By Andrew Rafferty, Staff Writer, NBC News
April 29, 2013, 7:36 am
While most U.S. residents cannot put a price tag on the value of citizenship, Svetlana Anikeeva and her husband can — $500,000.
That’s because the Russian immigrants came to the U.S. through the EB-5 visa program, a federal initiative that allows foreigners to earn a green card granting them permanent residency – and a path to citizenship – in return for investing at least $500,000 in an American business and creating at least 10 jobs.
For Anikeeva, she knew after spending her junior year of high school in Savannah, Ga., that she wanted to one day call America home.
The student’s return to the United States was not immediate or certain. She went home to Vladivostok, attended college, then spent seven years in Japan with her husband and daughter, helping run the family’s luxury automobile export business.
But as their daughter grew, Anikeeva and her husband decided they wanted her to have the advantages that come with an American education. And they were willing to pay to make it happen.
“It was most of everything we had at the moment,” Anikeeva said of the money.
It was a calculated risk, but one that Anikeeva felt would give her daughter the best shot at an education in the United States. In 2009, Anikeeva sent her application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and, after it was approved, invested in an office and retail space in downtown Seattle. Now, she’s waiting by her mailbox in Redmond, Wash., for what she hopes will be a permanent green card.
“My American friends, they don’t realize that the simple fact they were born here is worth $500,000,” she said.
For reasonably deep-pocketed immigrants like Anikeeva, the program is a win-win. It allows investors and their direct family to earn permanent green card status while pumping money into the American economy. The program, which began in 1990, has been growing in recent years, with some in the U.S. business community using it to fund projects in the midst of a slow economic recovery.
Since the financial collapse of 2008, the number of applications for EB-5 visas has risen dramatically. During fiscal 2007, just 776 foreign investors applied for visas, a number that ballooned to 6,040 last year. This year could be the first time it reaches the 10,000 visa cap.
Citizenship is the driver
Over the past seven years, foreign investors who have applied have had a good record of being approved, with around 80 percent getting into the EB-5 program, according U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics. More than 85 percent of those investors were ultimately granted permanent green cards.
Foreign investors who participate in the program nearly all do so for the chance at citizenship, not profit, according to Miami-based immigration lawyer David Hart. “Generally speaking, they are not looking to make a substantial return. What they are interested in obviously in getting their green card then trying to ensure that the jobs will be created so that their green card is maintained,” he said.
The easiest and most common way for most foreign investors to go about the process is through a regional center. There are currently 287 throughout the U.S., all staffed by immigration lawyers who help clients navigate paperwork and find projects that will ultimately allowthem to stay in the U.S. for as long as they want. They help USCIS verify that jobs have in fact been created. Those jobs can range from waiters working in a new restaurant built with EB-5 money to construction workers building a new retail space.
Regional centers also help investors in what can be the most difficult part of the process – verifying and vetting where the funds are coming from. The government spends a huge amount of time verifying that the funds were not obtained illegally or sourced back to an entity deemed hostile to the United States.
Once an application is approved, investors are granted a two-year conditional visa while their project gets underway. If all works out, a permanent green card is issued and investors are free to live anywhere in the United States.
Many regional centers sprung up after the economic collapse of 2008. Immigration experts like Hart, who has been an immigration lawyer for more than 20 years, saw the program as an opportunity. In March 2009, he gained approval to start the South Florida Investment Regional Center, which is working to renovate the Astor Hotel in Miami Beach using EB-5 funding from 16 would-be immigrants.
“Around that time the economy was going south, so to speak, and banks weren’t lending money. And so EB-5 is a source of cheap capital. … With my background in immigration law, I recognized that opportunity existed,” he said.
Many of the projects are centered on service industries, like hotels and restaurants, that have the potential to create plenty of jobs quickly.
But investors, lawyers and business owners point to the slow pace with which investments are approved by Immigration Services as one of the program’s biggest downfalls. Some foreigners originally interested in coming to the United States turn to other countries with similar programs that move faster, they say. And with the program’s popularity growing, the delays are only getting worse.
Hart also contends the government can be inconsistent on what does or does not get approved. He says he has experienced the USCIS originally approving a project, only to change its guidelines after the investment is under way.
“That lack of predictability makes it very difficult for any business to really get off the ground,” he said.
The program also frustrates some who administer it. Jim Ziglar, who headed USCIS under President George W. Bush, said the program was not popular among those in immigration services because of the perception that it was a way for some people to pay their way to the front of the line.
“There is a certain crassness in the American mind that somebody, if they happen to have $500,000, they can buy their way into the U.S.,” he said.
Ziglar recognizes some of the merits of the program, but hopes to see the $500,000 minimum raised to increase the economic impact. That number has not changed since the program’s inception in the early 1990s.
Anikeeva has no patience for those who see the EB-5 program as un-American, allowing foreigners to buy their way into the country. She says the work her family did to raise the funds and go through the investment process was just as difficult as any other pathway to the United States.
That’s why she’s waiting by her mailbox in Washington, hoping for word that her temporary green card has been made permanent.
If all goes well from there, she plans to begin the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. “I think the wedding day is supposed to be the happiest day of one’s life? I think the day of my citizenship will be the happiest day of my life,” she said.