Trou­bled visa plan pushed to Trump’s desk

Con­gress punts pol­icy linked to ter­ror fears

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID SHERFINSKI

When the lame-duck Con­gress stum­bled out of town ear­lier this month, law­mak­ers blew through yet an­other self-im­posed dead­line for clean­ing up a con­tro­ver­sial visa pro­gram that crit­ics say could even be­come a path­way for ter­ror­ists into the U.S. — drop­ping the prob­lem in the lap of Pres­i­den­t­elect Trump and a newly elected House and Se­nate to fix next year.

Crit­ics say the EB-5 pro­gram, dubbed a “Golden visa” by im­mi­gra­tion lawyers be­cause it pro­vides an ex­pe­dited path for wealthy for­eign in­vestors to gain ad­mis­sion to the U.S., has been rife with wide­spread fraud and po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, in­clud­ing a scan­dal that touched the high­est lev­els of the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity.

Yet Con­gress just re­newed the EB-5 visa, with­out any re­forms, for an­other four-and-a-half months as part of the year-end stop­gap spend­ing bill.

“Af­ter an­other year, we have yet an­other missed op­por­tu­nity,” said Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, the lead of a group of law­mak­ers who say the pro­gram needed an over­haul or else should be al­lowed to lapse.

“The EB-5 re­gional cen­ter pro­gram has been plagued by fraud and abuse,” he said. “It poses sig­nif­i­cant na­tional se­cu­rity risks. There are se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions that the pro­gram may be fa­cil­i­tat­ing ter­ror­ist travel, eco­nomic es­pi­onage, money laun­der­ing and in­vest­ment fraud.”

The pro­gram, first de­vised dur­ing the Ge­orge H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, re­wards for­eign in­vestors with a path to cit­i­zen­ship if they put money into a job-cre­at­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment project. Nor­mal projects re­quire at least a $1 mil­lion in­vest­ment, but they can get a dis­count $500,000 price if they in­vest in eco­nom­i­cally strug­gling ar­eas.

The pro­gram has soared in pop­u­lar­ity, with ap­pli­ca­tions nearly tripling be­tween 2013 and 2015. But all the new at­ten­tion has also ex­posed what crit­ics say are deep flaws in the pro­gram’s de­sign, evolv­ing into lit­tle more than a path­way for rich for­eign­ers to buy U.S. cit­i­zen­ship.

A ma­jor scan­dal has erupted in Ver­mont, where fed­eral reg­u­la­tors charged that one EB-5 in­vest­ment cen­ter was scam­ming its in­vestors, di­vert­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars as part of a Ponzi scheme.

Ale­jan­dro May­orkas, the for­mer head of U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices (USCIS), the agency that ran the EB-5 visa pro­gram, also came un­der fire in re­cent years when an in­spec­tor gen­eral found that he en­gaged in “un­prece­dented” in­ter­ven­tion to help get EB-5 ap­provals in cases in­volv­ing po­lit­i­cally con­nected Democrats. Among the fig­ures were out­go­ing Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Harry Reid and Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

A Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port re­leased in Septem­ber said the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity has taken steps to ad­dress po­ten­tial fraud risks but that prob­lems re­main.

Trump’s stance

The con­flu­ence of is­sues in the visa con­tro­versy — im­mi­gra­tion, al­leged in­flu­ence-ped­dling and the no­tion of the wealthy or po­lit­i­cally con­nected get­ting fa­vor­able treat­ment — would seem­ingly fit in with Mr. Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” when he takes of­fice in Jan­uary.

But the pres­i­dent-elect’s tran­si­tion team didn’t re­spond to ques­tions about Mr. Trump’s po­si­tion on the pro­gram, and some ad­vo­cates even pre­dict the in­vest­ment pro­gram will thrive in a Trump pres­i­dency.

“His strong stance [is] against il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion,” for­mer New York Gov. Ge­orge Pataki, a for­mer 2016 GOP ri­val of Mr. Trump said at a re­cent panel in Shang­hai hosted by The Real Deal, a New York real es­tate pub­li­ca­tion. “And EB-5 is a le­gal im­mi­gra­tion pro­gram. He un­der­stands the need for cap­i­tal, the need for in­vest­ment.”

Charles Gargano, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion Fund, also pre­dicted the in­vestor visa pro­gram may have a bright fu­ture given Mr. Trump’s own back­ground as an in­vestor and real es­tate mag­nate.

“Un­der Pres­i­dent-elect Trump, a de­vel­oper him­self, he will mag­nify the need for a pro­gram like this,” he said at the event, ac­cord­ing to the pub­li­ca­tion.

Mr. Trump him­self has some tan­gen­tial con­nec­tions to the pro­gram. The fam­ily of Jared Kush­ner, his son-in-law who emerged as a top ad­viser dur­ing the cam­paign, is in charge of a Jer­sey City com­plex that uses Mr. Trump’s name and re­port­edly lever­aged $50 mil­lion in EB-5 money as part of its fi­nanc­ing.

De­spite bi­par­ti­san agree­ment that there should be changes to the pro­gram, a phas­ing out or a dras­tic over­haul isn’t likely un­der a new ad­min­is­tra­tion and with a new Con­gress, said David North, a fel­low at the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies.

“I hope that it comes to a com­mit­tee hear­ing or a floor vote, and then maybe we’ll see a dif­fer­ent dis­po­si­tion,” he said.

“I don’t think the pro­gram’s go­ing to get killed,” he said, while adding that it could be “use­fully reformed.”

Mr. North said the guide­lines of the pro­gram are so out of whack that he man­aged to draw a the­o­ret­i­cal land tract around the White House that could qual­ify for funds, chal­leng­ing the no­tion that the pro­gram cre­ates jobs and de­vel­op­ment in low­in­come or eco­nom­i­cally dis­tressed ar­eas.

Ad­vo­cates for the pro­gram, how­ever, say that at least $11 bil­lion in com­mu­nity in­vest­ment and more than 220,000 Amer­i­can jobs would dis­ap­pear if the EB-5 visa sim­ply ended.

“We’re work­ing for im­por­tant re­forms that im­prove rig­or­ous vet­ting of projects and in­vestors, so that the pro­gram can con­tinue in­vest­ing in com­mu­ni­ties and pro­vid­ing qual­ity Amer­i­can jobs,” said Peter D. Joseph, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of In­vest in the USA (IIUSA), an EB-5 trade group.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Chuck Grass­ley said the EB-5 re­gional cen­ter visa pro­gram has been “plagued by fraud and abuse.”

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