EB-5 Engagement 11/19

From: “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services” <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Date: October 19, 2018 at 11:05:39 AM PDT
Subject: USCIS: EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program: Public Engagement, November 19, 2018
Dear Stakeholder,

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) invites you to participate in a public teleconference on Monday, Nov. 19, from 1 to 2 p.m. (Eastern) to discuss the Immigrant Investor Program, also known as the EB-5 program. This engagement is part of our ongoing efforts to enhance dialogue with the public on the EB-5 program.

During the first part of this engagement, we will provide EB-5 program updates. The second part will be a question-and-answer session. We encourage the public to provide questions and comments on the EB-5 program in advance.

To register for this session, please follow the steps below:

  • Visit our registration page to confirm your participation
  • Enter your email address and select “Submit”
  • Select “Subscriber Preferences”
  • Select the “Event Registration” tab
  • Be sure to provide your full name and organization
  • Complete the questions and select “Submit”

Once we process your registration, you will receive a confirmation email with additional details.

We recommend calling in 10 to 15 minutes before the teleconference begins.

Email public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov by Thursday, Nov. 1, at 5 p.m. (Eastern) and put “EB-5 Engagement” in the subject line if you would like to:

  • Submit questions in advance; or
  • Request a disability accommodation to participate.

Note to Media: This engagement is not for press purposes. Please contact the USCIS Press Office at 202-272-1200 for any media inquiries.

We look forward to engaging with you!

RC Designation and Terminations, SEC (Palm House), RC List Updates

Regional Center Terminations

USCIS has now posted notices for regional centers terminated through March 2018, and I’ve added them to my termination log. Now we know the reasons behind about two thirds of the 250 regional center terminations to date.

USCIS has framed its activity in terminating regional centers as an integrity measure, but in fact only 11% of terminations so far have been due to integrity problems. The majority of terminations have been because (1) the regional center has not secured EB-5 investment in the past three or more years, and/or (2) USCIS did not receive the regional center’s Form I-924A annual report and fee on time for the most recent year.

The letters themselves are interesting for discussion of a topic not fully explained by the regulations or policy: what does it mean to promote economic growth? What must a regional center do, exactly, to justify its continued existence? How can the definition of “failure to promote economic growth” be stretched to cover the various reasons USCIS might want to terminate a regional center in practice?

A few noteworthy letters from the most recent batch posted on the USCIS website:

  • Some might see Lansing Economic Development Corporation Regional Center as a model of regional center worth: the economic development agency of a distressed city using EB-5 as a tool in its economic development toolkit. This development agency reported that it promoted the EB-5 option in multiple trips to India, China, Italy, and throughout Europe, and offered EB-5 as an option to all development projects in Lansing. However, USCIS found that “While these activities are necessary for the continued operation of any regional center in the EB-5 Program, it does not show that the Regional Center has engaged in activities that promote economic growth as understood under the EB-5 Program. Specifically, these actions have not resulted in increased export sales, improved regional productivity, job creation, or increased domestic capital investment in the Regional Center’s designated geographic area.” Whatever its promotional activities, the regional center had not yet secured any EB-5 investment, and its potential projects did not include a shovel-ready project certain to use EB-5 investment. Therefore “USClS concludes that the Regional Center no longer serves the purpose of promoting economic growth.”
  • Live in America-Midwest Regional Center is an example of an as-yet inactive regional center that’s part of an active network. USCIS issued the RC a Notice of Intent to Terminate for three years of I-924A that did not report any EB-5 investment. The Regional Center countered by pointing to successful projects sponsored by other regional centers in the Live in America network, arguing that this demonstrates LIA’s proven ability to get projects done, and potential to promote economic growth in the regional center geography. The RC indicated that is exploring and actively seeking investment opportunities,  has met with EB-5 project candidates, and has entered into strategic partnerships. USCIS responded that the RC cannot rely on evidence of projects outside its approved geographic area, and that the future plans described are merely “future aspirational goals,” and do not count as “actually engaged in the promotion of economic growth.”  Having an operator that’s been demonstrably successful in promoting economic growth did not save Live in America-Midwest Regional Center from termination. Sorry, Minnesota! The Midwest has had any regional centers at all thanks in part to serial regional center operators who can afford to give low-profile geographies a chance because they also have feet in New York and California. But USCIS appears less willing to give the Midwest a chance. Attract EB-5 investors within three years (or at least, get term sheets and file an I-924 amendment) or thy regional center designation shall be terminated.
  • Charlotte Harbor Regional Center is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a regional center does not have copies of documents submitted by its investors to USCIS in I-526 petitions.
  • USCIS terminated Greater Houston Investment Center, LLC for inactivity, and declined what seems to me a sensible request: the option to reactivate designation if a project opportunity presents itself in the future.
  • America’s Regional Center was terminated in 2017 for lack of activity (no investors in 3 years), but was restored on July 5, 2018 to the list of approved regional centers. No appeal has been published, so I don’t know how the RC overcame the termination decision.
  • Powerdyne Regional Center‘s mistake was to hire a President who turned out to be a wanted man in China.
  • These regional centers presented USCIS with evidence of EB-5 projects in the pipeline, but USCIS argued that the projects were insufficiently advanced or showed insufficient commitment to EB-5 financing. Liberty South Regional Center, EB5 Memphis Regional Center, LLC, North Country EB-5 Regional Center, LLC, Guam Strategic Development Regional Center, Immigration Funds, LLC
  • New Orleans Mayors Office of Economic Development got a 36-page termination notice that fits six termination reasons under the general umbrella of failure to serve the purpose of promoting economic growth. These are: lack of activity (only one project since 2008, and no new job creation/investment since 2013), lack of progress in the construction of the regional center’s one project, doubt about the legitimacy and viability of the portfolio business model used, material misrepresentations that cast doubt on the regional center’s legitimacy (Form I-924A reports that were inconsistent with each other and evidence that USCIS determined independently), improper use of EB-5 capital that casts doubt in investor’s ability with EB-5 requirements, and diversion of EB-5 funds (outside of the regional center geography, and inconsistent with the job creation purpose).  Generally the termination comes as no surprise, since the New Orleans Mayor’s Office made the mistake of hiring operators for their regional center who proceeded to loot investor funds (or so alleged investors as early as 2012 and the Department of Justice in 2018). USCIS did not consider the Mayor’s suggestion that her office might continue to use EB-5 as a tool for job creation and growth in New Orleans under a different operator. The decision includes this paragraph that reads like policy, though it’s not written elsewhere,
    • The reasons why a regional center may no longer serve the purpose of promoting economic growth are varied and “extend beyond inactivity on the part of a regional center.” 75 FR 58962. For example, depending on the facts, a regional center that takes actions that undermine investors’ ability to comply with EB-5 statutory and regulatory requirements such that investors cannot obtain EB-5 classification through investment in the regional center may no longer serve the purpose of promoting economic growth and may subvert a purpose of Section 610(a)-(b) of the Appropriations Act, which provides for regional centers as a vehicle to concentrate pooled investment in defined economic zones by setting aside visas for aliens classified under INA 203(b)(5). Likewise, a regional center that fails to engage in proper monitoring and oversight of the capital investment activities and jobs created or maintained under the sponsorship of the regional center may no longer serve the purpose of promoting economic growth in compliance with the Program and its authorities.

Most of the termination letters have little discussion, but appear to reflect a simple bright line: you didn’t attract an EB-5 investor in three years and thus are not promoting economic growth and lose your designation. This line can look reasonable, but I also see it threatening the regional center program’s basic potential as an economic tool. Consider that according to a list of investor petition approvals by regional center (briefly published by USCIS in June 2017), only 328 out of around a thousand regional centers had had one or more I-526 adjudicated from 2014 to 2017. Of those 328 regional centers, the majority were located in New York, California, Florida, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, or Texas. If USCIS keeps terminating every regional center that’s not immediately popular with investors and active projects, the program will soon be left with few regional centers (and thus little opportunity to use the program) outside New York, California, Florida, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, and Texas. That certainly wouldn’t match Congressional intent for economic impact. And how does it even benefit USCIS? How much would it cost USCIS to keep the generally blameless Economic Development Corporation of Lansing, Michigan on the list of regional centers, even if that RC doesn’t have EB-5 investors yet? (On the other hand, this position paper on regional center terminations makes the case that inactive RCs burden the system and are incompatible with the RC program as defined.)

SEC Action

The SEC has announced its first EB-5 fraud action this year: Securities and Exchange Commission v. Palm House Hotel LLLP, et al., No. 9:18-civ-81038 (S.D. Fla. filed August 3, 2018).  The SEC is rather late to the party, following United States of America v. Robert V. Matthews and Leslie R. Evans (3/14/2018) and a civil suit filed by EB-5 investors in 2016. (Though not as late as USCIS, which has not terminated the regional center involved even as it hustled to terminate Lansing EDC.) The allegations are familiar: misappropriation of investor funds by people who arranged to have unfettered access to those funds. I note that the SEC’s list of defendants is much shorter than the list of defendants in the complaint by investors. The SEC identifies the regional center principals as responsible for misrepresentations, while investors also felt misled by the consultants and service providers involved.

Processing Times

USCIS updated the Processing Times page on August 1, with improvements for all EB-5 forms (-23 days for I-526, -5 days for I-829, and -63 days for I-924).

Washington Updates

As I hear anything new on the Yoder amendment with potential to remove per-country limits for EB-5, I add it to my previous post. Not that I have heard much. Since the explosion of conflicting comment on my post, perhaps others in EB-5 have learned better than to make statements on this topic. (Update: IIUSA has finally made a comment.) I guess that response has also been complicated by the difficulty of reading the amendment text; it appears that even Yoder and the House appropriations committee may not have initially understood what was actually in it. I hear that my reader comments are being noticed and appreciated, and I hope that those comments help inform discussions among the powers that be.

I keep an eye on www.reginfo.gov just in case EB-5 regulations should proceed after all to the review stage in time to be finalized in August 2018. But nothing there yet.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 7/16/2018 to 08/02/2018

  • Cypress Regional Center LLC (California)
  • Liberty Harbor Regional Center LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Lighthouse Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • My Life Atlanta Regional Center, LLC (Georgia)
  • Rise Investment Management, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • Tinian EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands)

New Terminations

  • Northeast Ohio Regional Center (Ohio) Terminated 7/18/2018
  • Nevada Development Fund LLC (Nevada) Terminated 7/12/2018
  • Americas Green Card Regional Center (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire) Terminated 7/12/2018
  • Chicagoland Foreign Investment Group (CFIG) Regional Center (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin) Terminated 7/16/2018
  • EB5 United West Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 7/27/2018
  • Fairhaven Capital Advisors American Samoa Regional Center Corp. (American Samoa)
  • Cal Pacific RC LLC (California) Terminated 7/16/2018

FY2018 Q2 EB-5 Form Processing Statistics

USCIS has updated its Immigration and Citizenship Data page with statistics on forms received, processed and pending in the second quarter of FY2018 (January to March 2018). Form I-526 and I-829 are in the Employment Based subsection, and Form I-924 is in the Forms subsection in the “All Forms Report.”

My charts below summarize FY2018 Q2 data compared with previous quarters, and highlight trends. A few notes:

  • IPO processed a few more forms in FY18 Q2 than ever before. It’s nice to see processing trend in a positive direction, and a new record set. Once could wish for more dramatic improvement. The chart of quarterly processing volume over the past three years shows a very gradual upward trend. I-526 and I-924 volume (approvals+denials) improved significantly in Q2, but net improvement remained low when considering reduced I-829 volume.
  • Form receipts at IPO reflect a gradual downward trend, driven by falling I-526 receipts. However I-526 receipts remain unsustainably high. The 10,000 annual quota of EB-5 visas means that the program can accommodate about 830 I-526 per quarter on average (assuming about 3 visas per investor). FY18 Q2’s unusually low 1,607 I-526 receipts is still almost twice the sustainable average: one quarter’s filings sufficient to claim half a year of visas.
  • Form I-924 receipts and processing were both significantly elevated in FY18 Q2. No wonder I-924 processing times look better than expected. I-924 denial rates remain high.
  • I-829 receipts grew in FY18 Q2, even as processing volume fell again, with fewer I-829 processed in Q2 than in any of the previous three quarters.
  • If we could predict processing times by dividing number of pending forms in Q2 by number forms processed in Q2, then I-526 would take 17 months, I-829 36 months, and I-924 16 months. This prediction differs from the month ranges currently in the USCIS Processing Times Report: 20-26 months for I-526, 30.5-39.5 months for I-829, 19.5-25.5 months for I-924. I tried several equations with the pending and volume numbers, and (unlike last quarter) didn’t find one that neatly replicates the USCIS processing time calculation.
  • In case I-829 petitioners didn’t have enough to worry about already, the I-829 data doesn’t look right. The FY18 Q2 report reviews Q1 data, as follows: 694 receipts, 6,251 pending. But the Q1 report published in May had quite different numbers for Q1: 1,046 receipts, 6,673 pending. To where did those 352 receipts and 422 pending petitions from Q1 disappear? Or maybe they didn’t disappear, but joined other petitions of unknown origin, since the number of petitions reported pending at the end of Q2 (7,447), is higher by almost a thousand than what one would expect from taking Q1 pending petitions plus Q2 receipts minus Q2 approvals and denials. Hope USCIS can soon modernize beyond paper and counting sticks for keeping EB-5 records. Or am I missing something?

Updates (I-829, Ombudsman, debt arrangements, PM, conference, Vermont, RC list changes)

Processing Times
The USCIS page to Check Processing Times was updated last week with minor tweaks to the I-526 and I-924 time calculations, and bad news for I-829. Someone can inquire today about an I-829 petition “outside normal” processing times if he or she filed the I-829 petition 1,175 or more days ago. Statute mandates the service to make a decision on the I-829 within 90 days of the filing date or interview, but it’s currently taking three to four years to make a decision. IPO faces pressure from increased volume of filings and an increasingly tough process. Conditional green cards maxed out the limit starting in 2014/2015, and that surge began maturing to the conditions removal stage in 2016/2017. Even as I-829 filings increase in number, IPO has implemented several time-consuming integrity measures: in-person interviews of all I-829 petitioners, and site visits to 100% of job-creating entities in I-829 petitions. IPO attempted to address processing times problems in 2017 by creating a new team of economists and adjudicators specifically to handle I-829, but this team obviously needs help now. (This post copies emails sent by USCIS last month regarding I-829 receipt notices.)

The USCIS processing times report has received three significant updates since it launched in March. (The report has a daily minor update: to add one more day to the Case Inquiry Date.)

2018 Ombudsman Report

The CIS Ombudsman’s 2018 Annual Report to Congress is a well-researched, well-presented document that I’d be proud to have written. The 2017 report made waves in EB-5 because it mentioned the 10+ year visa wait for Chinese investors, and many people in the industry found it expedient to imply that we didn’t know about the wait before that report. The 2018 report offers fewer occasions for real or feigned surprise, but does provide a solid summing up of the EB-5 program history and current status (page 48-56). I hope that Congress reads this report, as it gives a fair picture of challenges to EB-5 program effectiveness and integrity, and solid description and analysis of the substantial past, present, and planned steps taken to handle those challenges. Regarding the proposed EB-5 regulations, the Ombudsman makes a good point: “It remains to be seen whether these reforms will be sufficient to reassure those concerned about the increased oversight, or if they will have a chilling effect on participation.”

For anyone who has had problems with USCIS case processing and thought of contacting the Ombudsman for help, pages 3-5 of the report gives a nice explanation of how the Ombudsman handles inquiries. And I appreciated the detailed discussion of background checks on pages 28-32 and 57-58.

Debt Arrangements
USCIS continues to deny I-526 petitions based on finding that they include impermissible debt arrangements, while the industry continues to fight back to clarify what “invest” and “at risk”  mean. This article presents arguments and distinctions that will be helpful to anyone in midst of the battle:

Other relevant resources that I’ve previously linked here:

Conference
Suzanne Lazicki will be at the 2018 EB-5 Investors Conference in Los Angeles next week. I’ll be speaking on a panel at 1 pm on July 23 (“The Right Fit – How Current and Future EB-5 Projects are Changing with the Market”), and available to meet in-person on July 23 and 24. Look for me to chat, or use this calendar to fix a time.

Policy Guidance
In a new Policy Memorandum dated July 13, 2018, USCIS Updates Policy Guidance for Certain Requests for Evidence and Notices of Intent to Deny. The memo, which will become effective on September 11, 2018, “provides guidance to USCIS adjudicators regarding their discretion to deny an application, petition, or request without first issuing a Request for Evidence (RFE) or Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID) when required initial evidence was not submitted or the evidence of record fails to establish eligibility.” This isn’t a major change, and not exclusive to EB-5, but a good reminder. Petitioners need to establish eligibility at the time of filing, and may not be able to depend on correcting major omissions in response to RFE.

Regional Center Termination
To date, USCIS has terminated 244 regional centers, mostly for inactivity, or for not filing the I-924A annual report. A handful have been terminated in connection with problems, including, last week, Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. I’m particularly interested in the Vermont RC case, because it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more than Vermont has done to try to compensate for and recover from the oversights that allowed project fraud to occur under its watch. Vermont’s response to the Notice of Intent to Terminate challenged USCIS to be more precise about a regional center’s responsibilities for monitoring and oversight, and pointed out all the positive and responsible things the RC has done — including a plan to wind down the RC in an orderly manner that protects existing investors and prevents future problems. In response, USCIS makes that responsible plan a major plank in the denial decision: no future projects means failure to actively promote economic growth. Vermont plans to appeal. For more detail, see this VTDigger article, which ends with a link to the full USCIS termination notice.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 06/05/2018 to 7/16/2018.

  • Allstates QSR Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • American Dream Group, LLC Regional Center (Washington)
  • Art District Los Angeles Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Beresford Regional Center (California)
  • Best Tire Center Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • BridgeForth Southeastern Regional Center, LLC (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee)
  • Gateway South Florida Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Keystone Great Lakes Regional Center, LLC: www.keystoneeb5.com (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin)
  • Retail Equity Partners Regional Center Texas, LLC (Texas)
  • U.S. Immigration Fund – CA, LLC (California)
  • Xocolatl Xperience Regional Center, Inc. (Florida)
  • Zhielo, LLC (Florida)

New Terminations:

  • Charter Square Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 7/10/2018
  • RGV EB-5 Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 7/10/2018
  • Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (Vermont) Terminated 7/3/2018 USCIS Termination Notice
  • Idaho State Regional Center LLC (Idaho) Terminated 7/3/2018
  • White Lotus Group Regional Center (Iowa, Nebraska) Terminated 6/26/2018
  • Rota EB5 Regional Center (Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands) Terminated 6/21/2018
  • AmerAsia EB5 Regional Center SF, LLC (California) Terminated 6/11/2018
  • Utah Invest Regional Center, LLC (Utah) Terminated 7/3/2018
  • California Pacific Regional Center, Inc (California) Terminated 6/7/2018

Senate hearing, legislation, I-829 receipt notices (updated)

Senate Hearing

Mark your calendars for 10 am EST Tuesday, June 19, when Chairman Grassley will host a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with the provocative title Citizenship for Sale: Oversight of the EB-5 Investor Visa Program. So far the only announced witness is USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna. As background for the hearing, I recommend my 2015 post Immigrant investor program comparison, which explains how EB-5 fits in the continua of investor visa programs around the world, and the risks and challenges for government oversight inherent in the fact that it’s specifically not a “citizenship for sale” program.

Legislation

The House will reportedly vote next week on immigration legislation: Bob Goodlatte’s H.R. 4760 Securing America’s Future Act, and another to-be-announced bill dealing at minimum with DACA and border security. H.R. 4760 as written would not affect EB-5. (It covers DACA, border security, family reunification, and diversity visas, and proposes reallocating diversity visas to reduce backlogs in EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 only.) The second bill (available in discussion draft) would affect EB-5 by removing the per-country limit on visa numbers for the EB-5 category. (This would be good news for backlogged China and bad news for all other countries, which would then share the burden of oversubscription equally with China.) In an apparent slight to EB-5, the discussion draft bill would increase total visa numbers for every EB category except EB-5.

I-829 Notices

And a nice email (followed up by another email with qualifications) for people facing long I-829 waits.

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: Tuesday, June 12, 2018 9:02 AM
Subject: Update to Form I-797 Receipt Notices for Form I-751 and Form I-829

As of June 11, 2018, petitioners who file Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence, or Form I-829, Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions on Permanent Resident Status, will receive a Form I-797 receipt notice that can be presented with their Form I-551, Permanent Resident Card, as evidence of continued status for 18 months past the expiration date on their Permanent Resident Card.

We are making the change from 12 to 18 months because current processing times for Form I-751 and Form I-829 have increased over the past year.

Additionally, we will issue new Form I-797 receipt notices to eligible conditional permanent residents whose Form I-751 or I-829 was still pending as of June 11, 2018. Those Form I-797 receipt notices will also serve as evidence of continued status for 18 months past the expiration date on petitioner’s Permanent Resident Card.

As a reminder, conditional permanent residents who plan to be outside of the United States for a year or more should apply for a reentry permit by filing Form I-131, Application for Travel Document, before leaving the country. Read more information on our Green Card webpage.

To learn more, visit our website.

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: Wednesday, June 13, 2018 10:21 AM
Subject: Form I-751 Data Entry Delay at California Service Center

USCIS’ California Service Center (CSC) is experiencing a delay in initial data entry for Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence. Since initial data entry has to be completed before a receipt notice can be issued, some petitioners and their dependents may experience a delay in receiving a receipt notice for a Form I-751 submitted to the CSC.

If you submitted a Form I-751 to the CSC in May 2018 and you have not received a receipt notice, do not file a duplicate Form I-751 unless you have received a rejection notice or have been instructed to do so by the CSC.

The CSC is working to complete data entry of these petitions by the end of June 2018, and will issue another web alert once initial data entry has returned to normal. Petitioners will receive a receipt notice once their data is entered into USCIS systems.

If your 2-year green card has expired, you should call the USCIS Contact Center at 1-800-375-5283 (TTY for people with hearing or speech disabilities: 1-800-767-1833). The USCIS Contact Center will setup an appointment for you and any eligible dependents at your local field office. If possible, bring evidence that you sent your Form I-751 via USPS or courier service, such as FedEx.

For more information, visit our website.

Processing Report, Terminations, Regulations, RC List Changes

Processing Time Report Update

The processing times reports for EB-5 forms were updated on May 31, 2018 with new Estimated Time Ranges and new variables for calculating the Case Inquiry Date. Until this update, the reports had been constant since March 23, 2018.

Form I-526 Processing Time:
* Estimated Time Range changed to 20-25.5 months (previous report: 25-32.5 months)
* Case Inquiry Date changed to today’s date minus 761 days (previous report used -971 days)

Form I-829 Processing Time:
* Estimated Time Range changed to 29-37.5 months (previous report: 23-30 months)
* Case Inquiry Date changed to today’s date minus 1,121 days (previous report used -893 days)

Form I-924 Processing Time:
* Estimated Time Range changed to 19.5-25 months (previous report: 17-22.5 months)
* Case Inquiry Date changed to today’s date minus 746 days (previous report used -663 days)

My theory, supported by an informed-sounding blog commenter, is that USCIS recalculated the time ranges based on a dramatic drop in I-526 receipts and dramatic rise in I-829 receipts over the past few months. (The Immigration Data page has not yet been updated with FY2018 Q2 or Q3 data, so I’m not sure.) Alternatively, IPO might have decided to reallocate resources away from I-829 to I-526 adjudication, or the I-526 team might be on fire while the I-829 team struggles with something.

But it’s tough to interpret these reports. A processing time estimate could be either (1) forward-looking, “the average time it will take a petition filed today to get adjudicated” or (2) backward-looking, “the average time that petitions being processed today have been waiting.” It can’t be both because 1 and 2 are very different numbers, thanks to dramatic fluctuations in receipt numbers and changing processing capacity over time. But we don’t know which we’re getting with the USCIS processing time report. The “Case Inquiry Date” would logically be backward-looking, while the “Estimated Time Range” is forward-looking if, as I suspect, it’s calculated by dividing currently-pending petitions by current average rate of adjudication. But the report says that the Case Inquiry Date is based on the Estimated Time Range. But calculating a backward-looking estimate from a forward-looking estimate would be nonsense. So I don’t know what to think. (For everything else I know/don’t know about processing times, refer back to the post How Long Does I-526 Take? (III))

Considering the ambiguity (and the fact that the report, however it’s calculated, can evidently suddenly change by six months or more), better not rely on USCIS processing time information for major decision-making. Just one thing is clear: EB-5 petition processing times are too long, and fuel a number of the political and integrity threats that face EB-5 today.

Regional Center Terminations

The USCIS website has been updated with some additional termination notices for regional centers terminated through May 2017. I added the letters to my Termination Log, summarized in the following table.

The recent termination letters mainly cite failure to file a Form I-924A annual report and/or inactivity (i.e. no EB-5 investors in the last 3-5 years) as reasons for termination. They rarely mention derogatory evidence as a reason.

Examples:

Regulations

The indefatigable Senator Grassley continues to nip at the heels of the EB-5 regulations. Today he sent a letter to President Trump with this complaint: “As I mentioned to you yesterday afternoon, certain EB-5 interest groups are telling investors they have ‘bought off the White House’ and that your Administration will never allow the EB-5 regulations to take effect. These comments are very disturbing, and undermine the American people’s faith in your ability to restore integrity to our immigration system.” Earlier this week he sent a letter to DHS urging “It is past time for your Department to publish the modernization rules. I have received reports that certain industry groups believe the White House will never allow the regulations to go into effect. Please confirm or deny this allegation, provide my office with an update on the status of these rules, and any impediments to their finalization.” (FYI I don’t know to which”certain industry group” Senator Grassley refers. To the extent that I’ve observed questionable marketing around the regulations, it’s people trying to hustle prospects into investing now by claiming that the possible August 2018 date for final action on regulations is actually a hard and firm August 2018 deadline to invest under current rules — while omitting to mention that final action date doesn’t mean effective date, and the OMB Unified Agenda dates are not guaranteed.)

I used to read between the lines of Senator Grassley’s legislative proposals that he wished to make EB-5 safe, legal, and rare, but now he seems ready to settle for just making it rare. Because the proposed EB-5 regulations (at least, the RIN: 1615-AC07 possibly on schedule to be finalized in August) do not in fact address the integrity or security concerns that the Senator raises in his letters; their major impact would be to dampen demand by increasing investment amounts.

I keep watching the OMB website to see when/whether the EB-5 regulations progress to the OMB review stage, but that hasn’t happened yet. Any status changes will be recorded on my Washington Updates page.

Regional Center List Changes

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 05/25/2018 to 06/05/2018

  • 900 Regional Center LLC (Hawaii)
  • American Lending Center Arizona, LLC (Arizona): usa-rc.com
  • Birmingham Alabama Regional Center, LLC (Alabama)
  • Discovery California, LLC (California)
  • Gladstone Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Golden Gateway Regional Center LLC (California)
  • Napa Valley Regional Center (California)
  • Northeast EB5 Regional Center, LLC (District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Principal Regional Center, LLC (Washington)
  • Southeast EB5 Regional Center, LLC (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi)
  • West Coast EB5 Regional Center, LLC (California, Oregon, Washington)

New Terminations:

  • Encore Wash D.C. RC, LLC (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia) Terminated 5/25/2018
  • Colorado Headwaters RC, LLC (Colorado) Terminated 5/24/2018
  • Faustus Capital LLC (California) Terminated 5/24/2018
  • Marianas EB5 Regional Center (Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands) Terminated 5/29/2018

AAO Decisions (termination, exemplar approval, bridge financing), Other Updates, RC List Changes

AAO Decisions

The Administrative Appeals Office continues to issue non-precedent decisions on appeals of denied EB-5 petitions and applications. The cases give insight into recent USCIS thinking on sensitive topics: material change, deference to prior approvals, regional center oversight responsibilities, regional center activity requirements, bridge financing, and evidentiary requirements.

  • MAY032018_01K1610 (Matter of L-V-E-I, LLC) dismisses the appeal of a regional center that USCIS terminated for inactivity. The applicant successfully demonstrated that its principals have remained actively engaged in seeking EB-5 projects, have been carefully reviewing potential proposals, and have participated in EB-5 conferences and networking. However, the applicant has not received any capital from EB-5 investors since its designation in 2011, and has not offered documentation confirming any currently-active EB-5 projects. AAO concluded that “in light of the above positive and negative indicators, the Applicant has not established that, on balance, it is continuing to promote economic growth.”
  • APR032018_01K1610 (Matter of A-G-R-C, LLC) and APR022018_01K1610 (Matter of W-F-R-C, LLC) sustain the appeals of two regional centers seeking exemplar approval for a project. USCIS cited multiple reasons for denying the exemplar requests, but the core concern seems to have been discomfort with the involvement of two regional centers in the same project (with a portion of EB-5 investors in the project sponsored by one regional center, and remaining investors by the other regional center). However, AAO countered that “The record included a sponsorship agreement that contained sufficient detail to explain how responsibilities and investors would be allocated amongst the two RCs.” AAO went on to determine that USCIS made several mistakes in its denial:
    • USCIS cited Form I-924A information in the denial, but “neither the regulations nor the form instructions predicate the adjudication of an amendment to a regional center’s designation upon a demonstration of consistency or accuracy in its own Form I-924A filings or in relation to those of another regional center.”
    • When USCIS determined that funds were not at risk in the JCE, it erroneously identified the JCE as the project DBA, which is just a name, not an entity.
    • USCIS concluded that EB-5 funds were not spent to develop the project because its site visit inspectors did not see construction underway, but AAO accepted that “applicant has provided permits and records indicating that the project has undertaken meaningful business activity.”
    • USCIS questioned the terms of non-EB-5 capital commitment, but AAO found that “Funds provided from sources other than EB-5 investors are not subject to the at-risk requirements in the regs.”
    • USCIS “opined that it was unlikely that NCE would raise the total amount of required foreign investor capital. He does not cite any evidence in the record to support this contention, nor do the regulations require the Applicant to demonstrate this ability.”
    • AAO agreed that the applicant overcame USCIS concerns about working capital as an input to the economic model, and inflation affecting the revenue estimate.

These cases reflect inconsistencies in EB-5 adjudications. USCIS denied exemplar I-526 amendment requests after having already approved eight investor I-526 petitions with the same project and documents (not to mention having reviewed the project in context of an initial regional center approval). Apparently, deference in EB-5 only goes one way: from exemplar to I-526, not the reverse. We wish that an approved actual I-526 petition could serve as de facto exemplar for future petitions involving the same project, but apparently it does not.

  • APR252018_01K1610 Matter of E-B-F-N-Y concerns a regional center whose amendment request for exemplar project approval was denied, based in part on a bridge financing arrangement. AAO agreed with USCIS and dismissed the appeal. The bridge financing arrangement was found to be unacceptable because the funds were made available to an entity other than the JCE entity, and therefore “The record does not show that the EB-5 capital would go towards the construction that the Applicant claims would provide the job creation required for foreign investors, violating the holding of Mauer of lzummi and the USCIS policy on bridge financing.” Moreover the arrangement did not qualify because it was not sufficiently “temporary,” since the loan in which the investors participate is a construction-to-perm loan that will eventually be considered permanent financing. The applicant attempted to clarify matters by providing new loan agreements, but AAO countered that “the Applicant’s introduction on appeal of new loan documents between the NCE and the JCE may constitute an impermissible material change.” USCIS’s emerging and as yet undeclared new policy on bridge financing has major implications for many EB-5 offerings. For additional discussion, see: A tide change in EB-5 bridge financing policy (April 23, 2018) by Kristal Ozmun and Adam Schaye and EB-5 Bridge Financing: A Study of Market-Driven Applications & Definitions (April 2018) by David Hirson, Nima Korpivaara, Phuong Le
  • APR242018_01B7203 (Matter of H-T-B-) concerns a regional center investor petition that was denied based on problems with the business plan: specifically, failure to link the plan to reality. USCIS doubted the project’s job creation potential because the plan was not grounded in evidence such as supply contracts, lease agreements, construction bids, permits, loan agreements, or analysis of competitors. Lacking such evidence, the plan was not considered comprehensive, credible, or  “any more reliable than hopeful speculation.” This is why the business plans I write bristle with footnotes citing verifiable sources.
  • MAY032018_01B7203 (Matter of Z-Y-) and MAY032018_02B7203 (Matter of W-W-) deny direct EB-5 petitioners who apparently had not read EB-5 policy.  USCIS/AAO remind them of longstanding rules: direct EB-5 investment and job creation must be in a single enterprise (the JCE must be the same entity as the NCE, or its wholly-owned subsidiary), part-time positions cannot be combined to create full-time positions, qualifying investment must be a contribution of capital directly from the investor personally, and job preservation claims require documenting the pre-investment financial condition and employment records of a business that meets the policy definition of “troubled.”  (FYI my Direct EB-5 FAQ page summarizes policy specific to direct EB-5.)

Other Updates

Regional Center List Changes
Meanwhile, I have hard work to update my regional center list as USCIS continues to designate and (mostly) terminate regional centers. 76 regional centers have been terminated so far in 2018, presumably mostly for inactivity. (But we don’t know for sure, since USCIS hasn’t updated the Termination Notices page since 2016.)

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 04/10/2018 to 05/25/2018

  • Auric Ventures International Regional Center (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania): www.eb5rc.org
  • Formosa Gardens Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Greystone EB5 Northwest RC (Oregon, Washington): www.greystoneeb5.com
  • Greystone EB5 West RC LLC (California, Nevada): www.greystoneeb5.com
  • K-Stone LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • LD Capital SE Regional Center, LLC (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee): ldcbtusa.com/regional-centers/
  • Midwest Investment Fund, LLC (Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio)
  • My Life California and Nevada, LLC (California, Nevada)
  • Pan Enterprises Regional Center (California)
  • Seattle Tacoma Area Regional Center, LLC (Washington)
  • Strategic Capital Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • Te-Enterprise LLC (Texas)
  • Texas Expanse, LLC (Texas)
  • Utah Global Investments, LLC (Utah): utahglobalinvestments.com

Regional Center Terminations, 04/10/2018 to 05/25/2018

  • Silver State Regional Center LLC (Nevada) Terminated 4/11/2018
  • LIGTT Regional Center (Louisiana, Mississippi) 4/18/2018 Terminated
  • Commonweaith of Puerto Rico Regional Center Corporation (Puerto Rico) Terminated 4/25/2018
  • SAA Cedisus EB-5 Projects – SW Indiana Regional Center, LLC (Indiana) Terminated 4/18/2018
  • Art District Los Angeles Regional Center Terminated, LLC Terminated 4/16/2018(California) Terminated
  • SPG Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/26/2018
  • Global America Regional Center (California) Terminated 4/27/2018
  • California Bond Finance Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Colorado Growth Fund, LLC (Colorado) Terminated 5/15/2018
  • Home Paradise Texas Regional Center, LLC (Oklahoma, Texas) Terminated 4/17/2018
  • Global Century (Houston) (Texas) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • American International Venture Fund – Oregon, LLC (Oregon) Terminated 4/19/2018
  • Central California Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/13/2018
  • ADC Colorado Regional Center, LLC (Colorado) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • East Coast Renewable Regional Center, LLC (New Jersey) Terminated 4/9/2018
  • Midwest Regional Center, Inc. (Kentucky) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • Ohio Lakeside Regional Investment Center (Ohio) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • TBC Washington DC Area Regional Center, LLC (District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia) Terminated
  • American General Realty Advisors Regional Center (California) Terminated 4/20/2018
  • Liongate Regional Center, LLC (Washington) Terminated 4/27/2018
  • Altura Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/9/2018
  • Florida East Coast EB5 Regional Center LLC (former name United States Growth Fund, LLC) (Florida) Terminated 4/10/2018
  • Cornerstone Regional Center, Inc. (Alabama, Florida) Terminated 4/6/2018
  • New England Center for Business Development, LLC (Maine) Terminated 5/9/2018
  • Reside in America Puerto Rico, LLC (Puerto Rico) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • Greystone EB5 Southeast Regional Center LLC (former name Greystone Florida Regional Center LLC) (Florida) Terminated 4/13/2018
  • Washington Foreign Investment Management Group, LLC (Washington) Terminated 4/26/2018
  • QueensFort Capital Texas Regional Center, LLC (Texas) Terminated 4/27/2018
  • Landy Resources Management, LLC (North Dakota) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • Encore S. CA RC, LLC (California) Terminated 4/18/2018
  • One World Development Fund, Inc. (Texas) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Encore Boston RC, LLC (Massachusetts) Terminated 4/18/2018
  • Pacific Northwest Regional Center (Washington) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • North Atlantic Regional Center, LLC (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • Tacoma EB 5 Regional Center (Washington) Terminated 5/2/2018
  • Collegiate Regional Center LLC d/b/a Texas Collegiate Regional Center (Texas) Terminated 5/15/2018
  • QueensFort Capital California Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Ark of the Ozarks LLC (Arkansas) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • Energize-ECI EB-5 Visa Regional Center (Indiana) Terminated 5/9/2018
  • Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED) (Iowa) Terminated 4/19/2018
  • 5 Starr Regional Center LLC (Oklahoma) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • South Dakota International Business Institute (SDIBI) (South Dakota) Terminated 5/11/2018
  • Regional Economic Development & Investment Group (California) Terminated 4/5/2018
  • New Energy Horizons Regional Center (California) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Liberty EB5 Regional Center (Pennsylvania) Terminated 5/1/2018
  • American YiYo Regional Center (Georgia) Terminated 4/12/2018
  • Encore Washington/Oregon Regional Center, LLC (Oregon, Washington) Terminated 4/18/2018
  • Amaxi Regional Center, LLC (California) Terminated 5/1/2018

5/15 Policy Manual Update (tenant occupancy)

Update: for more in-depth analysis, see USCIS Evicts Tenant Occupancy Job Counting from EB-5 by Robert C. Divine, Baker Donelson Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC and R.I.P. Tenant Occupancy Jobs? An Economist’s Perspective By Jeffrey B. Carr, Economic & Policy Resources, Inc.

–ORIGINAL POST–

USCIS has made another revision to the EB-5 section of the USCIS Policy Manual, this time to rescind its former guidance on counting jobs associated with tenants in a new building funded by EB-5 investment. Now, the tenant occupancy policy formerly in 6 USCIS-PM G Chapter 2 (D) Section 6 has been deleted and replaced with a section in which USCIS explains why the previous policy was wrong. Old policy in a nutshell: We concede the possibility of demonstrating acceptable nexus between investment and tenant job creation, under certain very restricted conditions. New policy in a nutshell: there is no acceptable nexus between investment and tenant job creation. In other words, what was previously only effectively nearly impossible is now definitively impossible, officially.

FYI this document compares the deleted section with the new section. Once again, I copied the 5/15/2018 PM in its entirety into a new document, and used Word’s Compare function to confirm that nothing else changed between the 5/15 and 5/2 versions of Volume 6 Part G. And indeed, no other significant changes. FYI, here’s my folder with all distinct versions of 6 USCIS-PM G.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about this change. We’ve been desperately, urgently waiting and begging for clear policy on redeployment, among other issues, and they spend time fiddling with tenant occupancy? How many people have even tried counting tenant jobs since 2013? How is this an issue now? Last year I deleted a bunch of old tenant occupancy-related posts and most of my informational page on the TO question because I thought it had become irrelevant. If indeed TO is not involved in any recent or current offerings, then USCIS is guilty of shameful waste of time. Or if by chance any recent/current offerings do involve TO, relying on guidance that’s been consistent since 2012, then shame on USCIS for sending out a Policy Alert today literally saying that the policy is rescinded as of yesterday.

The new PM language on tenant occupancy states that “a direct financial connection between the EB-5 capital investment and the job creation is necessary to determine a sufficient nexus between the two.” I wonder what USCIS thinks “direct financial connection” means exactly, and the implications beyond tenant occupancy.

Apparently we get until May 29 to comment on the policy change, though it’s effective as of May 15.

On the bright side, two EB-5 policy updates in a month! It’s nice to see the policy process moving. I could just wish for better updates.

Also, FYI there is a change to Volume 7 on adjustment of status that can affect EB-5 among other visa categories.

 

5/2 Policy Manual Update (CPR while I-829 pending)

The following new section has been added to the USCIS Policy Manual Vol. 6 Part G, Chapter 5:

D. Extension of Conditional Permanent Residence While Form I-829 is Pending
USCIS automatically extends the conditional permanent resident status of an immigrant investor and certain dependents for 1 year upon receipt of a properly filed Form I-829. [13] The receipt notice along with the immigrant’s permanent resident card provides documentation for travel, employment, or other situations in which evidence of conditional permanent resident status is required.

Within 30 days of the expiration of the automatic 1-year extension, or after expiration, a conditional permanent resident with a pending Form I-829 may take his or her receipt notice to the nearest USCIS field office and receive documentation showing his or her status for travel, employment, or other purposes.

In such a case, an officer confirms the immigrant’s status and provides the relevant documentation. USCIS continues to extend the conditional permanent resident status until the Form I-829 is adjudicated.

An immigrant investor whose Form I-829 has been denied may seek review of the denial in removal proceedings. [14] USCIS issues the immigrant a temporary Form I-551 until an order of removal becomes administratively final. An order of removal is administratively final if the decision is not appealed or, if appealed, when the appeal is dismissed by the Board of Immigration Appeals.

USCIS announced the addition this morning with a Policy Alert on Documentation of Conditional Permanent Resident Status for Immigrant Investors with a Pending Form I-829. The agency solicits stakeholder comments through May 15, 2018 using the procedure described on the Policy Comment page. (Scroll past the tables for instructions.)

Because I love my readers and don’t like relying on online documents, I painstakingly copied all of today’s version of the EB-5 Policy Manual chapter into a Word document, now added to my folder of Policy Manual versions. Word’s document comparison function indicates that Chapter 5 Part D is indeed the only significant change from previous versions, although there are minor unflagged tweaks in other sections (e.g. changing “See Form I-829, Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions on Permanent Resident Status” to “See Petition by Entrepreneur to Remove Conditions on Permanent Resident Status (Form I-829).”

Update: Robert Divine has published a helpful article explaining the context of this Policy Manual addition: May 2 Policy Manual Update: One Small Step for I-829 Filers; Some Giant Leaps Left for USCIS to Take

New Litigation and AAO Decisions (“invest” requirements)

Appeals and litigation give a rare public glimpse into how the Investor Program Office is adjudicating I-526 petitions. It appears that IPO may be in the midst of a campaign to re-interpret/enforce the EB-5 “invest” requirements as described in 6 USCIS Policy Manual G.2  There have been a spate of denials that turn on language in the securities and transaction documents. Recent examples:

  • Guaranteed returns and debt arrangements, call option issue: CHANG et al v. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY et al (Case Number: 1:18-cv-00659) is a civil action filed on March 22, 2018 by ten investors who put money into senior living project in Florida. (Here’s a summary and the full complaint.) These investors filed I-526 in 2014 and 2015 and heard nothing back from USCIS, finally making a mandamus complaint in October 2017 to compel agency adjudication. USCIS responded in February 2018, denying all investor petitions based on finding that “a call option reflected in the Partnership Agreement and the offering documents demonstrated the existence of an impermissible debt arrangement.” The investors have responded with a complaint pointing out that this issue was previously addressed by federal judges who found that a call option does not of itself constitute a debt arrangement. In previous cases, the US District Court in DC ruled that the USCIS denials could not survive review because they conflict with the plain language of the regulations, are not compelled by statutory or regulatory purpose, unreasonably stretch the rationale of precedent decisions, and run counter to evidence. Call options (buyout options) have been quite common in EB-5, and I wonder if many I-526 are being held up now behind the scenes while USCIS figures out how to deal with them (balancing newfound intent to deny such cases with the fact that the court has shredded the reasoning behind several denials so far). I’ve seen recent NOIDs based on call options, so USCIS hasn’t given in yet. I can’t see what legs the court (not to mention policy and reality) have left to the case against call options per se, and I hope USCIS accepts that soon to avoid further needless delays, disruption, and lawsuits. (UPDATE: FYI here are my notes for an ILW call on 4/17 to discuss the “invest” requirement, and new USCIS challenges to equity with debt-like features. The notes link to the relevant AAO and district court decisions, and summarize the fact patterns and arguments for each case.)
  •  “Made available” and bridge financing issues: JAN262018_05B7203, JAN302018_01B7203, FEB072018_02B7203, and MAR152018_01B7203 are decisions on the same regional center offering to invest in construction of a distribution center in Washington. After having approved 10 investors in the project, USCIS denied petitions for the last 10 investors. USCIS’s main excuses for this treatment: (1) the project having completed construction constitutes a material change of fact that prevents the last investors from relying on favorable decisions for previous investors, (2) USCIS belatedly identified a legal deficiency: that the PPM and loan agreement language don’t unambiguously obligate the NCE to make the entire amount of the petitioners’ funds available to the JCE, and (3) the reality that the investors chose a project that successfully developed and created jobs does not overcome paperwork problems. The petitioners were judged ineligible not based on reality, necessarily, but based on wording: they submitted documents that had leaky language in the loan agreement, didn’t paper up a bridge financing arrangement the way it’s supposed to be papered, and left sloppy inconsistencies in the business plan and economic impact report. Several morals from this case: People who draft transaction documents need to be mindful of the “made available” and bridge financing features of the EB-5 “invest” requirement, and write that into documents — taking particular care when it’s likely that (as often happens now considering long processing times) the project will have been completed by the time USCIS finally gets around to adjudicating I-526 petitions for investors. Prepare for the fact that an adjudicator may ask two years later: “why the JCE would still need this capital and to what use it would be put by the JCE in light of the completion of the project.” Document preparers must be very attentive to detail and careful about language, because compliant documents are apparently more determinative than compliant reality in whether or not investor petitions get approved. I keep this burden in mind as I write EB-5 business plans.
  • “Chance for gain” issue: FEB282018_02B7203,  MAR092018_02B7203, MAR162018_01B7203 are decisions on the same offering to invest in a regional center NCE to make a loan to a JCE to construct, finance, and operate an hotel. The denials rest on a finding that the LP agreement and loan agreement “do not provide the Petitioner with any rights to the NCE’s profits, whether derived from the loan interest or otherwise, and the sole opportunity for the Petitioner to generate a return on the investment is if the general partner elects to pay a 0.05% interest payment upon the NCE’s loan repayment.” USCIS will deny cases that guarantee a return, but – as we see here – can also deny cases that appear to make a return too discretionary. USCIS found in these cases that “discretionary chance for return which is unrelated to the investment does not satisfy the regulatory requirement for capital at risk under 8 C.F.R. § 204.60)(2).” Again, people drafting documents must walk a very fine line. USCIS wants to see (1) that investors have a chance for gain, (2) that the income sources to pay a return are directly related to the purpose of the underlying investment, (3) that the return is not guaranteed, (4) that the NCE general partner does not have absolute discretion to make or withhold the return. And furthermore, the documents have to be right the first time, at I-526 filing. The petitioners in FEB282018_02B7203 and MAR092018_02B7203 provided amended documents in response to NOID, but USCIS judged this an impermissible material change and refused to consider such post-filing clarifications.
  • “Business activity” at-risk issue and identified location: To meet the at-risk requirement for EB-5 investment, a petitioner must present evidence of actual undertaking of business activity, not just an idea for future activity. The precedent decision Matter of Ho cited entering a lease as an example of de minimus activity that doesn’t  itself qualify as sufficient business activity to put funds at risk. So if a petitioner hasn’t even secured a business location before filing I-526, he can expect to be challenged as having even less than de minimus activity. That happened to the petitioner in MAR162018_02B7203, a regional center case. “The Chief concluded that without a specific property, the Petitioner could not demonstrate that his funds were at risk, that the business plan was comprehensive rather than hypothetical, or that certain inputs to the economic model were valid.” (This decision also shows the importance of a quality business plan with real market analysis and financials, as it rips apart the placeholder content in the petitioner’s plan. And it shows confusion about the job creation timing requirement in the USCIS Policy Manual Vol. 6 Chapter 2(D)5. The decision seems to assume that job creation must occur within two years of filing I-526, while the PM states that the two-year job creation window is deemed to begin 6 months after adjudication of Form I-526.)

Other recent AAO decisions of note:

  • FEB072018_01B7203 is one of the rare cases where AAO decides to withdraw USCIS’s decision – in this case involving source of funds derived from loan proceeds received as a gift from the petitioner’s husband.
  • FEB152018_01K1610 upholds USCIS’s decision to terminate a regional center for this fatal error: filing Form I-924A to the wrong address.
  • FEB282018_01B7203 is yet another reminder that the new owner of a pre-existing business cannot expect that the enterprise and its new employees automatically qualify as “new” for EB-5 purposes.

Minor Investors:

Long processing times and the visa backlog have motivated families to make a teenage child to be the principal EB-5 applicant. USCIS has questioned but started approving such petitions, as reported by Wolfsdorf Rosenthal in this post and Miller Mayer in this webinar (35 minutes into the recording).

Washington Updates:

I continue to update my Washington Updates page, most recently with post-March analysis and a link to a letter from several senators to USCIS urging that regulations be finalized. Senator Grassley has made this plea multiple times since 2016; we’ll see what happens now.

Personal Update:

As EB-5 reporting and analysis become increasingly time-consuming, and less linked to my selfish purpose of encouraging demand for my business plan-writing service, I’ve decided to put up a donate option. If you can support the effort behind the blog and help keep it in business, please visit my About page and scroll down to the Paypal button, which can facilitate making a contribution through Paypal. I want to avoid a subscription model because publicly-available EB-5 information is important to my clients and the health of the EB-5 program.

Regional Center List Changes:

Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 03/19/2018 to 04/10/2018

  • American Capital Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • Borrego Development, LLC (California, Nevada)
  • Colorado Rocky Mountain High Regional Center, LLC (Colorado): www.coloradorockymountainhighrc.com
  • M5 Venture Silicon Valley RC LLC (California): www.m5venture.com
  • Mile High Regional Center (Colorado)
  • National Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Protogroup, Inc. (Florida)
  • Texas Tilegend Regional Center (Texas)
  • Y & L Enterprises LLC (Iowa, Nebraska)

New Terminations

  • Encore Raleigh/Durham Regional Center (North Carolina)
  • Encore Alabama/Florida Regional Center (Alabama, Florida)
  • G.R.E.E.N. Regional Center (New Jersey)
  • BLMP Florida Healthcare Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Michigan-Indiana EB-5 Regional Center (Indiana, Michigan)
  • Queensfort Capital Massachusetts Regional Center, LLC (Massachusetts)
  • South Pacific Regional Center, LLC (Hawaii)
  • Queens Fort New York Regional Center, LLC (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Central Texas Properties Regional Center (Texas)
  • South Texas EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • Pacific Viniculture (Washington)
  • California Investment Immigration Fund, LLC (CIIF) (California)
  • USA ODI Regional Center, LLC (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia)
  • Manchester Pacific Regional Center (California)
  • Regency Regional Center, LLC (California)

Q4 2017 EB-5 Petition Stats

The USCIS Immigration Forms Data Page has posted EB-5 petition processing data for the 4th quarter of FY2017 (July to September 2017).

The good news is that in FY2017, IPO finally – for the first time since FY2009 – adjudicated more EB-5 petitions than it received during the year. That’s what needs to happen for the backlog to shrink and processing times to fall.

In FY2017, I-526 receipts were down 14% and I-526 adjudications up 31% from the previous year. I-829 receipts were down 24% and adjudications up 42% from the previous year.

Although I-526 receipts fell slightly in FY2017, they were still unsustainably high – enough to claim nearly four years of visa numbers if the annual EB-5 visa cap stays at 10,000. As before, the quarterly receipt trend shows filing surges around regional center program sunset dates.

I-829 receipts fell every quarter in FY2017, which is troubling. The State Department has issued the maximum number of EB-5 visas annually since FY2014, so I would expect a steady stream of petitions to remove conditions. Instead, it seems that an increasing number of people who received conditional permanent residence are failing to complete the EB-5 process. I-829 denial rates remain very low, however.

The most dramatic processing improvement in FY2017 came for I-829 petitions, particularly in the fourth quarter. I-526 processing has improved year-over-year, but not consistently by quarter.

IPO has steadily increased their processing capacity since 2013, and I hope that the trend will continue into 2018. IPO has committed to reducing processing times in 2018, and continues to hire new staff. (Last month USAjobs.gov posted a job announcement recruiting for “many vacancies” as Adjudications Officer at IPO. Fortunately for the poor pending petitions, I decided not to apply.)

USCIS apparently continues to refine its record-keeping system. The Q4 data report not only provides Q4 numbers but some revised figures for previous quarters and years (with variation by several hundred from previously-reported figures). The pending petition count remains a mystery. (One would expect quarter-end pending petitions to equal previous quarter-end pending plus current quarter receipts minus current-quarter adjudications, but that’s not the case.)

11/7 and 11/10 IPO Updates (processing, bridge financing, more), Baruch College Conference, RC List Updates

IPO staff met with EB-5 stakeholders twice this week, at an official Stakeholder Engagement on November 7 and at an EB-5 Conference hosted by Baruch College on November 10.

I’ve uploaded voice recordings of both presentations (11/7 here and 11/10 here), and you can watch the Baruch College presentation on YouTube here (IPO speaks in Part 6). Official remarks from the 11/7 engagement are posted on the invitation page. Hot topics included petition processing, Form I-924A, redeployment, bridge financing, and material change. I summarize a few highlights below.

EB-5 Program Introduction
At the 11/10 conference, IPO Senior Advisor for Economics Jan Lyons provided a basic yet substantive introduction to the EB-5 program and how it works. Agents and potential investors, this is an excellent source of reliable information straight from USCIS. He speaks near the beginning of the Conference presentation Part 6.

Processing Information
On 11/7, IPO Deputy Chief Julia Harrison generously spoke at length about processing issues, including staff allocation and petition workflow. Here’s my best effort to summarize the content (with time references to the 11/7 recording FYI).

  • Petition adjudication at IPO is divided across several teams, including a team handling I-829 and customer service, a team handling direct EB-5 I-526, and a group of teams handling regional center I-526. I-924 is also a separate workflow. Each team is staffed by adjudicators and economists.
  • IPO is working to increase capacity by cross-training personnel. Previously, adjudicators and economists had specialist roles, with economists reviewing project-related documents for I-526 and economic issues at I-829, while adjudicators looked at source of funds at I-526 and sustainment at I-829. Now economists and adjudicators are each being trained to handle a single petition from start to finish. The I-829 team is now fully-cross trained, and performing well. One of the I-526 teams is already cross-trained, and the effort will continue until all officers can individually handle any part of I-526 petition review. Ms. Harrison anticipates that this new approach will increase capacity, promote flexibility, and help IPO more nearly reach the goal of processing petitions in first-come-first-serve order.
  • Ms. Harrison described the workflow for I-526 petitions. Previously, IPO would assign all I-526 for one project to a dedicated team for that project. IPO did not intend to prioritize adjudication for big projects, but Ms. Harrison acknowledged the difficulty of keeping petitions in first-in-first-out order when they were grouped in multiple workflows by project. Today, IPO is working with a two-stage process that separates adjudication of project-specific issues from investor specific issues. For regional center projects with multiple investors, IPO waits to receive two I-526 for the project (unless exemplar approval is in place). Those two I-526 are then assigned to a an economist or cross-trained team that reviews the project portion of the petitions. This process may involve issuing an RFC (request for clarification) email or RFE asking project-specific questions. When project issues have been adjudicated, the first two I-526s are released to the general queue for all regional center petitions. Petitions in that queue get assigned to adjudicators in more-or-less first-come-first-served order for investor-specific review. New petitions for a previously-reviewed project would go directly to the adjudication queue, and the project-related aspects of those petitions shouldn’t have to be reviewed anew. A petitioner who already responded to an RFC or RFE at the project-review stage may get another RFE at the investor-review stage, however. The petitions in the adjudication queue are in order by date but may not be finished in first-in-first-out order, due to case-specific issues. (How does the strategy to combine project-specific and investor-specific issues in officer training harmonize with the strategy to separate project-specific and investor-specific issues the adjudication workflow? That question did not come up.) Time references in the recording: 10:59 – 15:15, 17:46 – 22:32, 01:19:37 – 01:22:00
  • Ms. Harrison points to posted processing times as the best estimate for when petitions filed in 2015 will be adjudicated.  (26:22) She also noted that completion rate improvement in the past few months is not yet reflected in the Processing Times report.
  • Direct EB-5 petitions have a separate queue from regional center petitions. The leader on the regional center side communicates about progress with his counterpart on the direct EB-5 side to help ensure that petitions filed at the same time are moved forward concurrently. (01:21:00)
  • IPO lacks an automated system to match an I-924 exemplar request with previously-filed I-526 petitions for the same project. (When the matching happens, it’s by means such as office-wide emails asking “has anybody done a review of this project?”) Therefore, IPO requests that exemplar requests be filed with a cover letter that identifies receipt numbers for I-526 in the same project. In case an I-526 is approved before then I-924 is adjudicated, then the I-924 should also be approved, but ideally IPO wants to have the I-924 exemplar request and any concurrent I-526 adjudicated together by one person. This raises the question of whether the first approved I-526 couldn’t itself serve as exemplar approval, with no need for the I-924, but Ms. Harrison did not answer that question. It also makes us wonder how any Exemplar ever gets matched to associated I-526, even if they are filed subsequently. Ms. Harrison did indicate that IPO welcomes help in the matching process – a cover letter on the petition indexing it to related Exemplar, or even follow-up emails to the IPO customer service mailbox providing lists of associated applications/petitions for IPO’s reference. (9:23 – 10:58, 01:27:10 – 01:28:45)
  • Currently, I-526 petitions are adjudicated more or less in first-come-first-served order by filing date, regardless of nationality. However, IPO is considering the suggestion to prioritize adjudicating petitions of countries that are not backlogged. IPO invites stakeholder feedback on this idea. (32:05 – 33:30, 01:19:37 – 01:22:04, 01:29:12)
  • I-829 adjudications are making significant progress. Julia Harrison noted that the posted processing times don’t fully reflect the improvement yet, but she’s seeing much improved completion rates.

In the 11/10 presentation, IPO Senior Advisor for Economics Jan Lyons pointed out that IPO has finally cleared a huge hurdle – the surge of applications and petitions filed in advance of the December 2015 sunset date. That surge slowed down processing not only due to volume but to the poor quality of many petitions, apparently filed in a rush. I-526 and I-924 adjudications are proceeding more quickly and smoothly going forward. Mr. Lyons pointed out three factors that affect an individual’s processing time: place in the queue, the qualify of petitions before yours, and the quality of your petition.

Bridge Financing
This issue needs its own post, so I’ll just briefly mention the points at issue: whether bridge financing to be replaced by EB-5 must be “temporary” as in “a year or less” to qualify as a bridge and establish nexus, and whether EB-5 funds must pass through the job-creating enterprise account to repay the JCE’s bridge debt. IPO’s working answers are a tentative “yes” to the duration question and firm “yes” to the path question. Jan Lyons gave thoughtful discussion in the 11/7 call at time 01:01:28 – 01:10:11 and 01:40:01 – 01:42:11, and starting at time 12:55:24 of the 11/10 conference (I’ll let you listen for the details). And he welcomes feedback from the industry. That IPO hasn’t already received solid feedback demonstrates acute industry failure. In a healthy world, IIUSA would’ve shared bridge financing RFEs with membership months ago, and appropriate people would’ve gotten together to write and submit a constructive, well-footnoted article presenting reasonable guidelines for bridge financing in EB-5. As it is, I didn’t even hear about the RFEs ‘til very recently, and there hasn’t apparently been any industry collaboration except to whine about why the RFE creates problems (while putting the burden on IPO to solve a problem that our collective experience and industry sources are competent to address). For shame. (In case you weren’t informed either, see the RFE trends presentation at this link.)

Redeployment & Material Change
I lump these topics together because IPO’s answers to questions on both issues were the same: consult written policy. IPO did not clarify ambiguities in the redeployment policy, and did not fall into the trap of contradicting the clear material change policy. People who know better keep asking at meetings whether a petitioner can change projects or change regional centers before CPR — probably because they hope someday IPO might accidentally say the “yes” we’d like to hear. But investors beware: this is not a grey area. Policy and decisions are clear that material change before conditional permanent residence will derail a petition, and that project and regional center identity are material. Changing NCEs is not an option at any time. (I have a post detailing the material change policy and applications.)  The grey area comes at the I-829 stage. IPO said they’re working on policy specific to the question of how to treat regional center changes for an I-829 petitioner. (For sure the petitioner is protected from any changes that occur after I-829 filing, but the situation before that is less clear.)

I-924A
Most answers to I-924A questions likewise boiled down to “read the instructions,” but you can re-listen to the 11/7 recording for any nuances. In the 11/10 meeting, Julia Harrison made the welcome comment that “two to three years” is not a hard and fast requirement for the time during which a regional center must sponsor a project or face termination. “We do look at the totality of the evidence you submit,” and will consider evidence that the regional center is “making progress toward a project” or at least “has something on the horizon” (2:44:00)

Policy & Regulations
Julia Harrison reports having no information to indicate that the April 2018 target date for finalizing the EB-5 regulations will not be met, though this does not depend on IPO. Her team is “always working” on the Policy Manual, but doesn’t have specifics on future updates. Lori McKenzie is no longer the Policy Division Chief, and Ms. Harrison did not mention a replacement.

Baruch College Conference
The EB-5 Conference with USCIS IPO, Hosted by the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute – Baruch College (November 10, 2017) had a number of solid presentations besides the IPO panel. Here is the list of speakers, and video of the panels.

Regional Center List Changes
Additions to the USCIS Regional Center List, 10/2/2017 to 11/08/2017:

  • 1 America Regional Center (California)
  • AHRC PA, LLC (Pennsylvania)
  • ARE Regional Center (MA), LLC (Massachusetts)
  • American Ace Development Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • American East Coast Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • American Fortune Regional Center, LLC (Texas)
  • American Real Estate Growth Regional Center, LLC (California): www.aregrc.com
  • City by City EB-5 Regional Center PR USA, LLC (Puerto Rico)
  • Fairhaven Capital Advisors American Samoa Regional Center Corp. (American Samoa)
  • Florida Opportunities Regional Center LLC (Florida)
  • Genesis Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Golden Shores Regional Center (California)
  • Gulf Coast SW Regional Center, LLC (Florida)
  • Hawaiian Opportunities Regional Center, LLC (Hawaii)
  • LA Yucaipa Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Liberty Investment Center LLC (Illinois, Wisconsin)
  • MZH Capital Partners, Inc. (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Montana Real Estate EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (Montana)
  • New Sun EB-5 Regional Center, LLC (California)
  • Paradise City Funding Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • Pocono EB-5 Regional Center LLC (New Jersey, Pennsylvania)
  • Related California Regional Center (California): www.relatedusa.com
  • Related Chicago Metro Regional Center (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin): www.relatedusa.com
  • Related Florida Regional Center (Florida): www.relatedusa.com
  • SRC LA, LLC (California)
  • South Carolina Global Regional Center (South Carolina)
  • United Land RC LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • Vegas Regional Center, LLC (California, Nevada)
  • Wealth Global Regional Center, LLC (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York)
  • A List Partners Regional Center, LLC (Texas): www.alistpartners.com
  • Inkstone States Regional Center LLC (Washington): www.inkstone-capital.com
  • Noblemen Regional Center (Washington)
  • Wasatch Front Regional Center, LLC (Utah)

This regional center was listed as terminated on 8/10/017, but restored to the approved list on 11/6/2017:

  • Civitas Rio Grande Regional Center (Texas)

New Terminations:

  • Charlotte Harbor Regional Center (Florida) Terminated 10/2/2017
  • California Development Regional Center (California) Terminated 10/23/2017

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

Visa Numbers Update (Vietnam, India)

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

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

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

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

TEA Reform Proposal

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

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

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

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

11/7 EB-5 Engagement Invite

EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program: Stakeholder Engagement from New York City
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) invites you to participate in a stakeholder engagement on Tuesday, November 7, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern to discuss the Immigrant Investor Program, also known as the EB-5 program.

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

Regional Center Program Reauthorization

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 Update: The SEC v. Kameli case continues, however. The SEC came back with an amended complaint filed on January 29, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regional Center List Changes

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

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

New Terminations

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

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

I-924A Webinar

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

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

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

EB-5 Regulations

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

Articles

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

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

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

Regional Center List Updates

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

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

New Terminations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visa Numbers

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

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

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

 

IPO Report from San Jose (processing times, business plan advice, site visits, visa wait)

A small Employment Visa Engagement hosted at the US Patent and Trademark Office in San Jose on July 19 scored an impressive delegation from the Investor Program Office. I had a chance to meet and hear from IPO Deputy Chief Julia Harrison, IPO Senior Advisor for Economics Jan Lyons, and IPO’s FDNS Division Chief Kurt Vicha. They seemed more relaxed than usual at stakeholder meetings, and shared a lot of useful information. I haven’t seen USCIS post any notes yet (UPDATE: the USCIS website now provides Julia Harrison’s talking points from the engagement). I have summarized major points in this post.  (And FYI here is my folder with a rough unauthorized recording and snapshots of slides.)

Processing Times

Julia Harrison noted that program integrity was a focus for FY2017, with the launch of the site visit and audit and I-829 interview programs, and she made the welcome announcement that FY2018 will specially focus on reducing processing times.

A few initiatives that IPO hopes will improve processing times:

  1. Improve the Quality of Submissions: Mr. Lyons made the point that your processing time depends not only on your place in the queue, but also the quality of submissions before you in that queue. IPO has been hampered by quality problems, particularly in petitions filed in sunset date-surges. For example, in September and October 2015, IPO received 2.5 years-worth of I-924 filings, many of them apparently filed in haste and tough to review. No wonder processing times reports show IPO taking forever to work through I-924 filed in those months, not to mention I-526. Ms. Harrison noted two new resources designed to help make future filings easier to review.
    • In the March 2017 stakeholder meeting, IPO provided “Top 10 Tips for Submitting EB-5 Related Forms” – advice that should improve submissions and eventually reduce processing times, if followed (Also keep in mind the Form Filing Tips and EB-5 Filing Tips on the USCIS website.)
    • Ms. Harrison announced the new “Suggested Order of Documentation” pages linked to the EB-5 Resources page. This standardized order of exhibits is not required, but is designed make EB-5 forms easier and faster for IPO to review.
  2. Increase Capacity: IPO hopes to increase capacity by cross-training its economists and adjudicators so that a single staff person can handle a petition from start to finish. Previously, economists and adjudicators have each handled a distinct part of each petition.
  3. Other: The site inspection program that kicked off this year should facilitate I-829 processing by pre-emptively answering questions that might arise about actual use of investment and job creation.

I appreciated hearing Ms. Harrison say that IPO is “absolutely committed” to reducing processing times, but wish that she had mentioned some drastic measures. Education and operational efficiencies are welcome, but more will be needed to significantly improve processing times in view of a backlog that’s about 30,000 petitions long. Ms. Harrison did not mention new hiring, but I sincerely hope that’s also part of the plan.

Ms. Harrison pointed out that IPO does not have authority to offer premium processing (this would need to come from Congress), and also repeated, as has been said before, that IPO does not favor premium processing, anticipating that it would be unworkable because fees would probably not limit demand in the EB-5 context.

Advice for EB-5 Submissions and Business Plans

Jan Lyons spoke at length, introducing the EB-5 program from a business perspective and discussing adjudication issues. We forget the implications of having a veteran of investment banking and municipal finance at the helm at IPO, directing the team that reviews business plans and economic studies. When I started with EB-5 in 2009, one immigration attorney asked me to remove the financial projections from a business plan because “they’d just confuse the adjudicator.” Now we have an audience at IPO that knows how to read numbers, and struggles with the un-businesslike character of many EB-5 submissions. A cash flow statement is worth a thousand words to a finance person. Mr. Lyons shocked us with an estimate that only about 35% of business plans submitted to his office even contain a pro forma.  If you’re an attorney who reviews petitions, help change this!  Different types of financial information are appropriate to different types of projects, and in EB-5 the appropriate level of financial detail can vary depending on implications for the economic impact report, but a business plan without numbers cannot be called a business plan. Creating profit is the core rationale for any commercial enterprise (not to mention an EB-5 requirement per regulations and Matter of Izummi), and a plan without financials literally has no bottom line. A plan that’s only qualitative, not quantitative, gives a picture of the business that is incomplete, difficult to assess, and not credible. A business plan should have financials, and the financials should match and help explain the story that’s told in words. A pro forma doesn’t help if it lists revenue sources that the project description never mentioned, shows payroll expense insufficient to cover employees promised in the staffing section, indicates growth on a schedule different from what was anticipated in the schedule section, and assumes prices inconsistent with the market analysis.  That will certainly confuse adjudicators, even and especially ones with 20+ years in investment banking.  The industry needs to step up its game. (My service website describes the standards I use when writing and reviewing EB-5 plans.)

Key takeaways from the presentation by Mr. Lyons:

  • Invest in the business plan. Mr. Lyons noted that a majority of problems he sees in EB-5 submissions are not in the economic impact analysis (where simple ability to multiply is a major KSA) but in the business plans, which are often disorganized, incomplete, and full of conjectural information without backup. “We adjudicate on a preponderance of the evidence, not a preponderance of wishful thinking.”
  • A business plan should include financial information. Mr. Lyons made the point that forward-looking financial statements (pro formas) are significant evidence in a business plan, and also facilitate efficient review of the plan.  Pro formas have an expositive value that complements the written narrative of a project.  IPO economists can plod through the hundreds of pages submitted with business plans and reach a conclusion without pro formas, most of the time. But those cases could be analyzed much faster with the inclusion of three simple financial tables: a sources and uses of funds; a cash flow statement; and an income statement.  There are no specific requirements that the financial information be presented as pro forma statements, but pro formas are the most common type of financial information and are generally the most complete and the least expensive method of conveying a complete financial picture. While lack of such statements does not automatically result in an RFE or denial, it does make the plan relatively difficult to understand and assess. In reviewing pro proforms, IPO economists are not judging the quality of the investment. IPO economists are instructed that IPO is not a rating agency nor is it within its purview to make judgements relating to the suitability of investments for individual investors. However, financial information is relevant to EB-5 requirements that IPO must consider, including business plan credibility and the requirement that EB-5 investment be placed at risk with the chance of gain.
  • Do not interpret a Request for Evidence as an assault. Mr. Lyons emphasized that an RFE is not an attack on your intelligence or integrity, and not an indication that the requester is stupid. The requester simply does not have as much information about or familiarity with the petition as you do, and is asking for information.
  • When preparing I-924, keep in mind that “In an initial application, what we’re really looking for in a regional center is evidence that they know what they’re doing.” Demonstrate grasp of EB-5 requirements and show the credible experience of the applicants.
  • Limited geographic area is a legal rather than an economic requirement. In assessing geography requests, IPO is guided by Congressional intent that regional centers are literally “regional centers,” designed to create concentrated pools of investment to stimulate employment growth and economic activity within a defined and limited geographic area.

Site Visits and Audits:

Julia Harrison once again reviewed the difference between site visits and regional center audits, and added commentary on the purpose of each. Site visits are unannounced inspections of job-creating enterprises that look at the JCE site and assess the progress of development and job creation. Audits examine regional centers to see where money is going and whether the regional center has proper oversight and controls in place.

Kurt Vicha explained how the EB-5 site visit process has worked so far, and how sites are selected. In 2016, FDNS selected the one state with the most projects in each of four regions, and conducted site visits to job-creating enterprises (JCEs) in those states (for a total of 50 site visits). In 2017, FDNS selected JCEs for site visits based on a “window of opportunity” defined as about one year after I-526 approvals for that JCE, but before I-829 adjudication. Interestingly, there are about 225 JCEs within that window in 2017, and FDNS is on track to complete site visits at all of them. Inspectors are charged to observe and talk to people on-site about what’s happening at the JCE address, and then write an informational report. This report is then assessed in DC in context of petition filings, with opportunity for regional centers/project companies to respond to any questions. Mr. Vicha noted a common complaint that some questions specific to stand-alone filings have been asked at regional center JCEs (such as about the role of EB-5 investors in the business), and he promises that training will address this issue for next year. FDNS inspectors were hired at a high grade and receive extensive training.

Harrison and Vicha both suggested that site visits particularly emphasize schedule, and assessing whether the business or project has accomplished the activities anticipated in the schedule originally submitted to USCIS. Note to self: remind my clients to be extra conservative in estimating development schedule and hiring schedule dates! Better to estimate late in the business plan and give inspectors a happy surprise than to estimate on the early side and be accused of fraud if subsequent inspection shows unreached milestones.

As for audits, only one has been completed so far.

Visa Numbers and Wait Time

Charlie Oppenheim from Department of State was present, as genial and oracular as ever, and attempted once again to explain the allocation of visa numbers and the many contingencies and moving parts. He didn’t give any new figures related to the EB-5 visa queue, but mentioned that he estimated the wait time to conditional residence for a China-born investor filing now at about 9.9 years (my attempt to calculate had come up with 9.3 years). Those estimates don’t account for future demand, people dropping out, or action from Congress.  Mr. Oppenheim said that Congress has not yet asked for his assessment of the proposal to only count investors toward the EB-5 visa quota (rather than investors plus family members as is the current practice), and opined that such a change would indeed require legislative action.

IPO Suggested Order of Documentation

IPO has added a very valuable resource to the EB-5 Resources page on the USCIS website:

Suggested Order of Documentation

Form I-526

Form I-829

Form I-924

The links direct to pages that provide a suggested list and order of contents for each EB-5 form. The regulations and Form Instructions already describe the evidentiary requirements for EB-5 petitions and applications, and these new pages don’t add new requirements. Rather, they provide the content in handy checklist form and suggest a way to standardize submissions by arranging required documents in a predictable order. We keep asking IPO what we can do to help improve the adjudication process and processing times, and this is a very helpful response. Immigration lawyers take note! If we can widely adopt the suggested order of documentation for each form, and most petitions take on a standard shape, with the same tabs in the same order, this will certainly support operational efficiencies at IPO and should help reduce processing times. Julia Harrison flagged this resource at today’s Employment Visa engagement in San Jose. I’ll write another post with more complete report of helpful input from the IPO representatives Julia Harrison and Jan Lyons, Kurt Vicha of FDNS, and Charlie Oppenheim from Department of State.