A Look Inside a USCIS "Stakeholders Meeting"

By David North on April 27, 2012

USCIS convenes "stakeholders meetings" in Washington and its regional service centers as a technique to reach out to what it regards as its "public".

I took part in one such gathering this morning dealing with an intricacy in the EB-5 immigrant investor program; it related to how an investor can — or cannot — use an investment in an office building to claim a green card for his or her half-million-dollar investment.

Everyone in the room, except me, makes money handling these investments. All were champions of the EB-5 program (except me) and were there to press USCIS to make it easier to secure approvals of these specialized and, I think, controversial investments.

But first let me describe the setting and the atmosphere, as these gatherings are a major USCIS activity.

On Monday afternoon, April 23, at about 5:40 p.m., the USCIS Office of Outreach sent out an invitation to attend the session with USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas in Washington, D.C. It said that the first 25 to respond could attend in person and others could join by telephone. I happened to be at my desk and paying attention to my email, so at 6:01 p.m. I accepted the invitation and was told the next day that I could attend.

When I arrived at the highly secured entrance to 20 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, this morning (April 27) I found that I was number 18 on the list. If that list had been put together in chronological order there must have been some advance notice for the insiders, of which I am not one.

We milled around at the entrance until we were escorted in small groups up to the fifth floor. The director's conference room seats only about 35 people, so the upper limit on admissions made some superficial sense — or else suggested that the meeting should have been held in a larger room. The teleconference operator said that 270 people signed up to listen in to the proceedings, so there was strong — but I suspect lopsided — interest in the subject.

As I looked around the room, I saw a sea of suit-and-tie-wearing white males seasoned by one Asian gentleman, similarly attired, a few neatly dressed female lawyers, including one who appeared to be black, and some USCIS staff. Several of the lawyers had flown in from distant parts of the United States to participate.

Director Mayorkas arrived promptly at 10:30, made his opening remarks, and after a few minutes, a highly detailed and civil conversation broke out and went on until noon.

With the exception of my own few remarks — to the effect that it was tacky to sell visas to aliens who could not otherwise enter the country and that USCIS had apparently limited passive real estate investments as a means to secure green cards — it was a smooth, lawyerly conversation. It dealt with such subjects as the extent of USCIS's deference to prior decisions, the methodologies used to estimate job creation, and the procedures used by middleman agencies and lawyers to handle the investors' applications.

Terms like "aliens" and "green cards" and the required creation of 10 jobs, either directly or indirectly, were seldom heard. The director offered a rare bit of reality when he said that if an investor built a building and an existing firm with 10 employees moved into it from an older office building a few blocks away, then that could not be considered the creation of 10 jobs through the "tenant-occupancy" concept, which was the central focus of the meeting. (See this set of pro-EB-5 comments on the substance of the tenant-occupancy model.)

The idea that you could claim to create 10 jobs by building a half-million-dollar structure into which moved a company unrelated to the investor struck me as close to laughable, particularly at a time when there is excess office space on the real estate market, just as there is excess housing. But there was no substantive discussion of that topic; it all dealt with procedures, methodologies, precedents, and what curious USCIS staffers asked in what are known as "Requests for Evidence" (RFEs).

The RFEs are structured letters from the staff to the proposers asking questions about the nature of the investment and its job-creating capacities. The lawyers had received a lot of these letters and did not appreciate them — they wanted instant approvals with no questions asked, though no one was so uncouth as to say so.

Mayorkas, a former U.S. Attorney, handled the role of Director in the Lawyers' Den very well and only on occasion did he turn to his staff to help him with technical questions. His view was that the tenant-occupancy rules recently clarified by the agency did not constitute a new policy, but most, if not all, of the people in the room disagreed.

The lawyers (and the odd economist or two) left the meeting seemingly feeling that they had made progress on some minor points and, as a result, some of the new green card applications for building all or part of a building will be slightly better.

It was all very technical and the conference-room lawyers asked so many questions and made so many arguments that there was no time at all for the 270 people on their phones to ask questions of their own.