Thursday, May 11, 2017

Book Excerpt: What’s Up With the Kushners and the EB-5 Visa?

Over the weekend of May 5 Nicole Kushner Meyer—the sister of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner—was in Beijing seeking Chinese investors for one of the Kushner family’s real estate projects. Meyer made sure the wealthy attendees noticed the Kushners’ connection to the White House and emphasized that investing in the project, a luxury apartment complex in New Jersey, could win them the EB-5 visa, which allows rich foreigners to buy themselves green cards. The Kushner gambit brought media attention to the little-known program, a feature of the immigration system that President Trump seems not to have criticized. But the program’s been around for nearly three decades and has been tainted with corruption from the start. Here’s a description in The Politics of Immigration, Chapter 4, “Yacht People.”

Manhattan, an EB-5 “high unemployment area.” Photo: Shutterstock
The Immigration Reform Act, signed by President George H. W. Bush on November 29, 1990, created a new category of visa for millionaire investors. Up to 10,000 immigrant visas a year were made available under the EB-5 category to anyone investing $1 million into a U.S. business and creating at least ten jobs for U.S. citizens. The investment can be smaller—$500,000—if made in rural or “high unemployment areas.”

“We’ve done a great job on boat people,” Harold Ezell, former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) western regional commissioner, said in 1991. “I see no problem with a few yacht people.” After leaving his INS post in 1989, Ezell began marketing investor visas to wealthy foreigners. Ezell was one of a number of government officials who pushed for the investor visa program, then left for the private sector to reap profits from it, as revealed in a February 2000 Baltimore Sun exposé.

Those profits were boosted when INS deputy general counsel Paul Virtue issued legal opinions in 1993 and 1995 loosening the rules for the investor visas. The controversial rules were reversed in late 1997, and the scandal led the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general to launch an investigation in 1998 into the “appearance of impropriety” in the behavior of high-level government employees. The investigation concluded that Virtue had arranged special access to key agency officials for a private company, American Immigration Services (AIS). The Inspector General’s office closed the case without taking further action in October 1999, and its report was kept secret.

The program started off slowly but grew each year, from 179 visas issued in 2005 to over 3,000 in 2012. In 2014 the number of visas issued reached the 10,000 maximum for the first time, with 9,128 of them going to Chinese nationals. One favorite “high unemployment area” has been Manhattan’s West Side, where some 1,200 Chinese millionaires have invested in the $20 billion Hudson Yards project. The Atlantic noted in 2015 that the project actually “is on the edge of one of the richest neighborhoods in the country.”

[We’re occasionally posting excerpts from the new edition of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, which is due out on May 22. You can pre-order here or from your favorite bookseller.]

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