Rich Immigrants, in Families of Five, Can Buy Green Cards for $100,000 Each

By David North on January 11, 2010

The headline above was not the headline used by the Washington Post of January 9 over an immigration policy story; the Post's bland take was: "Immigrants invest in U.S. businesses in exchange for visas", but either heading would have been equally accurate.

The rich have always had a way to avoid troublesome programs that weigh on the rest of us. During the Civil War, on the Union side, a young man could avoid the draft by hiring a substitute. During the Vietnam War, if you could afford to stay in graduate school for years, you could avoid that war's draft, as former Vice President Cheney did. And it is true in the immigration process as well.

The visa in question is the EB-5. If you are an alien and want to come to the U.S. on a permanent basis, you can invest as little as $500,000 in a government-approved entity and get an immigrant visa for yourself, your spouse, and your three children (in this example), meaning that the visas would cost you $100,000 each.

The program is not yet over-subscribed, so there are no waiting lists, as there are with most immigrant visas. The upper limit to the program is 10,000 visas a year, but the number of visas issued in the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, was 4,218, according to the article written by N.C. Aizenman. (The reporter, by the way, should not be blamed for the headline; she wrote the story, and headline was, in all likelihood, written by someone on the copy desk.)

The required size of the investment varies -- if you invest in a government-approved regional center, it is half a million dollars; if you invest in something else, in the broader economy, it costs you a minimum of $1 million. The investments are supposed to be ones that will create ten jobs after the passage of two years, and the jobs must go to someone other than family members. For the DHS rules on the program, see here.

The Post article did not bother to divide the amount of money by the number of visas you can acquire, as we did, nor did it discuss how the creation of ten-jobs provision would be enforced. It did make the point that one visa recipient interviewed was not expecting much money back from his investment but felt that the payment brought significant non-monetary benefits to his family.

The U.S. is not alone in handing out immigrant visas to the rich for a specified investment. Canada and Australia, for example, do the same thing. Full disclosure: I was once retained by the Australian embassy in Washington to study their investment visa program, and I did so here and in that nation.

The perceived problem with the Australian program was not a lack of applicants (they got lots of them from the Far East, notably nervous Hong Kong millionaires); what the Aussies wanted was a way to encourage a little more diversity in the program. They wanted more American and Canadian entrepreneurs, without doing anything to discriminate against the clientele they already had. I was unable to find a magic bullet for them.

Regarding the EB-5 program, we should be grateful for small favors. The program sells immigrant visas, and thus green cards, but not citizenship. There have been plenty of small states that have sold citizenship to those willing to pay a substantial fee.

The program in the South Seas island kingdom of Tonga had a wonderful quirk. You could become a Tongan citizen for a fee, but you would not be allowed to visit Tonga. After a while the U.S. State Department, and some other nations' governments, said that they would not honor passports that did not allow you to visit your new homeland. Those decisions were real blows to the Tongan treasury, because Tonga does not regard itself as a nation of immigrants.

Then there was the late 20th century scam operated by one of those quasi-independent nations in the central Pacific, all three of which are semi-colonies to the U.S. One of them, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, had a program for selling its citizenship to the rich in Hong Kong which had a different quirk. The price for a passport was not published – the Marshallese government sold them for whatever the traffic would be bear. This trade died out, too, when the U.S. government said that the easy access to America, guaranteed by a treaty with the islands, applied only to native-born Marshallese, and to those aliens who had spent at least five years in the islands before becoming naturalized citizens. Thus the purchased passport would not help you get into the States.

Unfortunately, the Fiji-based Pacific Islands Monthly, for which I wrote about such matters, was killed by its owner, Rupert Murdoch, in 2000, and electronic references are not possible.