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While the EB-5 program speeds permanent legal residency for wealthy foreign investors and their families, an estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States currently have no path to legal status or citizenship. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/flickr/cc)

High-End Visa Program Blasted as 'Immigration Reform for the 1%'

"The American Dream is for sale and working immigrants can't afford it."

Deirdre Fulton

Actions are taking place in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle on Tuesday decrying a controversial U.S. immigration program that unions and immigration advocates have dubbed "immigration reform for the 1%."

"If Congress renews the '$500,000 green card' EB-5 program without any comprehensive solutions for immigration reform, they're sending a clear message: the American Dream is for sale and working immigrants can't afford it."
—María Elena Durazo, UNITE HERE

The little-known EB-5 visa program allows wealthy foreigners to qualify for an entry visa when they invest a certain amount in an American business. The minimum qualifying investment in the U.S. is $1 million, or $500,000 within a high-unemployment area or rural area. If the business venture creates 10 or more American jobs after two years, the foreign investor can receive a Green Card.

According to the Washington Post, "the program was barely used as recently as 2005, but it became a popular source of capital after the financial crisis. Last year, a record 10,692 EB-5 visas were issued, according to the real estate services firm Savills."

Congress is preparing to renew the EB-5 program in September.

But UNITE HERE, a union representing more than 270,000 hotel, casino, and airport workers in North America, charges that with millions of immigrants currently stuck in limbo as federal courts hear challenges to President Barack Obama’s recent executive actions on immigration, the very existence of the EB-5 program is "fundamentally unfair."

"Immigration laws should benefit all—not just the 1 percent," said María Elena Durazo, vice president for civil rights, diversity, and immigration with UNITE HERE. "If Congress renews the '$500,000 green card' EB-5 program without any comprehensive solutions for immigration reform, they're sending a clear message: the American Dream is for sale and working immigrants can’t afford it."

Furthermore, critics point out, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the EB-5 program in a scathing report just two weeks ago, saying that the federal immigration agency that runs it is not equipped to evaluate its purported economic benefits.

The GAO report also raised questions about whether the program has sufficient safeguards against fraud. As ABC News reported earlier this month, the report found that "the risk of fraud is especially high...because some foreign visa applicants may care less about the prospects for their $500,000 investment than they do about the U.S. Green Card the money can procure."

The Seattle Times reported Monday on one local developer who raised at least $125 million from would-be immigrant investors through the EB-5 visa program, but siphoned off $17.6 million for his own use.

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