EB-5 Reform, Immigration Reform

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Today, IIUSA and others published a letter to the Senate and House Judiciary Committees laying out “consensus reform concepts” recommended for new EB-5 legislation. I’m heartened to see effort toward reform and reauthorization, and saddened by the letter’s content. Ideally, a consensus will appear to balance the interests of a variety of groups. I don’t see that here. Two recommendations particularly deserve input from a broader base of stakeholders:

  • Recommended investment amounts. The letter proposes $800,000 minimum for investment in a TEA, and $900,000 for investment outside a TEA – replacing the current 50% discount with a 12% discount. Competitive advantage requires that a feature be both rare and valuable. The letter offers a concession that TEAs can be more strictly defined so as to make them more rare than now, but then redefines the incentive to make TEA designation less valuable. The net result is clear for projects located in genuinely distressed areas that struggle to complete against prosperous urban areas. (I don’t see expedited processing being an effective additional incentive, considering USCIS’s likely inability to deliver such benefit, or visa set asides for reasons discussed below.) The recommended investment amounts don’t look like an attempt to compromise with interests outside big cities, and also don’t look like a compromise with reform advocates. How likely is Congress to accept a proposal that not only hardly increases but would actually lower the standard EB-5 investment amount set back in 1990? The recommended investment amounts have the advantage that they’re feasible and wouldn’t destroy the market, but are too-obviously the status quo. Where’s the attempt to sell the recommendations to people who want to be seen voting for modernization and reform?
  • Recommended visa set-asides. This is framed as an additional TEA incentive, but I am doubtful. The letter recommends setting aside 30% of visas annually for TEA investments, with the set-asides applying immediately to new I-526 filed after enactment, and not allowed to apply to petitions pending on the date of enactment. I foresee that this will act as a TEA incentive only for a short time, until the set-aside categories build up backlogs of their own. However, set-asides would allow raising new capital by taking visas from backlogged investors and offering them to new investors. The tens of thousands of people already in line for a visa would see the pool of visas available to them reduced by 30%, for the sake of having 30% of visas set aside in a special category only open to future investors. Thanks to the additional action of per-country caps, the set-asides could theoretically reduce visas available to past investors from India and Vietnam to zero (if promoters exploit the opportunity to offer all 700 annual visas available to India/Vietnam to new investors under the set-asides). I want the EB-5 program to remain viable as much as anyone, but I don’t see how this visa set-aside proposal can possibly be an honorable option, considering the size and nature of the EB-5 backlog. To be fair, the letter also recommends visa relief. It suggests eliminating derivatives from the visa allocation, and suggests giving pending applicants the opportunity to pay $50,000 each to “re-set the program,” whatever that may mean. But since Congress has entertained the visa set-aside idea in recent years, and hasn’t expressed remote willingness to increase visa numbers in any way, one struggles to see good faith to past investors in the recommendations. Impossible benefits do little to counterbalance possible harm. And there ought to be obvious good faith to past investors, considering that the associations signing the letter represent members that benefited from over $10 billion in past EB-5 investment. (My post TEA set-aside proposal gives additional analysis.)

It may be pointless to get upset, considering the low likelihood that Congress will heed these recommendations or act on EB-5 any time soon. But why can’t we, as an industry, do better than this letter? If you’re represented by an organization that signed this letter, and you do not agree with the so-called consensus, make your voice heard in the on-going discussion.

Speaking of immigration proposals likely to be ignored, President Trump gave a speech yesterday to outline an immigration plan. In 2016 , I wrote about candidate Trump’s vision “to choose immigrants based on merit, skill and proficiency,” and cribbed a chart from the New York Times that pictures visa allocation under our current system.

Yesterday’s speech enlarged on a “big, bold, beautiful” plan to reorient our immigration system so that it issues fewer visas based on “random” characteristics such as family relationship and humanitarian concerns, and more based on personal qualities, particularly economic position and potential. The plan sounds similar to the points-based system promoted by Senator Tom Cotton in the RAISE Act , though details have yet to be released.

One sentence from the President’s speech struck me particularly: “America’s immigration system should bring in people who will expand opportunity for striving, low-income Americans, not to compete with those low-income Americans.”

This sentiment could get some bi-partisan support, if anything received bi-partisan support anymore. And certainly, the EB-5 program deserves credit for already realizing this value. EB-5 can use the immigration incentive to expand opportunity in two ways: by creating jobs that are within reach of striving low-income Americans, and by providing capital for striving Americans who might otherwise not have been able to implement their business ideas. How many small towns across the US now have their first flagged hotels thanks to local entrepreneurs matching with EB-5 investors to make the dream happen? How many local restaurant chains were able to expand their portfolios thanks to partnership with EB-5 investors? Such ventures don’t make the news, but I see them as a business plan writer working with small EB-5 projects. They highlight an important feature of the EB-5 program: that it doesn’t only reward immigrants establishing their own businesses, but immigrants who support US citizen-owned businesses. I hope that any immigration reform debate will keep that EB-5 value in mind. Tom Cotton’s proposal, for example, though intending to reward economic contribution, would only have granted points for an immigrant’s investment in his or her own business.

Apparently the the administration’s plan has few friends and unlikely to go anywhere. But I’m interested as a citizen. What kind of immigration system would really accomplish a “Build America” goal? Here in Ogden Utah we just celebrated the sesquicentennial of a major nation-building milestone: the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. In his speech at the centennial celebration, then-transportation secretary John Volpe proudly asked “Who else but Americans could drill 10 tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? Who else but Americans could drill through miles of solid granite? Who else but Americans could have laid 10 miles of track in 12 hours?” As it happens, Americans did none of those things . There’s a railroad through the Sierra Nevadas thanks to Chinese workers. What would have happened to America’s economic development without the incredible stamina and skill of those migrants from China, few of whom would’ve scored points in Tom Cotton’s system? Would Leland Stanford just have become less rich, having had to pay a naturalized workforce at least 30% more? Or is there a broader lesson about what builds America?

This post originally appeared on Lucid Professional Writing. Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Suzanne Lazicki is a business writer and EB-5 expert. She provides business plans and market reports through her firm Lucid Professional Writing, and is the author of blog.lucidtext.com. She can be reached at suzanne@lucidtext.com.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.