blog has a summary of key provisions, if you’re interested but don’t want to read the bill. H.R. 5398: Immigration for a Competitive America Act of 2016 doesn’t mention EB-5 but proposes to increase the total number of employment-based visas from 140,000 to 253,000 (+81%), which would effectively increase the EB-5 visa allocation by 81% as well. As of now the bills haven’t gotten far and GovTrack rates them at 0%-3% chance of being enacted, but FYI the proposals are out there.

Regional Center List Updates
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 05/23/2016 to 06/10/2016

  • Deictic Investment Group – California (California)
  • Onefire Healthcare Services, LLC d.b.a. Onefire Regional Center (Oklahoma)
  • Texas First Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • Texas Regional Investment Center (Texas): www.texasric.com
  • West Bridge Regional Center, LLC (Texas): www.westbridgeregionalcenter.com
    No longer listed:

  • TriHaven Investment Group Southern California (California)

New Termination

  • Palm Beach Raceway LLC (Florida) Terminated 5/31/2016

AAO Decisions, RC List Changes

Newly-Posted AAO Decisions on I-526 Cases (existing business, business plan credibility, material change, indebtedness)

Several interesting 2016 AAO decisions on I-526 cases were uploaded this week to the USCIS website:

  • MAY032016_01B7203: Direct EB-5 case in which the petitioner purchased two gas stations through bankruptcy court following the previous owner’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy liquidation, reopened them under his new company, and claimed this as creation of a new business with new job creation. USCIS/AAO declined to credit the business or jobs involved as “new” despite purchase from bankruptcy, because the purchase documents did not unambiguously show that the business was non-operational prior to sale, and that the petitioner merely purchased assets, not a business.
  • MAY032016_02B7203: Direct EB-5 case in which the petitioner invested in a business (house-flipping) that by its nature would be unlikely create the required number of jobs, submitted a business plan that naturally didn’t make a good job creation case, paid EB-5 document and legal fees from the enterprise, and had a messy expenditure paper trail that didn’t clarify that the costs attributed to the enterprise were actually billed to and paid by the enterprise.
  • MAY052016_01B7203: In which a petitioner attempts to overcome a finding of fraud by claiming that she didn’t willfully misrepresent material facts because she didn’t know about the material facts filed with her petition. The AAO maintained that her stated ignorance related to filings is not reasonable, and supports a finding of deliberate avoidance.
  • MAY102016_01B7203: In this direct EB-5 case, the business plan is judged non-credible based, as usual, on inconsistencies: in this case, inconsistencies between the business plan and how the business subsequently developed.
  • MAY102016_02B7203: This direct EB-5 petitioner did not demonstrate that he was eligible at the time of initial I-526 filing, but committed material change when he filed a revised Form 1-526 that changed the NCE’s name and location and materially altered its industry focus, among other changes.
  • MAY112016_01B7203: This regional center case turns on the issue of indebtedness as source of the petitioner’s investment, and includes extensive discussion of the “USCIS Interpretation of Indebtedness.”
  • MAY112016_02B7203: This is another petitioner in the regional center case involving investment in a troubled hospital. (I discussed this case in detail in my 4/7 post. Also note that the petitioners fought the case with a civil action against USCIS and they won.)

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 05/03/2016 to 05/23/2016.

  • C Chase Hotel & Resort Regional Center LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Harmonia Regional Center New York (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York): harmoniaeb5.com
  • LA Growth Fund, LLC (California)

New Terminations:

  • US EB5 Nevada Regional Center, LLC (Nevada) Terminated 5/12/2016
  • US EB5 Florida Regional Center (Florida) Terminated 5/9/2016
  • Middle Georgia Regional Center (Georgia) Terminated 5/4/2016
  • Global Investment Consulting, Inc. (Indiana) Terminated 5/3/2016

EB-5 Form Fee Increases, RC List Changes

Proposed Fee Increases
USCIS published a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register inviting public comment, for 60 days, on the proposed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Fee Schedule: (http://federalregister.gov/a/2016-10297). The rule explains that: “USCIS conducted a comprehensive fee review, after refining its cost accounting process, and determined that current fees do not recover the full costs of the services it provides. Adjustment to the fee schedule is necessary to fully recover costs for USCIS services and to maintain adequate service.” Here are fee changes affecting EB-5 forms (see Table 9 on page 87):

  • Form I-924A (to be titled “Annual Certification of Regional Center”): new $3,035 fee
  • Form I-924 application for regional center designation or amendment: increase from $6,230 to $17,795
  • Form I-526 immigrant petition: increase from $1,500 to $3,675
  • Form I-829 petition to remove conditions: no change (still $3,750)

The public has three months to comment (see pages 1-2 of the proposed rule for directions). The rule specifically invites feedback from regional centers, noting that:

DHS does not have sufficient data on the revenue collected through administrative fees by regional centers to definitively determine the economic impact on small entities that may file Form I-924. DHS requests any data that would help to further assess the impact on small entities in the regional centers. DHS is publishing the initial regulatory flexibility analysis to aid the public in commenting on the small entity impact of its proposed adjustment to the USCIS Fee Schedule. (page 89)

In commenting, consider DHS’s attempt to analyze regional center revenue sources and the potential impact of the proposed I-924 fee increase (page 99-101).

The rationale for fee changes in the proposed rule gives an interesting look behind the scenes at DHS. For example, Table 6 on page 8 lists “Completion Rates per Benefit Request” – meaning “touch time,” or the time an employee with adjudicative responsibilities actually handles a case (not including queue time or time spent waiting for additional evidence or supervisory approval). EB-5 processing times run to months and years, but (prepare to gasp) the average amount of time an employee actually works on EB-5 forms, according to this table: I-526: 6.5 hours; I-829: 5.5 hours; I-924: 40 hours; I-924A: 5 hours. And footnote 61 on page 55 gives more detail than I’ve seen before on compliance efforts for EB-5:

USCIS is committed to strengthening and improving the overall administration of the EB-5 Program. The EB-5 Program encompasses Forms I-526, I-829, I-924, and I-924A. The cost baseline includes $16.0 million in FY 2016 and $15.9 million in FY 2017 for additional staff that would comprise a specialized team of forensic auditors, compliance officers, and other staff, whose primary focus would be to ensure regulatory compliance. This would directly contribute to the integrity of the program by providing the USCIS Investor Program Office with employees who have specialized knowledge required to adjudicate these benefits. In addition to enhanced staffing, USCIS would make additional IT systems investments to make case processing more efficient. USCIS would add $1.7 million in FY 2016 and $1.8 million in FY 2017 to improve the case management system and further develop its risk management strategy to ensure program compliance.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 04/25/2016 to 05/03/2016.

  • American Lending Center North Carolina, LLC (North Carolina, South Carolina): usa-rc.com
  • Atlantic Coast Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia): www.eb5acrc.com
  • Excelsior EB-5 Regional Center LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York): excelsioreb5.com

New Terminations

  • Hidalgo McAllen Reynosa Regional Center, LLC (Texas) Terminated 4/26/2016

4/25 meeting notes, RC list changes

4/25/2016 Listening Session
Today’s EB-5 stakeholder meeting with USCIS was indeed a listening session — a venue for stakeholder opinions and not for tips and answers from USCIS. In case you’re a lawmaker or regulator and interested in reviewing insightful comments from the public, here is my recording. For the rest of us, who are mainly just curious about what USCIS has to say, here are a few tidbits that came out in the meeting:

  • USCIS will be initiating an IDEA community campaign to collect additional input on EB-5 regulation/policy changes. When that goes live, I’ll post a notice here.
  • I-829 interviews will begin this year, at first virtually, and interviewees may bring counsel, Regional Center representatives, and Regional Center counsel.
  • An audit program for regional centers is being implemented this year, and site visits are being expanded for direct and regional center projects.
  • IPO is up to 126 staff and on track to have 171 employees by year end.
  • IPO did not give any hints about the anticipated content of or timeline for revised regulations or new policy.
  • IPO will work closely with Congress up to the next deadline for regional center program reauthorization (September 30, 2016), and just in case will prepare “what if” guidance for two sunset scenarios: if the Regional Center program lapses but Congress apparently intends to reauthorize it, or if Congress indicates its desire to end the program.
  • IPO Chief Nicolas Colucci reported some preliminary processing data. Q2 2016 receipts: 849 (I-526), 886 (I-829), 40 (I-924). Completions from October 2015 to March 2016 (Q1-Q2 2016): 4,141 (I-526), 1,255 (I-829), 135 (I-924). The big story in these numbers is I-526 receipts, as illustrated in the following figure.
    Q22016I526

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 04/19/2016 to 04/25/2016

  • Regional Center of the Pacific (California)

Additions to the USCIS list of terminated regional centers:

  • WRC EB-5 Regional Center, Inc. (Washington) Terminated 4/13/2016

4/25 Meeting Questions, Program Changes, New RCs

Discussing EB-5 Changes with USCIS

Next Monday 4/25 USCIS will hold an EB-5 listening session to give stakeholders a chance “to provide feedback on potential EB-5 regulatory and other policy changes.” This week USCIS emailed “a list of topics that we would like your input on,” as follows: “Minimum investment amounts; The TEA designation process; The regional center designation process, including, but not limited to, the exemplar process and the designation of the geographic scope of a regional center; and Indirect job creation methodologies.” This list gives us an interesting tip of the hand on the areas USCIS plans to address in forthcoming revised regulations and new policy.

So what are the potential changes? I’ve summarized issues and proposals that are on the table in these four categories, with special reference to Secretary Jeh Johnson’s legislative wish list as expressed in his April 2015 letter to Senators Grassley and Leahy, and provisions that have been included in EB-5 reform bills. All these items were put on the table for Congressional action, and I’m not entirely clear about how much USCIS has power to change through regulation and policy, absent legislation. And I don’t hold my breath for USCIS much more than for Congress to get things done. But I hope to hear more on Monday about what USCIS has in the pipeline, and this list may help spur your thinking on feedback you’d like to give during the meeting.

— Minimum investment amounts —
What DHS suggested to Congress:
— Increase both the TEA and base investment amounts, considering that they haven’t been adjusted in 25 years. And link minimum thresholds to inflation indices going forward. (Jeh Johnson letter)
Proposals from EB-5 legislation:
— Leahy & Grassley: base amount $1.2M, $800K in TEA, and CPI adjustments every five years
— Lofgren & Gutierrez: base amount $2M, $1M in TEA
— Flake, Polis, Paul, Schock: no change proposed
Other notes:
— In an IIUSA member poll, 72% thought raising the TEA level to $800K workable for their business; 15% thought the $2M/$1M level workable.
— Judiciary committee hearings have all mentioned the need to raise investment amounts. The Senate TEA hearing discussed Congressional intent for the base amount to be the norm and TEA investment an exception to incentivize a limited number of projects.
— The US investor visa amount is indeed rather low compared with other major investor visa programs. (Migration Policy Institute report.)

— The TEA designation process —
What DHS suggested to Congress:
— Prevent jerrymandering by limiting TEAs to a specified number of contiguous census tracts. Also include closed military bases. (Jeh Johnson letter)
Suggestions from legislative proposals:
— Leahy & Grassley: new set-asides, new NMTC-inspired categories, limit gerrymandering, USCIS designates rather than states, TEA designation valid for 2-year period
— Flake, Polis, Paul, Schock: no change
Other notes:
— In an IIUSA poll, 59% percent thought the 12-census tract California model viable for the industry, 36% thought the NMTC-modeled category could work.
— Judiciary committee hearings have expressed strong and divisive opinions about what types of projects should be incentivized and which type of geographic areas privileged, what types of incentives would be effective, and who should designate TEAs.
— Some interesting analysis has been done on the potential impact of TEA change proposals, including by Friedland & Calderon.

— The regional center designation process, including, but not limited to, the exemplar process and the designation of the geographic scope of a regional center
What DHS suggested to Congress:
— Require RC principals to be US citizens or permanent residents with records free of certain criminal and civil violations. Require exemplar filing (business plan and organizational documents) in advance of individual investor filings. (Jeh Johnson letter)
Suggestions from legislative proposals:
— Most 2015 bills include a provision requiring exemplar I-526 filing for project pre-approval, and include a provision prohibiting foreign RC ownership.
Other notes:
— I haven’t noticed other people talking about regional center geographic scope as a sensitive issue, and interested to see this point raised now. I’ve been remarking since late 2013 on the many multi-state regional centers getting designated, and wondering what IPO thinks “regional center” means. The law establishing the program specifies that “a Regional Center shall have jurisdiction over a limited geographic area, which shall be consistent with the purpose of concentrating pooled investment in defined economic zones” (Section 610(a) of the Departments of Justice and Related Agencies Appropriations Act 1993).

— Indirect job creation methodologies —
What DHS suggested to Congress:
— I can’t recall USCIS proposing changes in indirect job creation methodologies.
Suggestions from legislative proposals:
— The Leahy & Grassley bill proposed adding a requirement that at least 10% of RC project jobs be verifiable direct jobs. (Their original bill would also limit EB-5 investor credit for job creation based on percentage of their investment in the enterprise and says that at least 50% of all indirect jobs in a TEA project must be created within the TEA.)
Other notes:
— In an IIUSA poll, 39 respondents agreed with a 10% direct jobs requirement.
— Speakers at both House and Senate judiciary committee hearings questioned whether it’s fair to let EB-5 investors count all the jobs in a project when they provided only a small portion of funding needed for that project. I don’t resonate with this concern (after all, it’s common for a small piece of the capital stack to be a piece without which that whole project could not proceed), but apparently it’s fixed in the Congressional imagination as a concern. But I don’t know whether it’s in USCIS’s possible policy/regulation reach.
— There have been suggestions in the past about getting other agencies (ie Department of Commerce) involved in vetting and/or setting rules for EB-5 economic analysis, but I haven’t heard this bruited recently. I wonder whether this is the indirect jobs issue currently on USCIS’s radar.

Articles on Proposed Changes
The latest edition of the Regional Center Business Journal has a valuable article by Peter Joseph discussing the schedule between now and September 30, 2016 and what may happen in Congress during that time (page 19), and also a roundtable of EB-5 experts discussing the possibilities for changes through policy and regulation (p 38).

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 04/13/2016 to 04/19/2016

  • EB5 International III LLC (Oregon, Washington)
  • Global Alliance Carolina Regional Center, LLC (North Carolina)

4/13 Senate Hearing Notes, RC Research, SEC Case (VT), RC List Changes

Senate TEA Hearing
You can now review video of the 4/13 hearing on EB-5 targeted employment areas on the Senate Judiciary Committee website (be patient, the video does start eventually), or download my audio recording. My main take-away from the hearing is that Senate leaders are on a long-term path to EB-5 reform and Regional Center reauthorization. They discussed very substantive potential changes in a very preliminary manner and sounded no-where near ready to sit down and agree on legislation. This is worrisome, considering that only a handful of Congress workdays remain before the 9/30/2016 Regional Center sunset date (what with conventions and vacation and holidays) – hardly enough time to hammer out the issues and questions that this hearing raised as important. The TEA issue is a thorny one because it comes down to a question of what kind of projects Congress wants to see incentivized, and our representatives don’t agree about that, much less on the question of what type and method of incentive would effectively focus on such projects.

EB-5 Project Research
Listening to Gary Friedland testify at the Senate Hearing reminded me that I’ve been remiss in reporting on the latest EB-5 research that Mr. Friedland and Professor Calderon have posted at the NYU Center for Real Estate Finance Research. Their paper EB-5 Mezzanine Financing: A Real World Example (3/23/2016) presents and analyzes an actual term sheet for a large EB-5 regional center deal, and will be very interesting for people seeking examples of EB-5 documents and deal terms. EB-5 Capital Project Database: Revisited and Expanded (3/29/16) follows up on last year’s paper A Roadmap to the Use of EB-5 Capital: An Alternative Financing Tool for Commercial Real Estate Projects (5/24/2015) by adding details of 27 additional EB-5 projects. The number 27 is small – representing a minority of EB-5 projects – and yet these few projects alone involve over $5.6 billion in EB-5 capital, which means over 11,000 EB-5 investors and almost three years of the total EB-5 visas available. I have to hope that Senators and journalists don’t examine the NYU database, because these few projects claiming so many dollars and visas could provide ammunition for criticism that EB-5 TEA investments have become a subsidy for luxury developments in tier one cities, a benefit for mega-developers and Chinese developers, an opportunity to replace existing financing rather than a source of needed capital, and a minor contribution to job creation. As a business plan writer I work with EB-5 projects that could be attractive poster children for the regional center program, but such modest projects usually don’t make the research papers or the news and their fate may depend on how the big players are seen to use EB-5.

New SEC Case (VT)
Also in the category of the last thing we need when facing a fight for Regional Center reauthorization: a venerable figure in the RC program is now subject of fraud charges and an asset freeze. According to today’s press release: SEC Case Freezes Assets of Ski Resort Steeped in Fraudulent EB-5 Offerings. The State of Vermont has filed a concurrent suit. The SEC Complaint does not name Vermont Regional Center, but it does call out Ariel Quiros, William Stenger, and a whole list of Jay Peak companies. I read the SEC complaint ready to make allowances, since I know that in real life it’s extremely difficult to produce documents that are completely free from omissions and misleading statements or that perfectly anticipate what subsequently happens, and I think one should be very hesitant to cry fraud. Sadly the SEC complaint leaves little room for charitable interpretation, and this situation looks like a mess likely to pass beyond Jay Peak and their investors to leaders who have been regional center program champions. Senator Leahy concluded his comments on the enforcement action by saying: “Given the significant problems plaguing this program, I will continue to push for meaningful reform. Without reform, I believe the time has come for the program to end.” Hurry up, reformers!

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 04/05/2016 to 04/13/2016

  • America FX Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • EB5 International II, LLC (California)
  • Hawaiian Ohana Regional Center (Hawaii)
  • Luichi, Inc. (Nevada)
  • Manhattan Metropolitan Regional Center (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • Watercrest Florida Regional Center, LLC (Florida)

Removed from the list

  • Deictic Investment Group LLC (California)