Dubious Casino Investment Linked to Dubious Immigration Program

By David North on September 20, 2011

It's a perfect storm at the nexus of immigration and investment – a proposal to use the EB-5 (buying-green-cards-with-investments) program to start up a huge casino near Washington.

According to today's Washington Post, investors in China are lapping it up. Each family would put up half a million dollars. None of the families would have any other way to get to the U.S. on a permanent basis.

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Let me digress for a moment and congratulate the Post for its assertive investigative journalism on two continents (Asia and North America) in this connection. It rarely examines an immigration program with the clear eyes it used in this story.

The Post is also to be commended for noting that a whole family gets a set of green cards, not just the investor. Alas, the paper did not stress the fleeting nature of the required investment, with the alien having the government's permission to withdraw the investment after a period of 24 months. The money may be withdrawn, but the green cards are forever.

Although the newspaper does not actually use the word "gerrymander", that dubious process has also been used in this connection. EB-5 investments are supposed to go to areas within the country that have a more-than-usual need for economic development ("economically depressed areas"), but there's the awkward fact of Maryland's relative prosperity.

What to do? Well, casino promoters appear to be, shall we say, creative.

There is an existing middleman agency in Maryland that wants to promote the casino (at the huge Arundel Mills Mall near the BWI Airport). It is one of 173 regional centers recognized by USCIS for handling this kind of investment. So far, so good. But how to get around the "depressed area" requirement? Post reporters Keith B. Richburg and John Wagner describe it this way:

Maryland's unemployment rate is about 2 percentage points lower than the nation's. But by using selected census tracts from the city of Baltimore and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, the Maryland Live! project [the casino] was certified as being in a "targeted unemployment area".

Similar economic gerrymandering was used in connection with an effort to use EB-5 money to help rebuild the famed Watergate Hotel in a prosperous part of the District of Columbia, as we reported in an earlier blog.

The proposed use of the EB-5 source of funds for this casino is part of an all too familiar story: there's a prospective investment that does not appeal to most investors; the promoters, pressed by among other things the national credit crunch, decide to turn to an alternative source of funds in which the actual value of the investment is secondary (to many) because of the attached green cards, so the promoters seek EB-5 funding. In this case, going so far as to send one of the promoters to Shanghai to drum up applications.

Others may disagree, but my sense is that building casinos is a questionable way to build the overall economy; the promoters may (and probably will) profit, there will be jobs created, and there may be some economic benefits to the locality, but it does nothing for the national economy at a macro level, simply moving money from gamblers' pockets to the pockets of others, and producing nothing but fleeting entertainment. Many church groups agree with this analysis, stressing, too, the needless temptations provided to gambling addicts.

So it is interesting that such a questionable investment would seek funding from such a questionable part of our immigration scheme, but it fits neatly into the current, almost frantic effort on the part of USCIS to expand the EB-5 program, which has been described here, here, and here.

The EB-5 program is just one of the many portions of the current immigration process that are not just managed by USCIS, but actively promoted. The theory seems to be "Don't Let Any Visas Go to Waste."