SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - An Idaho gold mine, a proposed wind farm in central Washington state, a new casino in Las Vegas and ski resort expansions in Vermont, all have one thing in common: they're investment vehicles for well-to-do families seeking U.S. green cards.
Under U.S. immigration law, wealthy foreigners can get a green card by investing at least a half-million dollars to create at least 10 jobs in America.
That looked like a good plan to Canadian Jordan Gagner. He and his wife had a problem a few years ago. They needed to relocate to a drier, desert climate. Something like Arizona. At first glance, the prospects for permanently relocating south of the border looked daunting.
"Being a self-employed wealth manager and a teacher, those are two occupations that are not on the top 10 lists of visas being given to foreigners to come down to the U.S.," Gagner said. "Trying to get an executive visa of some sort would've been very hard to do."
Path to citizenship
But then Gagner discovered the immigrant investor visa shortcut. He and a number of other foreign investors chipped in $500,000 each to build an assisted living complex outside Bellingham, Washington. Gagner got credit for creating lots of construction jobs in the midst of the recent recession and the whole family received green cards.
Bellingham immigration lawyer David Andersson orchestrated the deal. He's made a business out of bringing together developers who need low cost capital and prospective immigrants with money.
"If you have a solid investment and there may be a benefit which exceeds mere return, such as the ability to move your family to America, then an investor may consider a lower return than, for example, a bank," he said.
Andersson was a pioneer in an industry that he says is now experiencing amazing proliferation and growth. The matchmaking companies are officially known as "EB-5 regional centers," so named for the relevant provision of U.S. immigration law. Originally, these investment centers stuck to straightforward real estate deals. But now the options for wealthy, would-be immigrants are much more diverse.
More than 200 immigrant investors from China are financing the revival of 100-year-old gold mines in southwest Idaho. In a marketing video, a former executive of Gold Hill Reclamation and Mining describes how his company reprocesses leftover ore and mine tailings.
A majority of immigrant investors come from China and prospective investors are asking more questions before signing up. This past winter, a Chicago hotel development that attracted backing from several hundred visa seekers was exposed as a fraud.
Other Chinese investors demanded refunds from the organizer of a project tied to a new toll bridge between Seattle, Washington, and its eastern suburbs. They put money into state highway construction bonds, but then had to wait for an unusually long time - 20 months - to apply for their visas because of uncertainty over whether federal officials would approve the novel investment. “Novel” for EB-5 visa purposes, that is.
Mike Mattox and his Lacey, Washington-based firm Access the USA organized that deal. He says, despite those complications, offering municipal bonds could be a game changer.
"If the underwriting is in place, the relationship is in place," Mattox said. "If it is done correctly, it will be very successful. As far as marketing, this is what the market wants."
The owner of a different immigration and economic development firm based in Lynnwood, Washington, thinks there's also a market for wind power investors. The firm invited well-off Koreans to back a proposed wind farm in central Washington state.
But nearby landowner Harland Radomske fears a wind farm next door will reduce the value of his horse and cattle ranch. And that's not all.
"What upsets me is also just the plain fact to realize we have all of this controversy going over immigration, the borders of Mexico, and all of that, issues before the Congress and Senate and so on," Radomske said. "And now we find out unbeknownst, if you’re a rich foreigner, you can buy your way to citizenship."
The wind project developers declined multiple requests for an interview.
Despite the general controversy over immigration, the foreign investor program has broad support in Congress. Legislation recently sent to the House by the U.S. Senate would make the program permanent.
Attorney David Andersson acknowledges the visa program accounts for only a small fraction of direct foreign investment. But he says it brings favorable results.
"In creating jobs in your neighborhood and in our state, the unemployment rate goes down," he said. "We have more taxpayers. Therefore, we can have more services. In other words, we have economic development."
The immigrant investor program has an annual cap of 10,000 visas and had never come close to that number before. But the regional center industry group predicts investor visa applications could reach the cap next year.