International Students Can Use US Investor Visa to Gain Green Card
A lesser-known immigration visa offers international students a path to U.S. colleges and universities — and a green card — but the price is affordable for only a few.
An EB-5, or Immigrant Investor Visa Program, does not restrict where or how much students work off-campus and allows them to stay in the country after graduation, both perks not available to F-1 student visa holders, according to EB-5 Daily, a website that aggregates news about the EB-5 program.
But in exchange for fewer restrictions, EB-5s have a daunting price tag — applicants must invest at least $500,000.
"There are a lot of wealthy international students who come to the U.S., and a lot of them are very motivated [to stay after graduation]," said Ishaan Khanna, a recent college graduate and EB-5 visa holder. "So, for them it makes sense."
A path to immigration
Khanna came to the U.S. from India on an F-1 student visa to study at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. As graduation approached, he started looking for ways to stay and work in the U.S.
"If I wanted to further my career, being in the U.S., especially close to Silicon Valley, was a no brainer," said Khanna, who was looking for jobs in the tech sector. He started researching EB-5 visas during his senior year.
WATCH: Ishaan Khanna Talks About EB-5 Visa
The EB-5 visa program was created in 1990 to encourage foreign investment and create jobs for American workers, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
To receive the visa, a foreigner must invest at least $500,000 either directly in a business or in a regional center, which is a private company that pools such investments.
"An EB-5 regional center is an economic unit, public or private, in the United States that is involved with promoting economic growth," according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). "Regional centers are designated by USCIS for participation in the Immigrant Investor Program."
Each investment qualifies only if it creates or preserves at least 10 full-time jobs.
The vast majority of EB-5 investors — in 2016, 91.5 percent — have chosen to invest in regional centers. Successful applicants receive a two-year green card that becomes permanent if the investment meets the job-creation standard.
But there is so little oversight of the EB-5 industry that it is open to abuse, critics say.
"I could speak for hours about the corruption in this program," said Republican Senator Charles Grassley, one of the program's most vocal critics.
"They [the investors] put up the money and they don't know what the money is being used for," said Lsu Khanh Pham, an immigration attorney. "Legally, the money is supposed to go into the venture and create jobs."
But sometimes, he said, the money is used to pay back previous loans, or it sits in the bank as collateral.
Sometimes the money is embezzled, according to some court cases. Documentation shows 287 regional centers whose contract with the U.S. government has been terminated for either failing to submit required information to USCIS or for no longer serving the purpose of promoting economic growth. This month, there were 1,382 approved regional centers.
Last year, the family of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House aide, was investigated for implying that their company's connection with the president could help their investors obtain green cards through the EB-5 program. The investigation is ongoing.
The appeal of a green card is undeniable. With a green card, a foreign student can "work, live, study, as freely as you want," Khanna said.
Students who hold a green card are much more attractive to employers, Khanna said.
"Let's' be honest, if you don't have a green card, it is really hard to get a job in America," he added.
"I interviewed for SpaceX and I remember making it through the first round of interviews," Khanna recalled about the company considered to be a leading innovator in space technology.
"And they looked at my application and they said, 'Oh you're not a citizen? You don't have a green card?' And I said 'no,' and they said, 'OK, this isn't going to work.'"
"Being able to work in the U.S. without requiring sponsorship is a big deal," he said.
USCIS can grant up to 10,000 EB-5 visas each year, but it is hard to get exact figures for how many students are in the U.S. on an EB-5.
"USCIS does not maintain these figures," a spokesperson for the agency said, speaking on background. A State Department representative, also speaking on background, directed VOA to its publicly available statistics, which do not include how many students hold an EB-5 visa.
"I would think several hundred students" get an EB-5 visa each year, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School and attorney for Miller Mayer LLP's immigration practice group. "But nobody knows for sure. It may only be a hundred."
However, Khanna, an EB-5 visa holder from India, said, "I do know a lot of people who do it, especially students."
Because regional centers profit from making investments on behalf of EB-5 applicants, they have a strong incentive to attract every investor they can, no matter how young.
On their websites, for example, the centers tout the virtues of EB-5 visas over traditional F-1 student visas.
The website of the U.S. Immigration Fund, one of the regional centers, included a post with the headline: "4 reasons why EB-5 visa program is the best for studying abroad in the U.S."
Where to invest
Although parents and families typically provide the money, students sometimes decide where to invest.
"That is probably the most daunting part of the EB-5 process for many investors," said Yale-Loehr, the immigration law professor.
"I compare it to a Rubik's Cube," he explained. "The immigration component has to line up with the [investment] component, which has to line up with the job creation element. ... Sometimes, if the students are majoring in business, they're very savvy."
But Khanna, who majored in applied-information systems management when he began the EB-5 process, said that determining where to invest was difficult. He spent months doing research and took advantage of resources on campus, "running up to finance professors to ask questions" during his senior year.
"I spoke to several investment issuers and I remember making this long spreadsheet, which listed all the different EB-5 projects and compared their pros and cons side by side," Khanna said.
He eventually invested in a Four Seasons hotel in Puerto Rico through a regional center named EB5 United, based in Santa Monica, California. He now works for EB5 United as the company's director of investor relations for India.
Although the USCIS has tried to protect against fraud, a 2015 Government Accountability Office report found that the agency needed to do even more to protect investors and discern how the program impacts the American economy.
Senator Grassley has frequently called for EB-5 reform and recently asked Congress to end regional centers altogether.
On Sept. 30, the program was extended until after the midterm elections but before the next Congress is seated in January. When the EB-5 program comes up for renewal on Dec. 7, President Trump and a lame-duck Congress will decide its fate. Until then, students looking for alternatives to an F-1 visa will be able to consider an EB-5, if they can afford it.
"If your family has resources, do it," Khanna advised.
And the investment Khanna made for his EB-5?
"It was pretty much my family's life savings which went into this," he said.
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US Schools Wrestle with Cellphones in Classrooms
In California, a high school teacher complains that students watch Netflix on their phones during class. In Maryland, a chemistry teacher says students use gambling apps to place bets during the school day.
Around the country, educators say students routinely send Snapchat messages in class, listen to music and shop online, among countless other examples of how smartphones distract from teaching and learning.
The hold that phones have on adolescents in America today is well-documented, but teachers say parents are often not aware to what extent students use them inside the classroom. And increasingly, educators and experts are speaking with one voice on the question of how to handle it: Ban phones during classes.
"Students used to have an understanding that you aren't supposed to be on your phone in class. Those days are gone," said James Granger, who requires students in his science classes at a Los Angeles-area high school to place their phones in "a cellphone cubby" with numbered slots. "The only solution that works is to physically remove the cellphone from the student."
Most schools already have rules regulating student phone use, but they are enforced sporadically. A growing number of leaders at the state and federal levels have begun endorsing school cellphone bans and suggesting new ways to curb access to the devices.
The latest state intervention came in Utah, where Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, last month urged all school districts and the state Board of Education to remove cellphones from classrooms. He cited studies that show learning improves, distractions are decreased and students are more likely to talk to each other if phones are taken away.
"We just need a space for six or seven hours a day where kids are not tethered to these devices," Cox told reporters this month. He said his initiative, which is not binding, is part of a legislative push to protect kids in Utah from the harms of social media.
Last year, Florida became the first state to crack down on phones in school. A law that took effect in July requires all Florida public schools to ban student cellphone use during class time and block access to social media on district Wi-Fi. Some districts, including Orange County Public Schools, went further and banned phones the entire school day.
Oklahoma, Vermont and Kansas have also recently introduced what is becoming known as "phone-free schools" legislation.
And two U.S. senators — Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, and Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat — introduced legislation in December that would require a federal study on the effects of cellphone use in schools on students' mental health and academic performance. Theirs is one of several bipartisan alliances calling for stiffer rules for social media companies and greater online safety for kids.
Nationally, 77% of U.S. schools say they prohibit cellphones at school for non-academic use, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But that number is misleading. It does not mean students are following those bans or all those schools are enforcing them.
Just ask teachers.
"Cellphone use is out of control. By that, I mean that I cannot control it, even in my own classroom," said Patrick Truman, who teaches at a Maryland high school that forbids student use of cellphones during class. It is up to each teacher to enforce the policy, so Truman bought a 36-slot caddy for storing student phones. Still, every day, students hide phones in their laps or under books as they play video games and check social media.
Tired of being the phone police, he has come to a reluctant conclusion: "Students who are on their phones are at least quiet. They are not a behavior issue."
A study last year from Common Sense Media found that 97% of kids use their phones during school hours, and that kids say school cellphone policies vary — often from one classroom to another — and aren't always enforced.
For a school cellphone ban to work, educators and experts say the school administration must be the one to enforce it and not leave that task to teachers. The Phone-Free Schools Movement, an advocacy group formed last year by concerned mothers, says policies that allow students to keep phones in their backpacks, as many schools do, are ineffective.
"If the bookbag is on the floor next to them, it's buzzing and distracting, and they have the temptation to want to check it," said Kim Whitman, a co-founder of the group, which advises schools to require phones be turned off and locked away all day.
Some students say such policies take away their autonomy and cut off their main mode of communication with family and friends. Pushback also has come from parents who fear being cut off from their kids if there is a school emergency. Whitman advises schools to make exceptions for students with special educational and medical needs, and to inform parents on expert guidance that phones can be a dangerous distraction for students during an emergency.
Jaden Willoughey, 14, shares the concern about being out of contact with his parents if there's a crisis. But he also sees the upsides of turning in his phone at school.
At Delta High School in rural Utah, where Jaden is a freshman, students are required to check their phones at the door when entering every class. Each of the school's 30 or so classrooms has a cellphone storage unit that looks like an over-the-door shoe bag with three dozen smartphone-sized slots.
"It helps you focus on your work, and it's easier to pay attention in class," Jaden said.
A classmate, Mackenzie Stanworth, 14, said it would be hard to ignore her phone if it was within reach. It's a relief, she said, to "take a break from the screen and the social life on your phone and actually talk to people in person."
It took a few years to tweak the cellphone policy and find a system that worked, said Jared Christensen, the school's vice principal.
"At first it was a battle. But it has been so worth it," he said. "Students are more attentive and engaged during class time. Teachers are able to teach without competing with cellphones. And student learning has increased," he said, citing test scores that are at or above state averages for the first time in years. "I can't definitively say it's because of this policy. But I know it's helping."
The next battle will be against earbuds and smartwatches, he said. Even with phones stashed in pouches, students get caught listening to music on air pods hidden under their hair or hoodies. "We haven't included earbuds in our policy yet. But we're almost there."
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