Gerrymandering Alleged in Investor Visas

Gerrymandering Alleged in Investor Visas

U.S. immigration agencies violate congressional intent by routinely issuing investor's visas to people who invest $500,000 in rich areas rather than poor ones, the Texas nonprofit Urban Equality Now claims in court.

Urban Equality Now claims the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services let foreigners gerrymander bogus "targeted employment areas," to pump up their unemployment rates by using phony statistics, sometimes from 200 miles away.

Congress created the EB-5 investor program in 1992, allowing foreign nationals who invested $500,000 or more in a targeted investor area to qualify for a visa, leading to permanent residence, if their investment created 10 or more U.S. jobs.

Terms of the program have changed since then, and Urban Equality Now's federal lawsuit does not refer to the EB-5 visas by that name. It challenges the implementation of the investor visa program through the Immigration and Nationality Act § 203(b)(5), codified at 8 USC § 1153(b).

Under these rules, foreigners can qualify for an investor visa if they invest $1 million in a U.S. business, or $500,000 in a targeted investment area.

A targeted employment area (TEA) is defined as "at the time of the investment, a rural area or an area which has experienced high unemployment (of at least 150 percent of the national average rate)." (Parentheses in U.S. Code.)

Areas can qualify as a TEA in other ways, which are spelled out in the law, for instance, by being outside a metropolitan statistical area near a city of 20,000 or more that has an unemployment rate of at least 150 of the national average.

In its federal complaint in Brownsville, Texas, Urban Equality Now claims that the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services violate the law and their own regulations by "routinely grant(ing) immigrant investor visas to foreign nationals who invest $500,000 in areas that do not qualify as TEAs."

For instance, foreigners wanted to build a hotel and conference center in Laredo, Webb County, Texas, whose census tract had an unemployment rate of 1.4 percent, far below the 8.1 percent national rate at the time, the nonprofit says.

"To manufacture the appearance of compliance with the statutes and regulations, the immigrant investors gerrymandered an area composed of over 190 census tracts spanning 5 counties from Laredo to Brownsville, Texas," the complaint states. "No rational basis exists for establishing a TEA using data for citizens 200 miles away. Further, no rational basis exists for the premise that job creation in 'Census Tract 16.02, Webb County, Texas' will have any job creation benefit for residents of Brownsville, Texas, who must travel in excess of 3 hours to reach the site."

The group cites other instances of gerrymandering in New York City:

"A $1.7 billion project along New York City's 'Billionaire's Row,' where unemployment is nearly non-existent, linked to a poor neighborhood in East Harlem. ...

"A $20 billion project ('Hudson Yards') located in lower Manhattan's upper-class West Chelsea area, where unemployment rates hover below 5 percent. ...

"A $250 million office and condo tower in lower Manhattan, where unemployment rates approach a meager 3.8 percent. The resulting TEA exists thanks to defendants' overly permissive policies that allow TEAs to use waterways to connect to impoverished areas, in this instance, public housing projects on the Lower East Side."

These are not the only examples, the complaint states. The immigration services thereby deprive poor areas of the help Congress intended, and grant visas to wealthy foreigners to serve wealthy areas in the United States, according to the complaint.

The investor visa program has been controversial from its inception. When it began, critics compared it to the fall of the Roman Empire, when corrupt emperors sold Roman citizenship. In the 23 years of the program's existence, allies and critics have changed sides from time to time, for many reasons, some economic, some political. Congressional critics of immigration, for example, are allowed to introduce special bills to allow foreigners to immigrate merely because the congressman or senator says so.

Urban Equality does not rehearse the political history to the program in its brief, 9-page complaint, which it filed Nov. 10. Only 10,000 immigrant investor visas are allowed a year, and most include a spouse and child or children, so only 3,300 or so investors actually can benefit each year, the complaint states.

"By approving the TEA-supported immigrant visa applications for areas that are usually white and affluent, DHS and USCIS have abrogated selective portions of the INA, a clear violation of constitutionally mandated separation of powers," according to the complaint.

Urban Equality seeks declaratory judgment, writ of mandamus and an injunction ordering the immigration services to comply with the Immigration and Nationality Act.

It is represented by Michael Coles, of Dallas.



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