GAO says feds lack proper oversight of EB-5 investor visa program
The federal immigration agency that oversees the controversial EB-5 investor visa program can’t effectively detect fraud or assess the program’s economic benefits, a Congressional watchdog agency said in a report Wednesday.
The program attracts billions of dollars from immigrant investors, money that private developers channel primarily into U.S. real-estate projects. In return for creating 10 full-time jobs, each investor and his or her family receive permanent-residency visas, also known as green cards.
But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the federal agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, still doesn’t have a strategy or an information system in place to assess the EB-5 program’s actual economic benefits or the risk of fraud.
That conclusion comes almost two years after a blistering report in December 2013 by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security that drew similar conclusions.
“Congress needs to focus on the fact that no real significant action has been taken,” said Seto Bagdoyan, GAO’s director of audit services. “Clearly, the agency’s feet need to be held to the fire, so to speak, to get moving and tighten the nuts and bolts of this program.”
About 95 percent of last year’s approximately 10,000 EB-5 visas were granted through immigrants investing in regional centers, which are federally approved firms that pool capital from immigrant investors. The majority of the visas are going to applicants from China.
Congress is considering legislation to renew the regional-center program, which is set to expire Sept. 30.
In response to the GAO report, the EB-5 Investment Coalition, an industry group that favors extending the regional-center program, said “robust oversight and transparent processes are critical” to the program’s ability to continue and create U.S. jobs.
The GAO audit was requested in December by three U.S. senators.
Immigrant investors must invest $1 million in a commercial project to obtain a temporary green card and show they’ve created at least 10 jobs within about two years to stay in the United States permanently.
In practice, 90 percent of immigrants qualify by investing just $500,000 because the project is in a “targeted employment area,” one with at least 150 percent of the national jobless rate.
The Seattle Times reported in March on how developers exploit the lower investment requirement to build projects in prosperous areas.
Washington state plays a leading role in the EB-5 program. Seattle-based American Life was a pioneer in the industry, and among the states, Washington has one of the nation’s highest number of federally approved firms that pool capital from immigrant investors.
Wednesday’s report, the GAO’s first review of the program in a decade, focused on how the agency’s oversight is hobbled by scarce and scattered data collection as well as a lack of visibility into where the foreign money originates.
For example, EB-5 investors must document that they’re using lawful sources of funds — not connected to drug trade, human trafficking or other criminal activities. But the agency doesn’t have a way to verify immigrants’ self-reported financial information with foreign banks, the GAO said, and in some cases, immigrants have used counterfeit documents prepared overseas to show their funds are legal.
In other cases, the agency and its partners at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission have trouble policing the promoters of projects.
As of May, more than half of the immigration agency’s 59 open EB-5 investigations primarily involve securities fraud, GAO said. The rest relate to other criminal activity, such as money laundering, national security and immigration fraud.
SEC officials told investigators they’re limited in their ability to investigate sales practices on foreign soil by EB-5 sponsors, but know “unrealistic or patently false promises are sometimes made to investors,” GAO said.
Project promoters sometimes fraudulently portray job-creation activity, too: In an investigation last year, one business receiving EB-5 funds asked “employees” to merely sit in an office during business hours, GAO found. In another case, the site of a purported future hotel backed by EB-5 capital was a vacant lot whose owner knew nothing about plans for a hotel there.
While Citizenship and Immigration Services has promised changes, its next-generation information system is nearly four years behind schedule and its cost has ballooned by more than $1 billion, GAO found.
The immigration agency relies “heavily” on paper documents and doesn’t enter basic information on regional-center owners into its database, such as name, address and date of birth — information that can be helpful in detecting fraudsters — the GAO said. Nor does it collect any information on the businesses supported by EB-5 capital or the foreign brokers and attorneys assisting investors.
Even as the EB-5 industry is pushing Congress to extend the regional-center program through 2020, the GAO report highlights the weakness in the federal agency’s evidence for drawing any conclusions about its economic impact.
From 1990 to 2014, the federal immigration agency says the program has generated a minimum of 73,730 jobs and more than $11.2 billion in investment.
“Is it overstated, is it understated or just about right? Therein lies the problem,” Bagdoyan said.
The immigration agency’s method for reporting on jobs created and economic benefits “is not valid and reliable,” GAO said, because it’s based on quick-and-dirty assumptions rather than a deeper analysis of hard data collected on individual EB-5 forms.
In one case, the agency reported 4,500 jobs for 450 investors by making a simple calculation. But when GAO looked at the forms submitted by investors, it found the project generated 10,500 jobs.
The agency lacks data on these jobs because nearly all EB-5 investors applying for a green card provide numbers from statistical models to meet job-creation requirements.
While this is legal, the agency fails “to determine the location of jobs created, such as the number of jobs created in targeted employment areas that most immigrant investors use to qualify for a lower investment amount,” said GAO, echoing concerns by scholars at the Brookings Institution.
This undermines the intent of Congress, wrote the auditors, when it allowed investors to qualify for green cards with a smaller investment, provided the money was directed into rural areas or urban areas of high unemployment.
One in four EB-5 investors who received a temporary green card did not get a permanent green card, GAO found.
It may be a case where Congress needs to require the agency to follow the money.
“You have to show the effort, collect the data, do the deep dive analyses, and reach conclusions,” Bagdoyan said. “It can be inelegant at times but the investment has to be made in gathering and analyzing data.”
- American Life, Inc.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
- UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION
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