The American dream, for sale

Thousands of hard-working immigrants are getting deported every month. But unregulated private companies are offering a deal: for $500,000, you can get a green card.


For Mao Huajun and Wen Lin, a trip to San Francisco is a chance to stock up on American retail. With at least five bags in each arm, the couple from China is all smiles. Through an interpreter, they point to the tags on their new clothes and cologne and explain: "Made in China."

Consumer products devised here and made there are too expensive or not available for Chinese shoppers, so Mao and Wen, who come from Wenzhou, where Mao made a fortune in wood products and real estate, are taking full advantage of their trip.

But don't confuse them with typical tourists. The two are on a boutique pre-immigration tour of the Bay Area, tailored for rich people who want to move to this country — without the typical problem of getting documents.

An anti-immigration wave is sweeping across the country. The Obama administration has overseen the deportation of a record 390,000 people in the past year. College kids who came here as young children are finding they can't stay and work. The much-anticipated DREAM Act, which would allow college graduates a chance at citizenship, is in a Republican-induced limbo. Poor and working-class immigrants are getting kicked out of the country every day.

But private companies are going overseas and recruiting investors with the promise of a little-known federal program: For half a million bucks, you can get yourself a green card.

If you've got the cash, the promoters say it's easy. Invest that sum with a broker who's doing some sort of development in a low-income area and you're guaranteed the right to move to the United States, immediately, with your entire family. You can live anywhere you want (not just in the area where you invested). And you're on track to become a U.S. citizen.

But the program, known by its federal moniker of EB-5, is riddled with loopholes and lack of oversight. It has a history of creating few or no jobs, and the projects it funds can harm low-income communities. The immigrant investors aren't safe, either. They put their fate in the hands of brokers and immigration officials, and if everything doesn't go according to plan (and sometimes they have no control over that plan), they lose their money and face deportation — sometimes years after settling into their new lives.

In truth, the real winners in this program are the private brokers who profit by connecting immigrant investors with projects that desperately need funding.

San Francisco has been late to enter the EB-5 game — but now long-time political figures, including former Redevelopment Commissioner Benny Yee, are getting in on the action. Oakland has several EB-5 centers looking for money.


The federal government has long offered employment-based visas that allow people with exceptional skills or who are otherwise valuable to the American economy to immigrate to the U.S. But EB-5, created in 1990, is different: it places value on immigrants based on their wallets, not on their brains.

When Congress debated the creation of EB-5, politicians and members of the public saw it as a bona fide way to create citizenship opportunities. The rationale: people who create jobs with their money deserve to live here.

Federal officials and EB-5 experts told us how it works, at least in theory. To gain initial residence visas for themselves and their families, would-be immigrants have to invest $1 million in a new business or an existing and struggling one. If the business is in a Targeted Employment Area — defined by law as "a rural area or an area that has experienced high unemployment of at least 150 percent of the national average" — the investment requirement drops to $500,000.

The EB-5 applicants can invest on their own or they through a broker, known as a regional center.


This ("rich peoples green card") has been around for a long time. It used to be that you had to invest $1M to qualify; but that has been reduced to $500K for "distressed areas". Why shouldn't the rich get a Groupon deal on immigration? Don't you know that the rich run the world, and we just play, I mean, slave, in it?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 7:57 am

Every nation has a program like this. In some countries, just five or ten thousand dollars will get you citizenship, and even with any name you want!

I can't believe that any so-called professional journalist isn't aware these types of inducements aren't ubiquitous.

Posted by Wally on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 8:20 am

It's been around a while, but now it's really starting to boom, esp in the Bay Area -- and it's ironic, is it not, that this happens at a time when the US is deportng record numbers of people who also contribute -- and quite possibly contribute more -- to the economy?

Posted by tim on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

You mean maybe we want immigrants who contribute more to the economy?

It's always been that way. H visa's and Green Cards have always been issued to those with favored and specialized skills that are needed here. Of course. Again, every nation does that.

Only the SFBG would prefer minimum wage illegals to successful professionals.

Posted by Wally on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

H1-B visas are intended to drive down tech wages and have done so very well while making it more difficult for American techs to compete for work against those whose alternative is returning to subcontinental poverty.

Lowering wages are not how we get to a progressive society.


Posted by marcos on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

they are already too high by standards of international competitiveness.

If American workers are paid too much, and it seems they are, then that differential will be arbitraged away either by:

1) Inbound immigration
2) Outsourcing
3) Devaluation of the US dollar

Most likely, all three at the same time, until we reach parity.

The invisible hand trumps social engineering every time.

Posted by Wally on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

Government protectionism is the traditional way that a popular government puts its citizens first. Everything else is just speculative theory that has run the economy off the cliff in a way that makes the 1970s look like the 1950's.

Please, you all need to put this before the voters under the banner "Sweatshop jobs for all!"


Posted by marcos on Mar. 03, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

As noted this is:

A. Not new
B. Hardly unique to the US

Immigration shouldn't be "first come first served." It should be based on a lot of different factors including possessing a desirable skill set and education. And yes, the ability to sustain oneself and invest in needed areas of the US economy should also be a factor in certain cases.

And FYI: having $500,000 to invest may be the product of a lifetime of work for someone. It doesn't make them "rich."

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

I spent a couple of years debating the immigration issue on various blogs. One thing that has always troubled me greatly is that this issue tends to bring out the very worst in people, particularly those who think nothing of dehumanizing entire groups of people based on a faulty perception of the perceived race or class of the "alien other".

We don't like to admit it, but this perception of race and class generally goes hand in hand in, since the darker and poorer you are, the less likely you are to fall into the "good immigrant" category.

Maegan "La Mala" Ortiz does a brilliant job of illustrating this meme in her blog Vivir Latina. The narrative goes like this~

“Good” immigrants, according to the politicos and the mainstream media that parrots them, are the ones who follow the laws, and when they don’t face the consequences, in the form of raids, separation from families, deportation, incarceration and fear. “Good” immigrants work hard and don’t make too much noise. They don’t have more children then they can afford and they don’t live on welfare. They speak English and study hard and get good grades and try to go to college. Within this context there are bills. Bills so that “good” immigrants and their children can go to college and pay in-state rates (like the DREAM Act)."

"But in order to have good you must have bad and it’s too easy for any person once deemed good to fall into the other category. The “bad” immigrants, like the ones portrayed in the ad above, test the compassion of people. They look like gang bangers and obviously cannot assimilate or fit in. The obviously “bad” ones commit horrible crimes only against “white” like rape and murder (because whites apparently don’t do things like that). More minor crimes aren’t placed in context like say poverty, racism or global policies."

Please read that last sentence again because it is key.

Posted by Lisa Pelletier on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

The far right, and the far left, both of whom make everything about race, to the point of tedium.

I always love your quoting fellow sour leftists.

I enjoy looking them up and reading the conspiracies theories and bitter complaints.

Posted by meatlock on Mar. 02, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

Anybody who is basically literate and doesn't have a recent criminal record should be able to contribute to this country; let them in.

If they have $500K of real money to show, by all means roll out a (slightly tattered) red carpet. Our gain, their country's loss.

Posted by Letmypeoplefree on Mar. 03, 2011 @ 8:42 am


Posted by Guest Michael on Mar. 03, 2011 @ 9:24 am

Chinese investors beware. Example: Tom Henderson was a fish salesman for 30 years with no experience in job creation. He's running around town with his 'quirky' persona (read: he seems to piss off everyone he meets) making lots of promises and looking to get rich off your money. But bottom line: he has no experience at this sort of thing. What companies has he started in Oakland? How many jobs has he created? What boards or councils has he served on that show this has been his focus and community interest?

Best to go with an attorney or agency that has a long history and credibility in creating jobs.

Posted by Guest Sarah on Mar. 05, 2011 @ 10:09 am

Hey Sarah,
This is Tom "Quirky Charisma" Henderson. In the future please use a pseudonym (ie., Fake Name). Your boyfriend Eric (My EB-5 Regional Center Competitor) needs to step up himself instead of hiding behind your comments. I understand Eric's jealousy not being interviewed for this article, but not my call.
FYI... I sold "my" $50M Seafood International Import Export company in 1993 where I had 300 employees working full time in Northern Calif for 20 years. You guys need to be more creative with the cheap shots.
The Bay Guardian did a nice job with an edge to the story. Some accurate and some questionable. But that is their job...
We will create 1000 high paying jobs in Oakland every year for a number of years as long as this EB-5 program continues to provide the job opportunites and investments into Oakland with an actual unemployment rate of over 20%. The City of Oakland Economic Development staff support our efforts.
Good luck to you and Eric.
Best Regards,
Tom Henderson

Posted by Guest Tom Henderson on Mar. 14, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

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