Comments on the new Form I-956 Application for Regional Center

As of this week “EB-5 2.0” has officially launched, with a new regional center program authorized since May 14, 2022. Now that 60 days have passed since enactment, the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 (“RIA”) has taken full effect. New regional center I-526 still cannot be filed, and none of the USCIS EB-5 pages or policies or petitions have yet been updated with the rules now in effect. But one EB-5 2.0 process is moving: entities can begin to apply for new regional center designation.

On Friday, USCIS published Form I-956 Application for Regional Center Designation and the associated Form I-956H Bona Fides of Persons Involved with Regional Center Program on the USCIS website Forms section.

Form I-956 asks open-ended questions, and provides minimal instructions. I-956 requests less evidence than the previous I-924 Application for Regional Center – whether intentionally or not, it’s hard to tell. I foresee that 100% of Form I-956 submissions will receive a Request for Evidence, given the minimal instructions. Until we start seeing RFEs from USCIS, we need to guess at how USCIS interprets new regional center designation requirements. I wonder if USCIS has drafted the Form I-956 worksheet for adjudicators, and what’s on that worksheet. If only USCIS would tell the public what’s on its adjudication checklists, then we might make submissions correct and complete the first time. The guess-question-clarification process is inefficient, and the regional center program does not have years to waste.

Top Takeaways from Form I-956 Application for Regional Center

  1. What’s New: I-956 and I-956H are almost entirely language copied straight from the RIA text, without interpretation or comment. The I-956 instructions offer one item of additional guidance: “The description [of policies and procedures] may include, but is not limited to, the regional center’s policies and procedures regarding internal controls, risk management and assessment, governance, and fraud detection and/or deterrence. Documentation may include, but is not limited to, Policy Manuals and Standard Operating Procedures.” I-956 offers no comment on what USCIS considers to be the specific “applicable laws” and “program requirements” for which applicants should provide policies and procedures.
  2. Evidence Required: Form I-956 specifies little required evidence. While the old Form I-924 Application for Regional Center had a seven-point list of “evidence you must submit,” Form I-956 has mostly open-ended questions, and says ”may provide” more often than “must submit.”  An applicant following the letter of the I-956 instructions (and interpreting “should” as closer to “may” than “must”) could technically submit I-956 with the form blanks completed but no exhibits whatsoever beyond copies of the Form I-956H for persons involved. As an applicant I’d be tempted to go for a minimal initial filing, considering that I can hardly avoid an RFE in any case, given the vague and minimal instructions provided upfront.
  3. RC History: Form I-956 implies that USCIS has no interest in and attaches no relevance to the applicant’s previous history of regional center designation. I-956 asks only forward-looking questions. I-956 gives no space to provide information about any prior regional center designation, good or bad history of promoting economic growth as a previously-designed regional center, previously-approved geographic scope, in-progress EB-5 projects, or EB-5 funds currently under management.  There’s no indication in I-956 that USCIS has any plan to link designation and investors under the new law with designation and investors under the old law. The I-924 had required disclosing the applicant’s previous regional center termination and denial history, and prohibited use of names that duplicated pre-existing RC names, but the I-956 lacks even this.
  4. Geographic Area: Form I-956 is less specific than I-924 about regional center geographic area and economic impact. I-956 says generally “You should provide evidence that the regional center’s pooled investment will have a substantive economic impact on the proposed geographic area,” and asks for “reasonable predictions” supported by economic impact analysis. But it does not define “substantive impact” or request project-specific basis for predictions. By contrast, Form I-924 required the applicant to base economic impact analysis on business plan inputs, and to show “that the boundaries of the regional center are reasonable based on evidence that the proposed area is contributing significantly to the supply chain and labor pool of the proposed new commercial enterprises.” Either USCIS was careless in writing I-956, or it now has a looser/more open-ended standard than before for geographic area requests. It may be that by separating regional center designation from NCE/project approvals, USCIS has blocked itself from demanding project-specific grounding for regional center impact claims. If that’s the case, surely all applicants will submit theoretic cases for sprawling multi-state geographies.
  5. Organizational Evidence: The “who are you” questions in Form I-956 are limited to identifying the legal name of the regional center entity and the identities of persons involved with the regional center. Unlike I-924, Form I-956 does not specifically request the regional center’s formation documents, Operating Agreement, or management agreements. I-956H requests personal identity detail needed to check for law/rule violations, but not any of the business experience or professional track record detail that a banker or investor would want to know about persons involved.  This may or may not be an oversight.
  6. Business Plans: The “what will you do” questions in Form I-956 are limited to compliance policies and theoretic economic impact predictions. I-956 does not specifically ask the applicant for any kind of business plan, either for regional center operations or to support economic activity projections. (By contrast, I-924 required an Operational Plan and Plan of Promotion to describe how the regional center would operate and support its operations, and project business plans to provide reasonable real-world inputs to support impact analysis. The I-956 silence on business planning may or may not be an oversight. Surely such detail should still be relevant for designation.)
  7. Further Guidance: The I-956 instructions promise that “The approval notice will provide information about the responsibilities and obligations of your USCIS designated regional center. It will also list the evidence to submit in support of regional center-associated individual EB-5 petitions, as well as details on the reporting and oversight requirements for regional centers.” Why not disclose the approval notice template upfront, USCIS, so that applicants can shape their plans around these requirements?
  8. NCE Approval Form: The Form I-956H Instructions reveal that USCIS has chosen a name for the yet-to-be-published project approval form that needs to be filed before regional center investors can start filing I-526. The application for NCE approval will be called Form I-956F. (In the old days, applicants could file for regional center designation and exemplar project approval at the same time using the same I-924, but now the process has two separate and consecutive forms.)
  9. Timing: I foresee significant processing times for Form I-956 (given the back-and-forth that will result from the open-ended questions and minimal instructions), and for I-956H (given the number of agencies that USCIS will need to coordinate with to perform security checks). I will be pleasantly surprised if the first new regional center gets designated before 2023, and astonished if all I-956 filed in the next few weeks get adjudicated before 2025. [Update: The May 18 Declaration of Alissa Emmel in the Behring lawsuit states that: “IPO … as of this date has received approximately 8 applications. …While every application will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, IPO aims for its processing times on Form I-956 applications to meet or exceed the statutory goal of 180 days.”] I very much hope that the first applicants to receive RFEs will be public-spirited and share the RFEs with the rest of the community. The more guidance we can extract from USCIS, the more we’ll be able to improve application quality and speed up the adjudication process for everyone.
  10.  Caution: Historically, an EB-5 document requirement will spark a cottage industry of chancers who smell profit in producing documents with the right title on a nice cover and any old filler shoved under the cover. Thus the proliferation of shoddy economic impact reports, business plans, and offering documents in EB-5.  I suggest, look closely at anyone who offers to relieve you of thousands of dollars in exchange for documents with covers that that say “Policy Manuals” and “Standard Operating Procedures.” If there isn’t an EB-5-experienced securities attorney involved in drafting and signing off on the content, consider only paying what the cover is worth. USCIS adjudicators may have little way to judge compliance policies but by the cover, and might possibly just rubber stamp whatever gets submitted. But even better for regional center applicants to invest in solid content, especially in the sensitive area of securities compliance.

5/25 USCIS EB-5 Feedback Invite

I’m copying below an invitation from USCIS to participate in another EB-5 listening session. The invitation asks some excellent questions, but oddly — considering the engagement’s stated purpose — no questions specifically related to implementation of the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022, or the rulemaking required by the Act. The invitation also offers no way to answer the questions, except to call in to the engagement. If USCIS is serious about getting solid feedback, it should provide a path for written answers.

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: May 17, 2022 8:09 AM
Subject: Listening Session: EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 Rulemaking

EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 Rulemaking Listening Session

Wednesday, May 25 | 2 – 3 p.m. Eastern 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) invites you to participate in a listening session on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, from 2 to 3 p.m. Eastern. The listening session is for stakeholders to provide individual input on rulemaking related to the implementation of the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022. USCIS is committed to public engagement and sessions such as these provide us with valuable feedback as we work to improve our programs.

Questions for consideration: Although we are interested in overall feedback about the EB-5 program, we would also appreciate your input on the following questions:

1. Evidence
a. Are there evidentiary requirements for Form I-526 filings in the existing regulations that should be simplified or modernized? We invite specific estimates of these burdens and potential effects of these simplifications.

2. Definitions
a. Are there undefined or other ambiguous terms in the existing regulations or statute that DHS should define or clarify through rulemaking?
b. Should we keep the “troubled business” definition in the existing regulations (8 CFR 204.6(e), 204.6(h)(3), and 204.6(j)(4)(ii))? If we keep the definition, should we revise it and, if so, how?
c. Should we keep the definition of “new” for a commercial enterprise in the existing regulations? Is there an alternative approach for what should be considered “new” (for example, a more recent cutoff date or a particular period for determining whether a commercial enterprise is “new”)?

3. General
a. Are there other processes or requirements in the existing regulations or statute that DHS should clarify or further develop through rulemaking? For example:
• The process we will use to designate and communicate high unemployment areas.
• Factors we should consider in determining if a regional center’s geographic area is “limited.”
• How construction jobs for less than two years will be calculated.
• Are the expansion and restructuring requirements in the existing regulations still relevant?

To Register:

1. Visit our registration page

2. You will be asked to sign up for updates or to access your subscriber preferences, please enter your email address and select “Submit”

3. Select “Subscriber Preferences”

4. Select the “Questions” tab

5. Complete the questions and select “Submit.”

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

If you have any questions, or if you have not received a confirmation email within three business days, please email us at public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov.

To request a disability accommodation to participate in this engagement, email us at  public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov by 4 p.m. EST on May 20, 2022.

4/29 USCIS Q&A and Listening Session Report

On Friday April 29, USCIS offered a first installment of guidance on implementation of the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022.

USCIS published EB-5 Questions and Answers (updated April 2022) on the USCIS EB-5 Resources page. I’m copying images as of April 29 here for historical reference, but consult the USCIS site to read the latest version.

USCIS held the USCIS EB–5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 Listening Session on April 29. 5/10 UPDATE: Here is a transcript of prepared prepared remarks from the USCIS speakers. Here is my recording of the event. Time index:

  • During the first five minutes of the listening session, USCIS Director Ur Jaddou provided opening remarks. My recording sadly does not include this intro, thanks to my apparent inability to read call-in instructions. From the portion I heard, it seems that Director Jaddou provided a “big picture” perspective of changes and improvements at USCIS, covering the points about agency-wide performance and goals that she made in her April 6 testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations (which is worth reading). She did not have significant EB-5-specific input (that I heard), but it was nice of her to be on the call. I applaud her goals and accomplishments so far at USCIS, and her seriousness about challenges.
  • My recording starts with the EB-5-specific portion of the call.
    • New Investor Program Office Chief Alissa Emmel introduced herself and talked about the new law (minute 0-5), and processing times (5-9).
    • A Policy Analyst with USCIS Office of Policy and Strategy discussed upcoming policy manual revisions and regulations. (minute 9-11)
    • An Adjudication Officer with USCIS Service Center Operations confirmed that I-485 processing for regional center petitions has resumed. He incidentally dropped the revelation that “over 4,000” regional center I-485 were already pending before July 1, 2021. (minute 11-13)
    • A Visa Policy Analyst with State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs Office of Visa Services Field Operations confirmed that RC-associated visa processing has resumed as of April 2022. (minute 13-16)
    • From minute 16 of my recording, the call consists of stakeholders making comments and asking questions, and USCIS responding with thanks for the input (but not any answers).

The headline news is that new regional center I-526 cannot be filed starting with the new regional center program authorization on May 14, 2022.  Instead, investor filings will need to wait until after USCIS designates individual regional centers under the new program; i.e. wait for new RC application forms to be not only filed but also approved. USCIS did not estimate a time for this process. (For reference, the previous RC application form, I-924, had a median processing time from 19 to 22 months between 2017 and 2021. The most I-924 approvals that USCIS ever managed in one month was about 40, back in 2018. Since 2019, the average was more like 15 per month. Based on new law requirements, the new RC application will have less offering-specific and project-specific content than I-924, but more compliance content and more security checks. The processing workload will depend on how many of the previously-designated 632 regional centers decide to apply for new designation. I guess that at least most of the 344 RC that were committed enough to file I-924A even during the RC program expiration will apply.)

A second headline, which I doubt that USCIS thought through: USCIS now claims no jurisdiction over the entities that were formerly designated as regional centers, and that are still handling billions of dollars of EB-5 investment. The written Q&A states that USCIS will no longer require these entities to file annual reports about what they are doing with those billions of dollars, or to file amendments when they change plans or ownership. Unless and until they choose to apply for new designation, the entities holding pre-enactment EB-5 investment are now apparently exempt from the new EB-5 integrity measures, and also from such oversight as USCIS used to provide for regional centers. This follows from USCIS’s interpretation that “regional centers previously designated under section 610 are no longer authorized,” and thus no longer have any status for USCIS to regulate. But I doubt this was intended. I understand the rationale to make regional centers demonstrate compliance with the new law before raising new investment (and to buy more time for USCIS to figure out how to implement the new law). I doubt USCIS thought about the negative integrity side effects of cancelling the only status that allowed USCIS to monitor or dictate to pre-existing regional centers. “USCIS abrogates oversight of entities currently deploying $27 billion dollars in immigrant investment.” This is a true and shocking headline, unless USCIS scrambles to make some clarifications on the status of formerly-designated regional centers.

The written Q&A and the listening session provide welcome clarity about grandfathering of regional center investor petitions. Regional Center I-526, I-485, and visa applications are already being processed as of April 2022. Pre-enactment I-526 are judged “according to the applicable eligibility requirements at the time such petitions were filed,” and with opportunity to demonstrate eligibility “despite the previously approved regional center associated with your petition no longer being designated.”

In the listening session, we heard for the first time from new IPO Chief Alissa Emmel, a career civil servant who was appointed to her position in September 2021 after having previously worked at IPO as an economist starting in 2013, and managing the IPO Compliance Division since 2017. On the call she sounded upbeat, relaxed, and unworried about the challenges of performance improvement or law implementation. She stated one firm plan for EB-5 law implementation: to publish a form and instructions for a new Form I-956, Application for Regional Center Designation, by May 14, 2022. If she has other implementation plans yet, she did not articulate them. No mention of a timeline for publishing the new project approval form or revising Form I-526 or I-829, no mention of processing time targets for regional center application adjudications, and no mention of plans for training adjudicators in the new law. If IPO has started tackling the major challenge of assessment metrics for new regional center compliance plans – a task that will presumably require coordination with the SEC and other outside experts – Chief Emmel didn’t mention it. I came to the call prepared with sympathy for the enormous burden that law implementation puts on USCIS, and for how harassed and panicky the USCIS staff would sound as they grappled with that burden, and with the intense time pressure. But I did not get a chance to deploy my sympathy. I couldn’t tell that much grappling has yet been undertaken or foreseen, or that much pressure has yet been felt.  

The call included a Policy Analyst with USCIS Office of Policy and Strategy, who spoke to the need for new policy and regulations. She divulged one plan: “to hold another engagement in late May to gather individual feedback from impacted stakeholders on those areas or topics from the legislation that require rule-making or other sub-regulatory policy considerations.” And she expressed one specific “hope”: to roll out substantive policy manual revisions “over the next few months.” She also noted that “USCIS fully intends to follow appropriate rule-making procedures for implementing regulatory changes, which is by no means a quick process.” As background, the current EB-5 policy originated with a three-year process (with a policy memo drafted in 2011 and finalized in 2013), redeployment policy took three years (promised in 2014, draft released in 2015, published as policy in 2017), and the EB-5 Modernization regulation emerged over three years (promised in 2016, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2017, Final Rule in 2019). With that background, to rewrite all EB-5 policy based on the RIA in a matter of months will be a herculean task. I would love USCIS to manage this; we badly need speed so that investor I-526 can be filed based on known guidance as soon as possible! But the Policy Analyst on Friday’s call did not sound stressed, as I’d expect she would be if herculean efforts were underway. She announced without audible shame what her office has done in 1.5 months so far: added a one-sentence “alert” to the Policy Manual (without deleting or revising the two other contradictory alerts), and archived one of the five Policy Manual chapters already made obsolete by the new law.

Regarding processing, Chief Emmel stated that “I want you to know that we are taking critical steps to reduce processing times for I-526s and I-829s, knowing that this goal will take some time to achieve for the reasons I’m about to discuss.” The steps cited were to resume regional center I-526 processing (“one of our predominant adjudication goals for our I-526 staff is to work through the large volume of I-526 petitions that were in process pre-sunset”), and to increase staffing levels (Emmel did not offer specifics, but I see that USAJobs.gov has listed two open positions at IPO).  Chief Emmel expects that improved processing will take “time to achieve” because “it is important to note that in addition to adjudicating cases, IPO requires the time and subject-matter expertise of our adjudication staff to address other necessary efforts including implementation of the new legislation, litigation responses, FOIA requests, public inquiries, and others.” IPO processed over a 1,000 I-525 per month under Julia Harrison’s leadership, around 300 per month under Sarah Kendall, and 20 per month under Alissa Emmel in her first quarter at the helm. In Chief Emmel’s words on Friday, I heard positive intent to achieve incremental improvement over recent performance. I did not hear a plan for the exponential improvement that would be required to regain past performance levels or achieve new processing time targets in the foreseeable future. I listened closely for a sense of whether Chief Emmel intends to change the culture of IPO, which since 2019 has taken a time-is-no-object extreme-vetting approach to EB-5 adjudications, with gratuitously lengthy and hostile RFEs, high denial rates, and low completion rates. Chief Emmel spoke about the EB-5 program and investors in very positive terms, and she repeated the new service-oriented USCIS mission statement promising “fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve.” She then went on to say that “for our office, what that means is to accurately and efficiently adjudicate petitions and applications, as well as safeguard the integrity of our nation’s immigration system through our efforts to combat fraud, protect national security and pubic safety, and maximize our law enforcement, intelligence community, and other federal agency partnerships.” Other than the word “efficiently,” those are still Stephen Miller/Sarah Kendall-era enforcement-centric talking points. I am still waiting for a changing tide in EB-5 adjudications, and to see efficiency, fairness, and respect treated as integrity issues by the Investor Program Office. 

4/29 USCIS Engagement!

Welcome to the first EB-5 stakeholder engagement since March 2020! (Only a listening session, but still a good sign!) I look forward to the updates with bated breath.

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: April 19, 2022 10:10 AM
Subject: USCIS EB5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 Listening Session

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services - Public Engagement Division   Engagement  
USCIS EB–5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022
Listening Session Friday, April 29, 2022 | 2-3:30 p.m. Eastern

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) invites you to participate in an engagement on the EB-5 Program, in line with the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 on Friday, April 29, 2022, from 2-3:30 p.m. Eastern. This will be a virtual meeting.

The EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 requires all entities seeking regional center designation to provide a proposal in compliance with the new program requirements, which will take effect on May 14, 2022.

Director Jaddou will provide opening remarks, and USCIS will share updates on the implementation of the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 and guidance about the new designation filing process to entities desiring to be designated as regional centers under the new program. We will then hold a listening session to hear feedback from stakeholders regarding statutory changes made by the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022.

USCIS is committed to public engagement, and sessions such as these provide us with valuable feedback as we work to improve our programs. We will not address case-specific questions, questions outside the scope of the engagement, or issues currently or likely to be in litigation.

To Register: 1. Visit our registration page 2. You will be asked to sign up for updates or to access your subscriber preferences, please enter your email address and select “Submit” 3. Select “Subscriber Preferences” 4. Select the “Questions” tab 5. Complete the questions and select “Submit.” Once we process your registration, you will receive a confirmation email with additional details. If you have not received a confirmation email within three business days, please email us at public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov. If you wish to provide written feedback on this topic in advance of this session, please email us at public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov. To request a disability accommodation to participate in this engagement, email us at public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov by 4 p.m. Eastern on Friday, April 22, 2022.  Note to media: This webinar is not for press purposes. Please contact the USCIS Press Office at media@uscis.dhs.gov for any media inquiries. We look forward to your participation!          

DOS Alert on Visa Processing

Today April 12, 2022, the Department of State US Visas News page published “Announcement on Resumption of Processing of EB-5 Visas Associated with the Regional Center Program“:

On March 15, 2022, President Biden signed a law that made changes to the EB-5 program, authorized a new EB-5 Immigrant Investor Regional Center Program, and directed that certain “grandfathered” immigration benefits be processed. The Department has resumed processing visas associated with the Regional Center Program based on approved USCIS Forms I-526 (Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur), including those filed on or before the expiration of the previous regional center program on June 30, 2021. Further, pursuant to the new legislation, processing of visas associated with the new Regional Center Program may begin 60 days after enactment of the law.

Thank goodness for the push from well-drafted grandfathering language in the new law. Notice the two policies: one for Regional Center 1.0, and one for Regional Center 2.0. The Department “has resumed” processing visas based on approved I-526 based on previous regional center program authorization. For I-526 based on the “new Regional Center Program,” DOS “may begin” processing after 60 days.

Commenters, let me know if you can access your NVC accounts, or have any other evidence that the Department has actually resumed processing for pending applicants.

USCIS Alert on I-526 processing

The USCIS Form I-526 page was updated today April 11 (and the main EB-5 page on April 12) with this message.

We have resumed processing regional center-based Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur, filed on or before the sunset of the previous regional center program on June 30, 2021. We will adjudicate all Form I-526 petitions filed before March 15, 2022, according to the applicable eligibility requirements at the time such petitions were filed (that is, the eligibility requirements in place before the enactment of the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022, Div. BB of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 (Pub. L. No. 117-103) (Sec. 101 and 102). We will continue to process Form I-526 petitions under the visa availability approach, prioritizing those Form I-526 petitions for investors with an available visa or a visa that will be available soon. We will continue to reject all Form I-526 petition received on or after July 1, 2021, when it indicates that the petitioner’s investment is associated with a regional center.

I’m glad to see that USCIS does not intend to hold pending regional center petitions in abeyance pending regional center recertification. I have noted a recent uptick in I-526 processing, with around 10 actions and at least two or three completions most working days this month. That’s a great improvement over last month (but still far from the volumes needed to process over 13,000 pending I-526 petitions in a timely manner).

USCIS alert on regional center designation

The USCIS EB-5 page was updated today April 11 with this message.

Congress repealed Section 610 of the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1993, in the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022, Div. BB of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 (Pub. L. No. 117-103) (Sec. 101 and 102). Therefore, regional centers previously designated under section 610 are no longer authorized. The EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act of 2022 requires all entities seeking regional center designation to provide a proposal in compliance with the new program requirements, which will be effective on May 14, 2022. We will provide further guidance to entities desiring to be designated as regional centers under the new program. We are not accepting Form I-924, Application For Regional Center Designation Under the Immigrant Investor Program, for this purpose.

Sigh. The EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act text does not does not, in fact, say that all previously-designated regional centers lose designation and need to reapply. But we’d been wondering about this since Senator Grassley expressed his impression that the law included such a provision. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that USCIS has chosen the interpretation that will lead to maximum delays for future regional center investment and maximum confusion for in-process EB-5 projects and pending regional center applicants. There were 632 regional centers at last count as of October 25, 2021, and over 100,000 pending EB-5 applicants associated with the previously-designated regional centers. What happens next? Are billions of dollars in regional center investment suddenly stateless, pending the USCIS timeframe to review hundreds of new regional center applications? I would bet that as of today, USCIS intends no retroactive harm but simply hasn’t thought anything through and doesn’t know what further guidance it’s going to provide.

EB-5 news (USCIS public input request, reauthorization, RFE response and litigation, NVC update, PT report update)

Request for Public Input

Today DHS published Request for Public Input: Identifying Barriers Across USCIS Benefits and Services. This request aims “to better understand and identify administrative barriers and burdens (including paperwork requirements, waiting time, and other obstacles) that impair the functions of the USCIS process and unnecessarily impede access to USCIS immigration benefits.” Thank you Secretary Mayorkas! Yes, we have input for you.  

Click on the above link for instructions for how to submit effective comments. Note that the comment due date – originally written in error as today – has been updated to May 19, 2021. If anyone would like to hire me for EB-5-specific comment writing service, I am available and bring a successful track record. The Final Rules on the EB-5 Modernization Regulation and the 2019 USCIS Fee Rule both quote extensively from comments that I submitted on the proposed rules. My strategy is to be rigorous and draw on my massive repository of data and citations.

Reauthorization

The best news I have on the push for regional center program authorization is that EB-5 giant Robert Divine has published an article in EB5 Investors Magazine: “The problem with EB-5’s reliance on temporary legislation.”  In just 600 unminced words, Mr. Divine explains the reauthorization situation and what’s at stake for investors, industry, and the country. If I were writing to my representative to press for reauthorization, I would attach Mr. Divine’s article as clear, honest, and authoritative background reference. If I shared anything on social media, I’d share this article as a call to action. And I’d like to give a standing ovation to this conclusion from the article:

Congress should at least provide that the regional center legislation in effect at the time an investor files Form I-526 will remain in place throughout those waits until the investor can remove conditions on permanent residence through adjudication of Form I-829. The United States is a country of laws designed to protect reasonable expectations. This nation should not be encouraging people to invest to create jobs for us without protecting the reasonable expectations of investors who take the risk of such investment.

I continue to update my Reauthorization page as I hear of news and resources. Most recently, I noted that the text of S.831 has finally been published at Congress.gov.

RFEs and Litigation

The April 2021 edition of EB5 Investors Magazine is generally rich in helpful articles. I particularly note my article, and multiple articles on recent trends in EB-5 litigation.

Consular Processing and Visa Updates

The Visa News page on the Department of State website includes several significant updates.

  • Apr 6, 2021 Visa Services Operating Status Update This post confirms that as of April 2021, EB-5 is still not a priority for interview scheduling. “Posts that process immigrant visa applications are prioritizing Immediate Relative family members of U.S. citizens, including intercountry adoptions, fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens, and certain Special Immigrant Visa applications.”
  • Apr 9, 2021 National Visa Center Meeting with AILA on February 17,2021 This meeting transcript from February is full of interesting information. Including:
    • “During CY 2020, the median time for an approved I-526 petition to reach NVC from USCIS was 126 days…. NVC does not have a way to proactively search USCIS systems for approved I-526 petitions that have not been electronically transferred to NVC.” (DOS here quantifies the problem of delays by USCIS in forwarding I-526 approvals to NVC, and suggests there’s not much DOS can do about the problem.)
    • “As of January 25, 2021, NVC’s queue of documentarily complete employment-based or family-sponsored cases (including family preference and immediate relative cases), with a visa number available, waiting for an immigrant visa interview is: Family-Sponsored: 312,782 cases; Employment: 11,504 cases; EB-5: 3,930 cases.” (That huge family-based number is alarming, because family cases are getting priority over employment cases as noted above. The EB-5 number is interesting, because it tells us how many consular cases are ready to go based on how far the visa bulletin has already moved. The total number of EB-5 cases registered on the immigrant waiting list at NVC, which includes those without visas available yet per the visa bulletin, is much higher of course.)

See also “Briefing with Consular Affairs Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services Julie M. Stufft on the Current Status of Immigrant Visa Processing at Embassies and Consulates” from March 1, 2021

The May 2021 visa bulletin has announced another “Chats with Charlie” to take place on April 22, 2021 at 1:00 p.m. EST at https://www.youtube.com/user/TravelGov Questions can be emailed to VisaBulletin@state.gov ahead of the event with “Chat with Charlie Question” in the subject line. The previous visa bulletin live chat from March 17 was incredibly helpful and informative, and I’m looking forward to the April iteration.

Processing Time Report Update

The USCIS website has long had a page titled “Historical Average Processing Times” that I used to ignore because it reported a meaningless and misleading data point. Instead of reporting processing times, this “processing times” page used to report “average age of all petitions currently pending.” Average inventory age combines processed and unprocessed petitions, naturally falls with an influx of new receipts, and does not directly reflect on processing times. This misleading page was probably heavily referenced by people filing Mandamus complaints, because average inventory age is often less than processing times. And now, USCIS has finally gotten around to fixing the page. 

Since March 31, 2021, the Historical Average page is now titled “Historical National Median Processing Time (in Months) for All USCIS Offices for Select Forms By Fiscal Year,” and uses a revised method. Instead of reporting average inventory age, the page now reports median age specifically of processed forms, consistent with the method used for the Case Processing Times page.  “Processing times are defined as the number of months it took for an application, petition, or request to be processed from receipt to completion in a given time period. …The number of months presented is the median. It represents the time it took to complete 50% of the cases in a given time period.” This page provides median times across a full year, which are interesting when compared with median times reported monthly for those same years (as recorded in my on-going log). For example, the Historical Average page now reports a median I-526 processing time of 19 months across FY2019 adjudications, while monthly I-526 processing time reports from October 2018 to September 2019 indicated median times ranging from 20 to 27.5 months – never as low as 19 months. Hmmmmm….. After all, the revised Historical Average page continues to provide ammunition for Mandamus lawyers seeking to show that the monthly USCIS processing times reports are misleading. The annual averages also starkly illustrate that the I-526 visa availability approach, instituted in 2020, did not bring down the average age of adjudicated cases as intended by USCIS.

Historical National Median Processing Time (in Months) for All USCIS Offices for Select Forms By Fiscal Year: Fiscal Year 2017 to 2021 (up to March 31, 2021)

FormFY 2017FY 2018FY 2019FY 2020FY2021 to March 31
I-52616.617.91931.231.2
I-82918.221.825.924.833.7
I-92419.51918.819.134.8
I-485 (all employment-based)710.6108.811.5
summarized from https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/historic-pt as of April 19, 2021

Sharing I-526 Experience

The most compelling processing time evidence comes from individual experience. I appreciate EB-5 investors who share their experience and case status analysis in blog post comments. And I appreciate the suggestion for a single static place to collect these reports for common reference. I’ve made failed attempts at this in the past (including starting a forum that I didn’t have time to moderate, and setting up a Google form whose link no one can ever find). But I will continue to think how I can best facilitate info sharing. FYI, from my various information sources, November 2018 continues to be the filing date I most commonly see on I-526 decisions.

New EB-5 Q&A from USCIS

In my post Report on Nov 2020 IPO Non-Engagement, I pointed out that the November 11 EB-5 engagement presentation avoided addressing industry questions. I now see that on December 16, USCIS took a step to compensate by publishing EB-5 General Questions and Answers (updated Dec. 2020) on the EB-5 Resources page. This 7-page PDF selects a portion of questions asked (e.g. from IIUSA’s list), doesn’t necessarily answer them, and was published with no announcement in a place where even I took a month to notice it. But nevertheless, it’s seven pages of something like communication with the industry, and we rarely get even that much, so thank you USCIS. I appreciate this step!

Visit the USCIS website to review the full Q&A, which is indeed worth reading. The following is my biased summary of the Q&A content.

I-526

1. An I-526 expedite approval merely expedites assignment of the I-526, not adjudication time. USCIS cannot provide specific processing times for adjudication of an “expedited” I-526.

2. The Q&A tries to justify the practice of requesting I-829 evidence in the context of I-526 adjudication.

3. IPO assesses visa availability monthly.

4. I-526 workflows are adjusted monthly based on visa availability.

5. USCIS does not have or plan to develop technology that would allow I-526 petitioners to incorporate project-related documents submitted with a pending or approved I-924 (I-526 exemplar) rather than submit duplicative documents with each I-526. USCIS is “open to exploring ways to achieve efficiencies within our existing systems” but lacks budget to improve the systems. [Who did not use the fee rule process to request needed budget, I wonder.]

I-829

6. Read the Q&A for a detailed answer to this question: “What steps should a petitioner take to add an eligible derivative to a Form I-829?”

7. After denying an I-829 petition, USCIS will generally wait until after the initial motion period to issue a NTA with immigration court, but reserves the option to refer cases to ICE earlier.

8. Fraudulent activity in a project has a bearing on I-829 adjudication if it prevents satisfying all investment, sustainment, and job creation requirements for removing conditions.

9. I-829 receipt notices issued in July 2020 were not intended to extend CPR status, just to replace possibly missing notices.

Regional Centers

10. There is no timeframe for posting regional center termination letters since 2018, which are still “in the queue to be reviewed by USCIS FOIA specialists.” [So much for transparency. The entire unredacted immigration record for Kamala Harris’ mother was posted by FOIA within a month of Harris’ nomination, but it takes two years and counting to review regional center termination letters—a type of record previously cleared for routine release, and obviously serving an integrity purpose.]

11. “We will consider your request, but USCIS does not currently have plans to proactively publish regional center designation letters.”

12. USCIS imposes a duty for RCs to monitor and oversee investment activities, but declines to specify what this duty entails because “it is not possible to do a one-size-fits-all checklist.” [But such checklists must exist behind the scenes, unless USCIS is simply arbitrary and capricious in regional center terminations. Assuming that there’s some method and consistency to USCIS oversight, then USCIS must have some specific and defined criteria for what Regional Center monitoring, oversight, and activity look like in practice. And given that, why not come out and tell Regional Centers the criteria by which they will be judged?]

13. The Q&A takes the industry question “When will anxious stakeholders learn more about the results of the submitted comments on the policy manual update on redeployment?” and answers that there’s no timeline to advance the universally ignored Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking from 2017 on the regional center designation process. We see you dodging the question, USCIS.

14. Since January 5, 2021, the newest Form I-924A version (dated 11/21/2019) must be used.

15. The Q&A states that in fact “there is no requirement that an approved regional center must have affiliated I-526s filed within a three-year period or lose designation.” [This contradicts the evidence of regional center termination letters that such a metric was applied in practice at least through 2018. But good to hear this statement, since the 3-year metric was particularly unfair and harmful for regional centers in distressed and rural areas.] The Q&A also clarifies that I-924 regional center processing times are not actually 5-8 years, though the USCIS Processing Times Page reported them as such until recently due to what’s now acknowledged as a reporting error.

16. Regarding interfiling of project status updates, the Q&A gives this helpful information: “Updates and other correspondence are received in our mail room. We keep the envelope or shipping label, we stamp the date we received the correspondence, and we insert the documents into their corresponding file(s). We randomly sample the work to ensure the documents were properly interfiled.”

Report on Nov 2020 IPO Non-Engagement

This week, the USCIS Investor Program Office used three venues to dismay the public with a disingenuous presentation of ostensible EB-5 program updates. You can find this non-engagement posted in PDF form in the USCIS Electronic Reading Room, recorded on Youtube, and as a presentation by IPO Chief Sarah Kendall to IIUSA. (The three are essentially identical.)

I learned a few things from the presentation.

To start with the positive, IPO says that they recognize and are actively working to fix two problems: the issue that family members have been scheduled on different days for I-829 biometrics (a system glitch), and the issue of delay in sending approved I-526 to the National Visa Center (a temporary staffing issue).

The most negative update: not a word in answer to many urgent clarification questions about redeployment; only insulting parroting of previously-published language with no acknowledgement of industry feedback.

IPO’s dedicated staff is currently at 232 people – down but not much from the last-reported level of 245 people as of March 2020. I’m happy to hear that the furlough threat between March and August didn’t result in more attrition. Almost 100% of staff have been working from home since March.

IPO indirectly responded to the question of whether the process for assigning I-526 is first-in-first-out, for petitions with visas available. In the presentation and also an additional Q&A on the Visa Availability Approach FAQ page, IPO highlights project review as a second factor in determining I-526 processing order.  “IPO manages Form I-526 petition inventory through workflows factoring in whether: (1) A visa is available (or will be available soon); and (2) The underlying project has been reviewed. Workflows are generally managed in FIFO order when a visa is available or will be available soon.” This helps to explain what we see anecdotally – that I-526 are not necessarily assigned in filing date order even for people with identical visa availability circumstances. Petitioners associated with projects already reviewed in previous petitions can apparently expect swifter attention than those who invested in novel projects — creating an asymmetry that’s understandably practical but with negative results from a public policy and integrity perspective.

I-526 and I-829 productivity have not continued to improve. From March 2020 to August 2020, the presentation says that IPO averaged 304 I-526 completions per month and 265 I-829 completions per month. That’s no improvement on January to March 2020, and still three to four times lower than the IPO’s productivity in 2017 and 2018, before Sarah Kendall took over as Chief at IPO.  (See the table at the base of this post for detailed reference.) Most disheartening: Kendall did not regret the dismal productivity over the past few months or foresee future improvement, but actually boasted about the numbers up to August 2020 by comparing them favorably to her own worst record in mid 2019. There were 16,633 pending I-526 at last report. If the current abysmally low productivity continues, an average I-526 filed today won’t even get looked at until 16,633/304=55 months from now. (The visa availability approach offers a time discount for I-526 from low-volume countries, but at such low productivity even they would wait three years for attention, according to per-country data, while high volume countries would be looking at well over five years unless IPO performance improves.)

“What are you doing to ensure program integrity today, USCIS?” The answer: “Sorry we can’t know what’s going on with EB-5 investment today because due to our low productivity we’re nowhere near being able to examine new files – and at our current rate we won’t even look at investments happening now and petitions being filed today for another three to five or more years in the future.” That answer should make Congress very angry. It certainly angers and frustrates the industry, as we try our best to maintain integrity even as USCIS won’t examine or let us know what’s going on. Until USCIS improves productivity, it’s basically saying “Welcome wannabe fraudsters, come over to EB-5 where we’ll offer you many years to operate in the dark while we waste resources implementing a time-is-no-object process on old petitions, actively discouraging new honest use of the program.”  And still Kendall dares to claim that there’s integrity in using an office of 232 people to implement a new process so slow that it can only process about 570 investor petitions per month – less than 3 per IPO employee – while large backlogs wait unexamined. Biden administration, note that the USCIS Investor Program Office needs changes, and quickly. As recently as 2018, before Sarah Kendall took over, IPO was more than three times more productive with fewer people. We need that performance back as soon as possible.

Overall, IPO’s presentation is a masterclass in non-engagement. The playbook:

  • Ignore questions. (Among the ignored questions, see this list from IIUSA, most of which I wasted my time writing. USCIS particularly went out of its way to avoid answering questions about policy manual feedback, redeployment policy changes, source and path of funds policy changes, and I-526 data by country.)
  • In the guise of answering questions, reiterate word for word what the public already knows from information previously published. (This method was used to not answer our clarification questions about processing times, the visa availability approach, and redeployment policy updates, and to provide non-information about Form I-924A.)
  • Allow no interaction whatsoever. While Sarah Kendall did at least appear live at the IIUSA meeting, it was only to read aloud her talking points from the PDF and Youtube Video – no questions or comments were allowed. “Public engagement” used to mean that USCIS would have a quarterly call or meeting to talk to and listen to stakeholders; now all we can do is listen to a YouTube video and give it a thumbs down, or take the public engagement survey to indicate that we are very dissatisfied. (At least do this, everyone, for what good it does.) IPO is showing simply zero good faith or willingness to take stakeholders as partners.

Sarah Kendall said that “Program integrity is at the forefront of everything we do. IPO is continually fielding questions from Congress and others on performance in this area.” I choked. As someone who actually does care about and stand for program integrity, I wish I could field questions about IPO’s performance.  Congress and others: contact me. Senator Grassley’s office: I understand your concerns and would love to tell you true stories that USCIS and the lobbyists won’t tell you. David North, I’d even be happy to chat with you.  I can provide detail and evidence regarding specific IPO practices and policies that have – by malice and/or simple stupidity — gutted EB-5 program credibility, invited abuse, and undercut every Congressional objective for EB-5, from job creation impact to promotion of economic growth in rural and distressed areas. (In these efforts the lobbyist side has a culpable role as well, but that’s a conversation for another day. If only the majority of EB-5 users had any voice at all in the industry!)

As USCIS acknowledges in the presentation: “we have seen that the vast majority of petitions and regional centers are engaged in legitimate business activities and endeavor to strengthen U.S. communities by creating jobs.” The same cannot be said of IPO under current leadership. If you’re part of the new administration, and motivated to heal our legal immigration system from the recent efforts to savage it, the Investor Program Office at USCIS needs your urgent and early attention.  EB-5 can and should be a credible and effective tool for economic growth, job creation, and immigration by people who immediately benefit the United States. For that to happen, the program needs competent and responsible new management. (And indeed, this need applies to USCIS as a whole.) [12/2020 update: Sarah Kendall has left IPO, replaced for now by someone named Todd Young serving as acting chief. Now I feel bad. In Ms. Kendall’s defense, she probably did exactly and simply what she was hired and directed to do at IPO.]

Calendar PeriodNumber of employees reported at IPOAverage I-526 processed per monthAverage I-829 processed per monthAverage total investor petitions processed per monthAverage employee productivity, in terms of petitions processed per month
2016110934951,0299
20171859852861,2717
20182001,2211931,4147
20192122131423552
2020 Jan-March2453012625632
2020 March-August2323042655692

FY2020 Q1 EB-5 Processing Statistics

The USCIS Immigration & Citizenship Data page has posted the long-awaited EB-5 form data for October to December 2019 (FY2020 Q1).

The main questions in my mind before I saw the data:

  • Was there really a massive I-526 surge ahead of the November 2019 deadline to increase the investment amount?
  • Did IPO show any trend toward improved productivity?

I made my data summary charts go back to 2015 this time, to put recent trends in context. As the charts illustrate, there was a large but not historically large surge in I-526 receipts last quarter.  So far from clocking any productivity improvement, IPO once again broke its record for fewest adjudications of all time. Clearly, adjudication was not among IPO’s priorities in 2019.  IPO did not even accomplish the minimum of adjudicating sufficient I-526 over the past four quarters to claim a full annual visa quota. I-924 adjudications remain near 0, while I-829 adjudications continue at a steady low level. Now we’re left to hope for FY2020 Q2 data, which IPO Chief Sarah Kendall promised us last month would show some improvement — improvement we’ve been seeing anecdotally. To quote again from Kendall’s remarks about new processing procedures:

USCIS leadership views these initiatives as absolutely vital to the success of the EB-5 program. We acknowledge that case completion rates have decreased partly because of these activities, and we understand the concerns that raises for our stakeholders. With a lot of the infrastructure development now behind us, IPO is better situated to improve productivity. In fact, preliminary data for February shows a step in the right direction. The USCIS Office of Performance and Quality anticipates publishing new data in the coming month.

This quarter’s data release included a new table that I’ll analyze separately in another post.




EB-5 updates and resources under COVID-19

[Update: for newer information, see instead my 5/28 post EB-5 Impact of COVID-19 (processing, eligibility, visa numbers)]

As the war against COVID-19 heats up around the world, EB-5 work continues, but with some changes. A few notes on developments over the past two weeks:

USCIS continues to operate despite COVID-19, with modifications

USCIS offices have been closed to the public since March 18, but USCIS staff are continuing to perform duties that do not involve face-to-face contact with the public. (Except where otherwise noted, the information in this section is from uscis.gov/coronavirus, which gets updated regularly.)

That means IPO (which needless to say lacks public contact) is continuing to adjudicate I-526, I-829, and I-924, and to terminate regional centers. In fact, the latest processing times report (updated March 20) recorded a decrease to I-526 processing times. I’ve heard multiple personal reports of EB-5 decisions received. The USCIS list of regional centers got a significant update this week, recording three new approvals and 24 terminations. Service centers also continue to process I-485 status adjustments.

EB-5 investors at the visa stage will be affected by the fact that all biometrics appointments have been temporarily suspended since March 18 until at least April 7 May 3 June 4, with all appointments to be automatically rescheduled once USCIS again resumes normal operations.

On March 20, USCIS announced flexibility in submitting required signatures. “For forms that require an original “wet” signature, per form instructions, USCIS will accept electronically reproduced original signatures for the duration of the National Emergency.”

On March 27, USCIS announced flexibility for responses to Requests for Evidence and Notices of Intent to Deny. “For applicants and petitioners who  receive an RFE or NOID dated between March 1 and May 1, 2020, any responses submitted within 60 calendar days after the response date set forth in the RFE or NOID will be considered by USCIS before any action is taken.”

On March 30, USCIS expanded this flexibilty: “A response received within 60 calendar days after the response due date set forth in a Request for Evidence, Notice of Intent to Deny, Notice of Intent to Revoke, or Notice of Intent to Terminate will be considered before taking any action if such request or notice is issued and dated by USCIS between March 1 and May 1, 2020, inclusive.”(uscis.gov/coronavirus)

Other IPO Activities

The EB-5 Resources page on the USCIS website was updated on March 23 with Sarah Kendal’s prepared remarks from the 3/13 Public Engagement, as well as with Q&A on the Visa Availability Approach. The Q&A gives a detailed, clear, and helpful overview of the new visa availability approach to I-526 processing that will officially launch next week.

EB-5 visa applications and COVID-19

EB-5 visas are temporarily not being issued through consular processing. On March 20, 2020, DOS announced suspension of routine visa services. “In response to significant worldwide challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of State is temporarily suspending routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates. Embassies and consulates will cancel all routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments as of March 20, 2020. As resources allow, embassies and consulates will continue to provide emergency and mission critical visa services. Our overseas missions will resume routine visa services as soon as possible but are unable to provide a specific date at this time.”

With applicants overseas temporarily unable to claim available visas, this may mean more visas available to applicants in the U.S., since I-485 status adjustments are still being processed (as of now). Depending on how long it takes overseas visa services to get back on track, Department of State faces a challenge to allocate all available visas for the fiscal year.  So long as consulate closures prevent people overseas from claiming visas, that could cause the Visa Bulletin final action dates to advance rapidly to accommodate those few who are placed to receive visas. At the beginning of the year, Department of State had anticipated issuing a total of 11,112 EB-5 visas, including 778 each to Vietnam and India, with an estimated 5,270 leftover for the oldest priority dates (i.e. China).  In the first five months of FY2020 (October to February), consulates had issued 237 EB-5 visas in India, 345 EB-5 visas in Vietnam, and just 1,088 EB-5 visas in China. (Data from adding up monthly tallies of EB-5 visas issued by consulate. Unfortunately USCIS does not publish data on EB-5-related I-485 approved and pending.)

Politico Rumor

Last week someone launched an EB-5 virus – an implausible story that Senator Lindsey Graham was pushing to increase EB-5 visas to 75,000 and decrease the minimum investment amount to $450,000 as part of the emergency stimulus bill. Politico published the story, Senator Graham himself responded publicly that the story was false (listen starting at minute 2:50 in this 3/19 Fox News interview), and yet the story continues to spread and mutate, inspiring a storm of media criticism of the EB-5 program and EB-5 investors. As IIUSA says “Although the EB-5 industry would like to see program reforms, it would never support these extreme and unfounded shifts. It did not do so last week, and it will not do so in the future.” I wonder which interest group planted the rumor, with what intent. Possibly it came from an anti-immigrant faction that’s now chuckling with glee at the backlash? Or a misguided industry insider hoping to stoke the market with false hopes? Certainly, this story has damaged EB-5 just when it’s in a position to be a helpful tool in our current economic state.

EB-5 risks and opportunities under COVID-19 conditions

Martin Lawler’s article COVID-19 Impact on EB-5 Hotel Projects (April 6, 2020) discusses issues related to maintaining EB-5 eligibility in an industry particularly threatened by COVID-19

Green Card by Investment continues to come out with EB-5 Talk podcasts on timely topics, most recently “Restructuring your NCE operating documents for redeployment” with Mark Katzoff (March 23), and “Investor options with troubled projects” with Robert Divine (March 17).

Matthew Galati has a helpful article on Filing I-829s During a Coronavirus Economic Downturn (March 26, 2020)

A reminder of my July 2019 article on Priority date retention and redeployment, which includes a flow chart to clearly illustrate the different project change and redeployment options at various points in the EB-5 process.

IIUSA has started to roll out a new Investor Market Webinar Series.

If no one else does, I will write in April about high-unemployment Targeted Employment Areas, and options for TEA analysis in response to our abruptly increasing unemployment.

EB-5 processing times and visa wait times remain a constantly moving target, but I’m still grappling with the timing estimate problem as well.

Meanwhile, my business plan service remains available to the brave few seeking to launch new ventures, and to the many who may need to describe how updated circumstances still support EB-5 investor eligibility.

Report from 3/13 USCIS Engagement on Visa Availability Approach

The March 13 EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program: Public Engagement provided a few program updates, and discussed the new visa availability approach to I-526 processing. IPO Chief Sarah Kendall mainly spoke, with additional input from DOS Visa Control Office Chief Charles Oppenheim.

As usual I am sharing my recording, so that anyone can review the meeting for themselves. (3/23 Update: Sarah Kendall’s prepared remarks and a Q&A on the Visa Availability Approach have now been posted in the EB-5 Resource Room on the USCIS website.)

Prior the meeting, my many questions boiled down to two: the priority question and the volume question.  How will IPO apply the visa availability approach to decide which I-526 to process when? How many I-526 does IPO have on hand and intend to process, going forward? I was indeed pleasantly surprised by detailed and helpful answers to the priority question. Thank you Sarah Kendall! Particularly, thank you for taking live audience questions, which proved very important. But no thanks for deflecting the volume question.

Key information from the engagement:

What is the visa availability approach? (VAA)

  • Consistent with the initial USCIS announcement, Kendall describes the VAA as an inventory management approach that will prioritize adjudications for I-526 petitions where visas are immediately available or soon to be available.

Who is affected by the visa availability approach?

  • Kendall said that the VAA will apply to all I-526 petitions not assigned as of March 31, 2020, including pending petitions currently in the pipeline, and including petitions to be filed after March 31, 2020. USCIS will continue to work on I-526 assigned for adjudication before March 31.
  • My comment: That is, the VAA will not limit decisions on cases that were already issued a Request for Evidence or Notice of Intent to Deny. The VAA does apply to all unassigned pending I-526, no matter when they were or will be filed.

Who will be held back by the visa availability approach?

  • Kendall said that in deciding which I-526 NOT to assign for adjudication, IPO will consult the monthly Visa Bulletin Chart B Dates for Filing. If a petition’s filing date is not within the dates that can file a visa application or I-485 according to that month’s Visa Bulletin Chart B, then the petition will not be assigned for I-526 adjudication that month.
  • My comments:
    • In practice, this means that for now, only pending I-526 from China will be limited by the VAA. (The April 2020 Visa Bulletin Chart B has a December 15, 2015 cut-off date for China, but current for all other countries.) It’s good news that IPO will at least look at Chart B, not Chart A, to determine visa availability for I-526 purposes.
    • The VAA will create a chicken-and-egg situation between Department of State and USCIS. The visa bulletin moves in response to demand for visas, demand for visas is created by I-526 approvals, and now I-526 adjudications will move in response to the visa bulletin.
    • Vietnam and India will benefit from the VAA in the near term, since they are current in Visa Bulletin Chart B. They will eventually be held back by VAA, since the number of pending I-526 from Vietnam and India exceed the annual visa limit. When they will be affected depends on the rate of I-526 approvals for Vietnam and India. If many Indian and Vietnamese I-526 shortly get assigned for adjudication and soon approved by USCIS, then many visa applications will soon result, creating excess demand that triggers DOS to put cut-off dates in the visa bulletin Chart B, triggering USCIS to stop assigning I-526 for adjudication.  Alternatively, if USCIS continues to approve just a few I-526 for Indians and Vietnamese, then the visa bulletin will stay open due to low visa demand, and the trickle of India and Vietnam I-526 adjudications can continue unchecked by the VAA.  (DOS apparently anticipates the second scenario, according to Oppenheim’s comments on the call.) Either way, whether the flow of I-526 adjudications is limited by the visa bulletin or by IPO’s natural slowness, the VAA would allow USCIS to, in theory, only adjudicate as many I-526 for India and Vietnam per year as needed to produce a years-worth of visa applicants. That would mean about 350 annual I-526 adjudications for India and 250 adjudications for Vietnam (considering Oppenheim’s most recent ratio of pending I-526 to visa applicants). If USCIS used the VAA as an excuse to keep to such minimum volume, within the visa caps, then long I-526 waits for India and Vietnam would result (considering that there were about 2,500 India I-526 pending and 770 Vietnamese I-526 pending as of 10/1/2019).
    • However, Sarah Kendall did not specifically say that I-526 adjudications would be limited to visa availability. The VAA just allows such limitation, as needed to prioritize as many petitions as have a visa available. And this competitive rest-of-the-world demand has historically been low, and likely to remain so considering the EB-5 price increase. China, Vietnam, and India will only have I-526 adjudications limited to visa availability to the extent that IPO can maximize its I-526 capacity with other-country adjudications.
    • The VAA guides which petitions will NOT be assigned for adjudication; it does not promise which petitions WILL be assigned for adjudication. As of 10/1/2019 (most recent available data), there were 7,472 pending I-526 from countries other than China. Those 7,472 petitions won’t all be immediately assigned for adjudication, even though they’re prioritized based on having visas available for them, unless IPO improves its volume from the FY2019 average of 390 I-526  adjudications per month.

Will IPO make any exceptions to the visa availability approach?

  • Kendall stated that:
    • Petitions with approved expedite requests will continue to be promptly assigned for adjudication, regardless of the petitioner’s country of origin.
    • If the Petitioner is from a country that would be held back by the VAA, but could have a visa available due to the spouse’s nationality, then the petitioner should email IPO to explain the situation, and IPO may assign the case based on the spouse’s nationality. Listen starting at minute 25:45 of the recording for detail.
    • Aside from the above two circumstances, IPO does not contemplate offering opportunity for petitioners to opt out, opt in, or request to be treated as an exception to the VAA policy.
    • USCIS currently plans to continue the VAA approach indefinitely.

Will the visa availability approach affect visa distribution, and number of visas available?

  • The VAA does not change the rules for visa availability. The EB-5 quota and per-country cap remain the same. The variable component in visa availability is the number of “leftover” visas available to the oldest priority dates (in the EB-5 case, to Chinese) after demand under the country caps has been satisfied. The VAA is explicitly designed to reduce the number of leftovers (being intended to help rest-of-world applicants to maximize their available visas), but Oppenheim opined that the number of leftover visas would remain unchanged for about the next 12 to 18 months.
  • My comment: When Oppenheim estimates that the number of visas available to any one country will not change for the next 12 to 18 months, he must be assuming that USCIS will not, near-term, approve more rest-of-the-world I-526 than it would have otherwise, without the VAA approach. Visas available to China are a function of rest-of-the-world visa demand, and rest-of-the-world visa demand is a function of number of I-526 approvals. Apparently, Oppenheim expects IPO to actually reduce I-526 completion rates under the VAA (since if completion rates stayed the same, fewer China I-526 completions would be counterbalanced by more rest-of-the-world completions, resulting in fewer visas available to China). I wonder if Oppenheim’s assumption is based on anything Sarah Kendall told him?

Will the visa availability approach improve I-526 completion rates and processing times?

  • Processing times are a function of backlog, processing priority, and processing volume. The VAA changes priority in a way that will benefit petitioners from low volume countries. The size of that benefit depends on what happens concurrently with processing volume (completion rates).
  • Sarah Kendall declined to answer questions about the size of the I-526 backlog, and the number of petitions that could benefit. “As a general matter, we refrain from discussing any kind of numbers with the public outside of our OPQ posting process.”
  • Kendall repeated the same reasons for low I-526 completion rates that she gave in 2019 (recorded in my previous post). Most are related to extreme vetting efforts to seek out signs of fraud and abuse. Kendall stated that “USCIS leadership views these initiatives as absolutely vital to the success of the EB-5 program. We acknowledge that case completion rates have decreased partly because of these activities, and we understand the concerns that raises for our stakeholders. With a lot of the infrastructure development now behind us, IPO is better situated to improve productivity. In fact, preliminary data for February shows a step in the right direction. The USCIS Office of Performance and Quality anticipates publishing new data in the coming month.”
    • I take this to be saying that IPO expects to adjudicate a few more I-526 in 2020 than in 2019, but not many more. IPO’s per-quarter productivity would have to be seven times higher than it was in FY2019 Q4 just to regain 2018 productivity levels. “A step in the right direction” from recent performance is good news, and Kendall mentioned later in the call that she expects such incremental improvement to continue – also good news. But this does not sound like a promise of exponential improvement to counterbalance last year’s exponential productivity loss. Kendall emphasized that the lengthy new review procedures requiring time-consuming multi-agency coordination are “absolutely vital” to program integrity, suggesting that she does not intend to change those factors in long processing times. There will be some improvement this year from the mere fact that the procedures are at least set up, while last year included time lost due to setup/training.
  • In response to my question about number of adjudicators assigned to I-526, Kendall reported that IPO had about 240 dedicated personnel as of the beginning of the fiscal year – a record high number. “This number includes support staff, adjudicators, economists, fraud detection and national security personnel, and other positions vital to the IPO mission. The number of personnel and adjudicators assigned to each EB-5 form type varies according to workload demand and agency priorities.”
    • My comment: I note that Kendall pointedly did not answer the question about I-526 resources. The VAA reduces workload demand for I-526 by reducing the number of petitions that require prompt adjudication, which may be a sign for I-526 resource allocation. I wonder how much of the fees petitioners pay for adjudication actually funds adjudicative staff, and how much goes to staff devoted to seeking fraud.
  • Kendall gave an ambiguous answer to a question about whether or not we can expect to see a reduction in rest-of-the-world I-526 processing times as a result of the VAA. (minute 54 in the recording)

Will IPO provide transparency about its processing under the visa availability approach?

  • Kendall said that the Office of Performance and Quality would revise the I-526 processing times report to reflect the VAA change, but she also said that there’s no plan for the report to show country-specific processing times – the only possible way to reflect the VAA change for EB-5. So it’s hard to visualize how helpful the report could be. As noted above, she also declined to provide any I-526 data (and the IPO Customer Service email continues to refuse or ignore my requests for per-country I-526 data).
  • Note to IPO: you could be commended for a change that moves the EB-5 constraint to the beginning of the process, rather than leaving people to pile-up midway at the visa stage. But only if you are transparent. When you keep I-526 processing a black box, you leave people to file I-526 in ignorance, unable to assess the nature of the backlog, and inventory pileups will still occur. To avoid this, you must give the public timely data about the country composition of the I-526 backlog, and  country-specific information in the processing times report. If you make I-526 processing transparent in this way, you will actually move the constraint to the start of the process, thus improving the whole process. With transparency, demand will self-regulate as people can make informed decisions about filing I-526.  Otherwise, you have made no improvement and the process will remain broken.
  • If petitioners whose cases are not ripe for adjudication under the VAA try to make a case inquiry, they will be sent a stock response that refers them to the visa bulletin.

Other Updates regarding India, China, and regional centers:

  • Regarding the Visa Bulletin Final Action Date for India, Charles Oppenheim said “at this time, I believe that India will become current some time in the summer, and once it becomes current it would stay for the foreseeable future, pending receipt of larger volumes of approved petitions at our National Visa Center.” (Minute 33 and 44 of the recording) (My comment: apparently, Oppenheim expects USCIS to continue low productivity, with the visa bulletin to open for India due to few Indians making it past the I-526 stage and to the visa stage. See my comments above on the connection between I-526 adjudication volume and visa bulletin movement.)
  • A caller asked Charles Oppenheim about the impact of the current shutdown of consular processing in China due to COVID-19, and whether that could result in EB-5 visas that would have been given to China going to Vietnam instead. Oppenheim said: “This is a very unique situation where there is not a lack of applicants which is preventing the numbers from being used, but the situation where at this time the consulate is closed. So this will continue to be monitored throughout the year, and we’ll just have to do the best we can. But again, if it does appear that all the numbers would not be used, then we would go to the next country in line, which would be Vietnam, which is oversubscribed.” (minute 43-44 of the recording) No one asked about other potential visa impacts of COVID-19 (i.e. closures of other consulates besides China, or possible interruptions to service center operations in the U.S.)
  • USCIS has sent out 100 Notices of Intent to Terminate so far in 2020 to regional centers that did not file I-924A in FY2019.
  • Sarah Kendall announced the regulations FAQ that I flagged last week: Questions and Answers: EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program Modernization Rule.

I worked hard on this post, trying to record and explain answers, as available, to many of the questions that I anticipate regarding the visa availability approach. Regarding personalized EB-5 timing estimates, it’s difficult. The timing complications are so many at this point, and limited data makes any estimate time-consuming and not definitive. The best I can offer now, as time permits, is personalized conversations about timing, with some data support. I will soon be announcing a schedule to allow reserving appointments, for those who would like to discuss individually.

And as always, my PayPal link is open. If my work is helpful and time-saving for you, consider making a contribution to support the work. Thank you!

I-526 processing times: volume and priority (Comment 1 on the “visa availability approach”)

I’m in my car at the terminal, waiting to board the ferry. There are 15 cars waiting.  The ferry can hold 15 cars. The deck hand comes out and tells the cars to reorganize. “We’re not doing first come first up anymore – today we’re boarding day-trippers first.”  I’m puzzled – why this bother? Why are they troubling to rearrange the cars, when in any case there’s room for everyone to board? Are they fussing about priority because they’re reducing the ferry capacity, and preparing to leave some cars behind?

I’m an EB-5 investor today with an I-526 pending. Say there are about 15,000 other I-526 petitions pending now. (There were just 13,763 pending at last report as of 9/30/2019.) We know IPO adjudicated over 15,000 I-526 petitions in FY2018. 15,000/15,000 = 1. Calculating from IPO’s proven capacity for adjudications, all pending I-526 can be processed and to the visa stage in about one year.  Whether the adjudications are in FIFO order, or in order by country, or alphabetical, or totally random, I-526 wait times from today will all be about a year at very most for anyone and everyone in the current backlog (and even shorter for new petitions in an era of low receipts), if IPO does its job and uses its capacity.  In that case, all minority country petitioners will reach the visa stage in time to claim annual visas, regardless of how IPO orders I-526 from China, Vietnam, and India. If IPO has proven capacity to clear the entire current backlog in a year, why does it now announce a new policy for choosing which I-526 get “approved in a more timely fashion to receive consideration for a visa,” going forward? Why not adjudicate everyone in a timely fashion, when that’s a plausible option? Are they fussing about priority because they’ve reduced capacity, and gathering excuses to leave petitions behind?

Today’s press release “USCIS Adjusts Process for Managing EB-5 Visa Petition Inventory” provokes us to focus on the order of I-526 processing, and who should get attention first. But why even accept that discussion before pointing out the more significant factor: volume of processing. Petitioners from traditionally underrepresented countries are not threatened by pending I-526 petitions from China, Vietnam, or India, when there’s room on the I-526 ferry for everyone. The threat is the processing volume trend line. USCIS has not explained how it’s fair to reduce the size of the ferry, and carry fewer and fewer people to the visa stage.

For people from China, Vietnam, and India, a potential perceived benefit from a “visa availability approach” is extended child status protection. (Such a benefit could emerge if USCIS is proposing to not only prioritize not-backlogged countries, but actually to shelve I-526 from backlogged countries until visa availability, be that 1 year or 15 years. regardless of other country demand. The press release isn’t clear on this point.) Some people might welcome an artificial delay for the children. But think about it: how much do frozen children benefit when the petition upon which they depend becomes less and less possible to approve – or indeed, even to adjudicate – as the years pile up? Businesses do not freeze, financial records don’t last forever, USCIS policy continues to evolve, and every year adds to the changes of fact and circumstance that can cause an I-526 to be denied. Such factors may contradict this point: “For many nationals of countries subject to retrogression, the I-526 petition processing time is largely irrelevant unless the primary applicant has a dependent child approaching the age of 21, in which case, this new processing approach can be extremely helpful.” The adjudication time is relevant when it make a significant difference in whether or not the petition will be approved, when it’s finally adjudicated. Not only that, but I-526 approvals bring some protection – they establish priority dates, open the possibility of priority date retention with project change, and offer protection in case of legislative changes. Those benefits are especially important to people facing long visa waits regardless. And furthermore, timely I-526 adjudications judge the petition on its merits at the time of filing, and consistent with its very nature as  preliminary-stage filing. Delayed adjudications effectively create a new stage with new requirements – as we see today from RFEs on delayed petitions that request years of documents not available at the time of filing, and traditionally belonging to the I-829 stage rather than preliminary I-526 stage. Meanwhile, for China, a “visa availability approach” has the further complication that it’s explicitly designed to maximize rest-of-the world demand reaching the visa stage, which directly minimizes visa available to China. And India, with its recent visa bulletin jumps due to “low demand” i.e. few I-526 approvals, exemplifies the complication that delays at USCIS actually skew visa availability.

For pending I-526 petitioners who are not from China, Vietnam and India, let’s consider what would help your processing times. If there are 15,000 pending I-526 now, I estimate there are about 5,000 of you. Consider which adjustment you’d rather have USCIS make:

  1. Address priority: Keep FY19 Q4’s dismal processing volume of 550 adjudications, but prioritize your petitions over the 10,000 from countries that aren’t current. 5,000 minority-country petitions divided by 550 adjudications per quarter equals 9 more quarters to finish processing.
  2. Address volume: No change to priority, but return to FY18 Q4’s processing volume of 4,000 adjudications. 15,000 worldwide petitions divided by 4,000 adjudications per quarter equals less than 4 quarters to finish processing.

The main point of this post: we should be talking about volume, before priority.

And not only that, but what’s this claim about a “visa availability approach” (a term that made its world premier today, according to Google) aligning with “congressional intent” for EB-5 and with “other visa-availability agency adjudications processes.” I’d like chapter and verse on this “Congressional intent” and how the approach has worked out for other Forms pending at USCIS. And additionally…. But even kind bloggers have to sleep sometimes, and keep time for the day job.

For everyone asking me individual timing questions, please be patient. I’ll get a paid service up as soon as I can, to explain as much as I can individually. With both volume and priority up in the air, it’s complicated and time-consuming.

3/13 EB-5 Engagement Invite

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: January 29, 2020 12:21 PM
Subject: EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program: Public Engagement, March 13, 2020

EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program: Public Engagement
Friday, March 13, 2020
11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Eastern

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services invites you to participate in a public engagement meeting on Friday, March 13 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Eastern on 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. USCIS will address program updates, including the agency’s change from a first-in, first-out case-processing approach to a visa availability approach for Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Investor. You will have an opportunity to ask questions during the engagement.

Participation Details:
You may attend this engagement either in person at USCIS, 111 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., or by teleconference. [UPDATE: now by teleconference only.]

If you wish to attend in person, please email us at public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov. Seating is limited, so we encourage you to email early to request in person registration. Once we process your registration, you will receive a confirmation email with additional details.

To submit non-case-specific questions as agenda items before the engagement, email us at public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov by 5 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

To join the event via teleconference:
Call in Toll Free number: (888) 946-7792
Toll number for international callers: (517) 308-9375
Participant Passcode: 3996336

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

To request a disability accommodation:
Email public.engagement@uscis.dhs.gov, and put “EB-5 Engagement” in the subject line.

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!

USCIS Adjusts Process for Managing EB-5 Visa Petition Inventory

USCIS has officially announced an I-526 priority change I saw coming. People from China, Vietnam, and India with pending I-526: you need to organize to inform IPO how you feel about this. I plan to write about an aspect I doubt IPO recognizes: how USCIS adjudication order can create and skew EB-5 visa availability, with particular reference to the examples of China and India. I also have to go back and revise the new I-526 timing estimate service that I’d been almost ready to post.

From: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services <uscis@public.govdelivery.com>
Sent: January 29, 2020 8:33 AM
Subject: USCIS Adjusts Process for Managing EB-5 Visa Petition Inventory

Change Addresses Fairness Issues in Visa Allocation

WASHINGTON— U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services today announced a process change for Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Investor, from a first-in, first-out basis to a visa availability approach.

This new operational approach aligns with other visa-availability agency adjudications processes, is more consistent with congressional intent for the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, and increases fairness in the administration of the program.

“Changing our approach from a first-in, first-out adjudication process to one that prioritizes petitions connected to individuals from countries where visas are currently available better aligns the EB-5 program with congressional intent and makes it more consistent with other USCIS operations,” said USCIS Deputy Director Mark Koumans. “This new approach increases fairness, allowing qualified EB-5 petitioners from traditionally underrepresented countries to have their petitions approved in a more timely fashion to receive consideration for a visa.”

This operational change is consistent with the agency’s processing of Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, in cap-subject categories. The new visa availability approach simply gives priority to petitions where visas are immediately available, or soon available, and will not create legally binding rights or change substantive requirements. Applicants from countries where visas are immediately available will now be better able to use their annual per-country allocation of EB-5 visas. The new visa availability approach will apply to petitions pending as of the effective date of the change. USCIS will implement the visa availability approach on March 31, 2020.

USCIS will hold a public engagement on March 13, 2020, from 11:00 a.m. to noon Eastern, to provide information and answer questions from the public about these operational changes to the management of Form I-526 petition inventory.

10/29 Kendall remarks for IIUSA

The USCIS website has published Immigrant Investor Program Office 2019 IIUSA EB-5 Industry Forum Sarah M. Kendall Remarks October 29, 2019. (I also recorded the remarks, but my recording adds nothing of significance. Kendall followed the script.)  This post highlights what I did and did not learn from Kendall’s remarks.

I-924A Tips

Kendall helpfully offered specific tips for avoiding questions on the Form I-924A Annual Report:

  • Avoid inconsistencies with information previously provided to USCIS (and when something is different, explain)
  • Remember to provide government-issued photo ID for all regional center principals, as required
  • Remember that changes to a Regional Center’s name, ownership, organizational structure, principals, and geographic area must be reported separately with a Form I-924 amendment; RCs cannot simply notify USCIS of such changes on an I-924A.

Processing Times

Sarah Kendall mentioned three factors behind low production and high processing times in 2019: the lapse in regional center program authorization from 12/22 to 1/25 that disrupted processes, a training session for I-526 adjudicators and economists, and a greater focus on program integrity. The first two factors each cost a few isolated weeks of adjudicative time, so presumably the third factor is the major reason for a massive 60% drop in production. “In 2019, IPO focused on enhancing the integrity of the program and working to find ways to protect the program from abusive actors. This has meant greater coordination with agencies in the law enforcement community and with other partners, including at the Securities and Exchange Commission. …We have also invested in building more robust quality assurance and control programs to ensure consistent adjudication practices. …All of this has some impact on processing times.” Kendall referenced “understandable concern in the community” regarding processing times, but did not otherwise apologize for low production or foresee improvement.  And why would she, if the processing slowdown resulted from an enforcement focus that she does not regret? “We have a dedicated and hard-working staff who continue to handle this complex caseload with diligence and integrity. …IPO has made structural changes to ensure continued program integrity. …we continue to place importance on continually assessing and improving of the EB-5 program’s integrity. … Safeguarding the integrity of the EB-5 program is of paramount importance to USCIS and to the public. We seek to effectively administer the program and guard against abuse.” Kendall concluded by stating that “the expectations we have for ourselves are to run this program with efficiency and with integrity.” But the efficiency expectation does not appear anywhere else in her remarks. Nor does Kendall indicate any awareness that efficiency is also an integrity issue. She may not realize that USCIS’s posted 2-5 year processing times serve to attract abusive actors, promising time for fraud to flourish, while discouraging responsible actors who want their projects and investors to succeed.

Other notes

Otherwise, Kendall’s remarks largely follow the principle expressed by that exemplary civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby: “So long as there is anything to be gained by saying nothing, it is always better to say nothing than anything.”

  • TEA determinations: Kendall restated what’s stated in the regulations, without adding clarification or interpretation.
  • Partial investment before November 21: Kendall restated existing policy related the “actively in the process of investing” option, and reiterated the regulation provision that petitions are subject to the rules effective as of the date they were filed. Her comments did not break any ground on this topic, as discussed in my previous post.
  • Redeployment: Kendall briefly referenced existing guidance in the Policy Manual, and stated that IPO still continues to work on clarifications (with public input still welcome).
  • Protection for innocent investors: Kendall generally summarized policy that constrains the flexibility USCIS is able to offer innocent investors when a regional center or project encounters problems.
  • Regional Center oversight: Kendall argued that requirement for regional centers to engage in monitoring and oversight is not new.
  • Premium processing: As always, USCIS is not considering a premium processing option for I-526.

 

Conference Rumors (partial investment, visa wait times)

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

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

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

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

Insights from AAO Decisions (debt arrangements, currency swap, diverted capital, regional center activity, project progress)

So far in 2019, the Administrative Appeals Office has published 80 decisions on I-526 appeals and motions, and 16 decisions on I-924 appeals. As someone who prepares documents for USCIS review, I read the AAO decisions to keep up with current adjudication trends and unspoken policy. This post highlights a few EB-5 cases of particular interest.

Debt Arrangements

In MAY302019_01B7203 and MAY302019_02B7203, the AAO reopened previously dismissed appeals and approved the I-526 petitions based on the USCIS Policy Manual October 2018 correction regarding redemption agreements. I wonder if this offers hope for other I-526 that were denied in 2017 and 2018 due to suspected debt arrangements that USCIS has since clarified are acceptable.

Currency Swaps and SOF Investigations

A number of recent appeals focus on the recently-controversial issue of currency swaps. In a currency swap, the EB-5 investor sends local currency to the local account of an intermediary, and the intermediary then wires an equivalent amount in US dollars to the investor’s offshore account.  In late 2016/early 2017 USCIS started questioning this previously-accepted practice, and began requesting source-of-funds documenation for the intermediary (as discussed for example by Hermansky and Klasko). Lawyers questioned USCIS’s reasoning, and embattled cases are now reaching the AAO decision stage. JUL052019_01B7203 is particularly interesting, because AAO sustained the appeal. “Here, the Chief has not questioned the validity of the agreement with ___ nor identified discrepancies or irregularities in the record…. Without any identified negative considerations, we find the evidence in the record sufficient to establish, by a preponderance, that the funds transferred to ___ originated with ___’s lawful business activity, and relatedly, that the Petitioner had invested the minimum amount of required capital.” In the following cases, however, AAO agreed with USCIS that source and path of funds were not sufficiently documented in currency swap scenarios: OCT252019_01B7203, OCT172019_02B7203, OCT152019_01B7203, OCT112019_02B7203, OCT012019_02B7203, SEP192019_01B7203, AUG302019_02B7203. These cases were denied for lack of evidence that the intermediary was legally able to make the exchange, lack of evidence that the intermediary used lawful funds to make the exchange, and timing problems. Distaste over an arrangement “designed to circumvent local banking regulations” also appears to be a factor.

AUG302019_01B7203 is another rather interesting source of funds case, being a denial based on information that emerged when “In October 2017, USCIS officials conducted an overseas investigation during which they interviewed the Petitioner and others regarding the source of funds used in his investment.”

Recovering from Fraud

In the wake of SEC activity to weed bad actors out of EB-5, we’re left with the question of whether viable projects, innocent investors, and any good partners/successors of the bad actors can possibly recover and get back on track after a fraud incident.

OCT172019_01B7203 Matter of W-Z- tests the question of whether a petitioner can, after I-526 filing, make additional investment to replace diverted capital. The petitioner had invested $500,000 in the NCE, but $185,000 of that amount never made it to the project thanks to a rogue principal. With that principal out of the way, the petitioner offers to replace the diverted capital with another $185,000, so that the project has the full amount of investment and can proceed with job creation. But AAO says no, because “the foreign investor must show that his or her investment of at least $500,000, in its entirety, has been made available, without interruption, to the NCE for job creation.” The operative words in this statement are “without interruption.” AAO says that this statement rephrases this Matter of Izummi/policy requirement: “the full amount of funds made available to the businesses most closely responsible for creating the employment upon which the petition is based.”  But that doesn’t look like a simple restatement to me. Is “without interruption” really intrinsic to the Matter of Izummi analysis? The AAO indicates that for the petitioner’s additional $185,000 investment to qualify, he would have to establish that he had invested or was actively in the process of investing that additional amount before he filed I-526. “The replacement of EB-5 capital with other funds does not equate to a return of the original capital attributed to the investor, even if both originate from the same source. His intention to replace the diverted funds, thus, does not establish that $500,000 of his capital has been made available since 2015, without interruption, to the NCE for job creation purposes.” Does the EB-5 “at-risk” requirement actually justify this hard “without interruption” line?  The decision goes on to give additional reasons for denial, but speaks against supplementary investment as if it’s wrong in principle, regardless of other circumstances.

SEP252019_01K1610 Matter of V-A-O-C-A-C-D-R-C- tests the question of whether a regional center with the most reputable of operators (State of Vermont) can recover from the bad actions of previous partners. The state fought hard, on behalf of past investors and on-going projects, to keep designation at least long enough to complete current EB-5 projects and implement an orderly wind-down of operations. But AAO dismisses the appeal of Vermont Regional Center’s termination. Ironically, the determinative reason seems to be the state’s responsible intent to not sponsor any new EB-5 projects. The unspoken rule seems to be, new I-526 filings = promoting economic growth, while no new I-526 filings = no longer continuing to promote economic growth.

Regional Center Activity

USCIS claims that “When determining whether a regional center continues to promote economic growth, we consider the totality of the circumstances, weighing positive and negative factors to reach a conclusion.”

However, as pointed out in one of this year’s termination appeals, it appears that in fact “USCIS has, sua sponte, determined that the only acceptable evidence of promotion of economic growth is the filing of Form I-526 petitions by investors in projects affiliated with a regional center within three years of receiving its designation.” This is evident from my log regional center terminations, which shows that 103 regional centers have been terminated so far for not having had any I-526 filings during a period of time (the metric varies by decision – most often three years, sometimes two, four, or five years). The appeal MAR152019_01K1610 pointed out that “this temporal requirement does not appear in any statute, regulation, or USCIS policy guidance,” which makes it a bit unfair, and that “the statute and regulations related to termination of a regional center’s designation are impermissibly vague.” But the AAO spends no time on this procedural issue, merely saying that the Applicant didn’t make a constitutional point, and if he had, constitutional points are outside AAO jurisdiction.

Instead, the AAO decisions on termination appeals tend to follow this shape: (1) review the applicant’s evidence of activity in developing projects and promoting investment opportunities, and (2) conclude yes, that’s positive activity, but there haven’t been any recent I-526 filings for this regional center.  No investor petitions means no data on EB-5 investment resulting in increased export sales, improved regional productivity, job creation, increased domestic capital investment, or other positive indicia of promotion of economic growth. The regional center is not promoting economic growth in the only way we can measure – I-526 filings – and therefore must be terminated. It starts to feel petty and hyper technical. In AUG302019_01K1610, A-G-C-R-C got terminated (1) because the I-924A filing fee amount was written on the check as “three thousand three hundred thirty five,” not “three thousand thirty five” (and USCIS was not able to accept a check with the corrected lower amount because it post-dated the filing deadline), and (2) because no I-526 had yet been filed within 21 months of the regional center’s designation. A-G-R-C applied to be a regional center in 2014 and didn’t get approved until 2016. USCIS didn’t even give the RC as much time to secure investors as it gave itself to review the application.

Many of the termination appeals in 2019 include this language: “The evidence discussed above demonstrates the Applicant’s pursuit of new projects, an action which in and of itself serves as a positive factor in determining whether the regional center continues to promote economic growth. However, it does not show that these actions resulted in increased export sales, improved regional productivity, job creation, increased domestic capital investment, or other positive indicia of promotion of economic growth.” How to make such a showing remains a challenge for regional centers that are now preparing Form I-924A, and need more time to secure investment. If USCIS doesn’t manage more nuance, its blind three-year metric will end up eliminating all the regional centers that Congress actually wants in EB-5 – the ones in rural/distressed/low-profile areas that will inevitably have relatively low volumes and long lead times. (For additional discussion, see my 2018 post on Preparing to File I-924A.)

Project Delays

Many I-526 decisions in 2018 and 2019 are associated with just a couple regional center projects with many investors who each filed all possible appeals and motions. The Arizona international trading mall case and the cellulose-to-sugar conversion factory case have a simple moral: when a project does not move forward according to plan, instead suffering multi-year delays, it’s tough to demonstrate that the plan was/is reasonable.  AAO dismissed all the appeals, denied all the motions to reopen and reconsider, and went further to revoke I-526 approvals that had been made before  project delays became apparent. I feel sorry for the investors, and envious of the lawyers who earned fees from this blizzard of repetitive AAO activity. (I’m not including links to all the cases, but open a few entries at random in the 2018 or 2019 folders of I-526 decisions, and you’ll encounter them.)

Other decisions

Other decisions that may be of interest to people who follow these topics: JUN062019_02B7203 (bridge financing problem considering the length of the bridge), SEP232019_01K1610 (remands an Exemplar project denial based on USCIS’s unreasoned claims of unreasonableness), JUL222019_01K1610 (makes an issue about source of funds for a regional center applicant), MAR152019_01B7203 (discusses material change specifically as an issue of rectifying a deficiency in the original petition).

9/9 EB-5 Stakeholder Non-Engagement

In today’s EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program Listening Session:

  • IPO Chief Sarah Kendall made a statement that sounded promising in outline (IPO Overview, IPO updates, and comments on implementation of the proposed rule) but that proved insubstantial and unhelpful in fact. The statement was in very general terms, with no specific answers to the specific questions that I at least submitted in advance. Even the single data point — that IPO has 212 dedicated staff as of July 2019 — was unhelpful as Kendall never specified whether these staff are actually working on EB-5, or among those on “temporary assignment to other agency priorities.” The statement then wasted time by regurgitating what’s written in the regulation without telling us anything specific about how IPO interprets or plans to implement the regulation. This ungenerous statement will eventually get posted online. (UPDATE: here it is.)
  • Stakeholders, having been invited before the call to submit written questions that USCIS chose not to answer, were then further invited to press *1 and ask questions live for USCIS to not answer. I do not understand what this was supposed to accomplish. Why have a call at all, if it’s to be like this? The only reason to have a live engagement, instead of just soliciting email input, is if there’s going to be any engagement. There was zero engagement in this call.

USCIS said so little that I must resort to analyzing what was not said. If USCIS had any hope of turning around the catastrophically long and continually worsening processing times, which must have occupied at least half the advance questions, wouldn’t they have expressed such hope or at least intent? If USCIS knew how they would implement the priority date retention and TEA designation process in the new regs (likely the other half of advance questions) wouldn’t they have said something helpful on these topics? But the call offered no such support or encouragement.

Here is my recording of the call. I do not recommend it.