Regional centers make the process easier for investors; they also pool investment to generate the capital necessary for big projects.
Each investor must create or preserve at least 10 full-time sustainable jobs within two years to stay in the country permanently.
Exact numbers aren't available, but government data shows that the vast majority of investors opt for the $500,000 plan and few invest on their own. Luz Irazabal, spokesperson for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency overseeing EB-5, estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of visas are granted through the regional centers.
So in practice, the program allows private, unregulated brokers to take the money of wealthy people and invest it in projects that are supposed to create jobs in low-income areas. It's not necessarily a bad idea, and there's nothing wrong with opening the most possible paths to legal residency.
But it doesn't always work out for the immigrants or the community.
The EB-5 program is booming. Only 11 regional centers existed in 2007. Today 133 businesses are designated as regional centers allowed to offer EB-5 visas to foreigners in exchange for their cash and 180 applications for the status are pending.
And while EB-5 started out slowly (only a few hundred green cards were issued in the first few years) and still isn't a huge factor in immigration (1,886 permits were issued last year), most observers agree it's on the rise.
"As domestic money has gotten tighter, project developers have discovered the EB-5 program as a possible way to obtain foreign capital," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor at Cornell University Law School, veteran immigration lawyer, and self-described "guru" of EB-5."
Some are dubious. Henry Liebman, the Seattle-based CEO of one of the oldest and most successful regional centers, told us that "most of these [new] regional centers aren't going to raise a nickel." He added that EB-5 is "not going to be the panacea that's going to lift us out of the great depression."
And it's something of a Wild West. The federal agency that runs the program doesn't regulate the regional centers once they're approved for business. And even though the centers make loans and invest money, the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn't monitor them. Indeed, there's no real regulation at all.
Yale-Loehr says the program helps everyone. "Project developers can win because they can get access to capital for their projects. U.S. workers win because the EB-5 money will create jobs. U.S. taxpayers win because EB-5 money stimulates the economy and creates jobs at no expense to taxpayers. And foreign investors win because they get a green card through their investments."
Not exactly. A Dec. 22, 2010 Reuters news service report notes that "thousands of immigrants have been burned by misrepresentations that EB-5 promoters make about the program, inside and outside the United States. Many have lost not only their money, but their chance at winning U.S. citizenship."
In fact, the news service found that in 2009 "four Koreans who invested in a South Dakota dairy farm through EB-5 lost their entire investment when the price of milk collapsed and the operators of the farm stopped paying the mortgage. When the four, who had invested a total of $2 million in the dairy, tried to step in and save the venture, they discovered their partner had left their names off the title. When they tried to sue in state court, the case went nowhere."
If a project falls apart and no jobs are created, the immigrants face deportation.
And there's little guarantee that the projects these investors fund actually create any jobs for the communities where they're located.
Regional centers have plenty of ways to win.