Since the collapse of the comprehensive immigration overhaul effort in the 113th Congress, lawmakers have experienced a dry spell in terms of viable immigration legislation. But with the upcoming expiration of four immigration programs—in particular the EB-5 regional center program—the odds of a bill making it through Congress and to the president’s desk are becoming more favorable.
As of July 29, there are bills in both the House and the Senate that would reauthorize regional centers under the EB-5 immigrant investor program. Under the EB-5 program, foreign investors are eligible for a green card if they invest $1 million—or $500,000 in rural or high-unemployment areas, known as “targeted employment areas”—in a commercial enterprise that creates or preserves at least 10 full-time U.S. jobs. The regional center program allows investors to pool their money and meet the job-creation requirement indirectly.
According to a 2014 report from the American Immigration Council, between 2010 and 2011, the EB-5 program added $2.6 billion to the gross domestic product, supported 33,000 U.S. jobs and generated $346 million in federal tax revenue.
Regional centers are the predominant EB-5 investment vehicle, the report said. About 400 centers have been approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as of Nov. 1, 2013.
The regional center began as a pilot in 1993 and has been reauthorized five times, most recently in September 2012 for a three-year period.
At the same time, however, the program has come under fire in recent months. Most notably, a March report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found that former USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas created the perception of impropriety by involving himself in three high-profile EB-5 regional center cases.
Both a bill introduced in the Senate (S. 1501) in early June by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and one introduced in the House (H.R. 3370) July 29 by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) contain provisions aimed at promoting greater program “integrity.”
For example, both bills would increase the minimum investment required for an immigrant to obtain a green card—the Senate bill would up the minimum to $1.2 million (and $800,000 for TEAs), while the House bill would increase it to $2 million (and $1 million for TEAs). They also would redefine TEAs in order to funnel more investments into rural and high-unemployment areas—with the House bill adding additional locales to the definition.
While H.R. 3370 would permanently reauthorize the regional center program, S. 1501 only would reauthorize it for five years.
H.R. 3370 also goes further by reauthorizing three other immigration programs that traditionally have been reauthorized along with the regional center program: the E-Verify electronic employment eligibility verification system; the Conrad State 30 program for J-1 physicians who practice in medically underserved areas; and the special immigrant nonminister religious worker program. The Conrad State 30 program, which is widely popular, also would be made permanent, while the bill would reauthorize E-Verify and the religious worker program for five years.
A similar, less detailed bill (H.R. 616) also was introduced in January by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Mark Amodei (R-Nev.).
In addition, H.R. 3370 would create two new green card categories for immigrant entrepreneurs: those who found new businesses with the help of venture capital and those who do so on their own.
Currently there is no immigrant entrepreneur visa, although the Obama administration is exploring using the national interest waiver and parole power under the Immigration and Nationality Act as a means of overcoming that gap.
Although it is uncertain whether either of these bills will pass in their current forms, they do at least provide a vehicle for reauthorization of the EB-5 regional center program, and thus the potential for passage of immigration legislation. Whether or not any other aspects of the immigration system will see legislative change in the near term is still up in the air.
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