Have a spare $500,000 to invest in an economically distressed American area (that actually isn’t distressed at all)? China’s EB-5 fixers will help you every step of the way...
One summer Saturday in 2013, Vivian Ding took the stage in the grand ballroom of Shanghai’s Shangri-La Hotel to hold forth on a subject in which she was both an expert and an inspiration: emigrating to the U.S.
Tall, with a commanding presence, Ding is what you might get if Tony Robbins were a Chinese woman capable of both pumping up a cavernous ballroom and filling out an I-526, the Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur form. Standing next to a 6-foot-high pyramid draped in black velvet, she recounted her own move to America and described the prestigious U.S. high school her daughters attended, thanks to a program that lets immigrants invest in new commercial enterprises in exchange for permanent residency visas—green cards. The cloth was pulled to reveal a model of a Manhattan building: the glassy residences on the Hudson River now known as Via 57 West. Sign a contract that day to lend $500,000, help build a “landmark for mankind”—and take home a prize, Ding implored the audience. That day, the prize was an iPad mini.
Ellis Liu, a finance manager at a company that runs internet cafes, was in the audience. He didn’t sign up on the spot, but he couldn’t shake the idea. Shanghai had become so smoggy; his young son was constantly sneezing. A few months later, he paid $50,000 in fees to Ding’s company, Qiaowai, and got money from his father to make a $500,000 investment in another New York project, to bring Wi-Fi to the city’s subway system. Then he settled in for the four-year wait before, conditional visa in hand, he’d be able to begin job hunting in Los Angeles.
Some immigrants pile into rafts or fishing boats to get to America. Others try to slip past the cameras and sensors along the southern border. And many simply pay up via the EB-5 visa program, through which U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issues 10,000 conditional green cards annually. By investing $500,000 in areas deemed economically distressed, prospective immigrants can get temporary U.S. residence for themselves and their families. Anyone whose investment creates 10 jobs can apply to become a permanent resident.
When the program started, in 1990, Congress was squeamish about creating the impression that U.S. visas were for sale, so the law specifies that investors’ money must be at risk. The hope was that the program would jump-start development in moribund rural areas. But it languished unused for years, until developers in New York and other large cities figured out how to get just about any area to qualify as distressed, and the program took off. In recent years more than 90 percent of EB-5 investments have been in cities, and about three-quarters in real estate—often luxury residential properties in Manhattan. Most of the money comes from Chinese investors lined up by fixers such as Ding, who flood WeChat with advertisements and bring over American politicians to attach their names to projects, like Hollywood stars hawking whiskey in Japan.
Post-Brexit, mid-Trump, borders appear to be tightening, but China’s visa fixers still sell a world of limitless possibilities. They’ve turned some of the world’s most forbidding bureaucratic machinery into a kind of consumer good for China’s rising wealthy class. “No other country in the world comes anywhere near the Chinese market in terms of the network of agents,” says Philadelphia attorney Ron Klasko, who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s EB-5 committee. At least 1,000 migration agents are registered in China, and industry participants say there are many more unofficial ones. “Some operate at an exceedingly high level,” Klasko says, “and some do not.”
Ding’s company, Qiaowai, inadvertently put the industry under additional scrutiny in May when it hosted an event at the Beijing Ritz-Carlton headlined by Nicole Meyer, the sister of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser. She was seeking investors for One Journal Square, a pair of apartment towers Kushner Cos. is building in Jersey City overlooking Manhattan. Meyer said the project “means a lot to me and my entire family.” At one point in the session, a photo of Trump was displayed on a giant screen. Qiaowai had published advertisements inviting investors to consider the “government-supported” development, which, it claimed, “in a real sense guarantees a permanent green card and the safety of the investment principal.”
Meyer’s remarks were immediately reported by international news agencies, and a Kushner Cos. spokesman apologized. Qiaowai pulled the advertisements. Federal prosecutors later sought emails and documents from Kushner Cos., which said it “did nothing improper” and is “cooperating with legal requests for information.” Kushner Cos.’ partner in One Journal Square, KABR Group, told CNN in August that the two companies were no longer seeking EB-5 financing for the project.
The incident was a gift for the significant number of congressional members who’ve grown to despise the EB-5 program. Some can’t get over the idea that it smacks of selling citizenship. Others say the program is dirty and point to a series of scams that have defrauded foreign investors and put U.S. citizens in jail. Still others say the program has enriched middlemen and a few big-city developers while doing almost nothing for the parts of the country it was designed to help. Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa—a state that hasn’t seen an EB-5 project since 2010, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority—is perhaps the most vocal and vehement critic. He’s asked the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration to the U.S., to investigate “potentially fraudulent statements and misrepresentations” made by Qiaowai in promoting the Kushner buildings.
Chinese agents have heard this all before. “An agent said to me once, ‘You know, we make a lot of money every time you cry wolf,’ ” recalls Robert Whyte, a Los Angeles banker who advises U.S. developers on EB-5 compliance. “They go out there and sell ‘This is your last opportunity!’ knowing full well it’s not.”
Mickey Rowley was running the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association when Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell named him, in 2003, deputy secretary for tourism, film, and economic development marketing. A few years into his tenure, someone asked him to look into using EB-5 funding to attract film production to the state. After all, moviemaking, like condo construction, creates jobs. His colleagues shrugged when he told them he was headed to China to round up $60 million from immigrant investors. “They were like, ‘Go get ’em, sport,’ ” he recalls.
He had the commitments in 12 days. EB-5 loans were eventually used to make the Russell Crowe thriller The Next Three Days and the slasher flick My Bloody Valentine 3D, among others, in Pittsburgh. And Rowley—suddenly regarded as a China expert—returned a half-dozen times to raise money for projects across the state.
What made it so easy, Rowley says, were the agents. They waited in his hotel lobby each morning. They stood at attention until he took his seat at dinner. And during meals, he says, “no one takes food off the Lazy Susan until I take food off the Lazy Susan. These agents really suck up to you.” They would offer him a car and driver, restaurant reservations, invitations to karaoke. “I never paid for anything,” Rowley says. “I was never alone. I was handled right up to the hotel lobby.”
He also came to understand the extent to which the agents traded in proximity to power—sometimes physically. One agent sublet space in Pennsylvania’s trade office in Shanghai to impress clients. At presentations, Rowley spoke in English as an agent translated. It could be awkward. Standing before an audience in Wuhan, wearing a tie with a map of Pittsburgh on it, he tried to connect by saying he felt at home because rivers flowed through both cities. But what he’d meant as a little flourish died as the agent held up his own tie, pointed to it, and told the audience something like, “This guy’s tie has a map of Pittsburgh.” As Rowley gave more speeches, he noticed that people listened intently when the governor’s name came up. So he made it part of his talks. “I always made casual mention of a conversation when ‘I was just speaking to our governor the other day about Chinese investment,’ ” he says.
Agents sometimes exploited the language barrier. Rowley remembers one having a long and animated discussion in Chinese with an audience member. Others jumped in. A Chinese-speaking American told him afterward that the agent had reassured the audience member he didn’t need to worry that he’d been in the Communist Party. Someone told the agent she was mistaken. The U.S. generally denies visas to current and former party members.
With EB-5 loans, developers pay interest rates of 4 percent to 8 percent a year, compared with commercial alternatives of 10 percent to 18 percent. The developers latched onto the program during the Great Recession and now count on it for a big part of their financing; the value of all EB-5 loans jumped from $240 million in 2007 to $4.4 billion in 2015, according to financial adviser Brandlin & Associates.
Agents make money on both sides of the deal. In addition to a fee of about $50,000 paid by each investor, they claim as much as half of the interest payments made by the developer. Middlemen in the U.S., who bundle EB-5 investments for developers, get most of the rest. The immigrant investor typically gets 0.5 percent or less.
But many aren’t interested in their rate of return. They want the visa—and a project that’s sure to succeed. If it fails, there’s a chance they’ll lose both their principal and their shot at a green card. Agents who can quickly deliver investors likely to get initial approval from U.S. immigration can get a bigger piece of the interest payments from developers, Klasko says. And agents connected to good projects can charge investors more. “China is nothing if not a capitalist society—it’s all negotiated,” he says.
The pay quickly adds up, particularly for large companies such as Qiaowai, which says it has 600 employees in 15 Chinese cities. Last year the U.S. received about 11,000 immigration petitions from Chinese investors, and Qiaowai claims it accounts for a third of the EB-5 market in China. If each of those approximately 3,700 petitioners who were Qiaowai clients paid a typical $50,000 fee, Ding’s company made something like $185 million, not including interest payments. Qiaowai and Ding didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
Ding places her personal American success story at the center of Qiaowai’s marketing, sometimes inviting her twin daughters, who went to the same prep school in Dallas as George W. Bush’s twins, to join her on stage. The company has posted photos on social media of Ding at Trump’s inauguration and at a post-inaugural party called the Liberty Ball.
Agents are responsible for finding the hook that will make each project appeal to Chinese investors. Often, it’s an American politician or celebrity. “They completely trust the American government,” Rowley says, “despite the fact they don’t trust their own government.” Last year former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke in Beijing and Shanghai at Qiaowai seminars for Maefield Development’s renovation of a Times Square theatre. Giuliani, who was billed as “the father of the Times Square revival,” gave short speeches on the strength of the New York economy.
In 2013, Qiaowai helped raise $50 million in EB-5 loans for a Jersey City tower known as Trump Bay Street, built by Kushner Cos. It was a fallow moment for the family brand. “Nobody knew who Kushner was, and we felt Trump was a funny character,” recalls Lily Wang, a former Qiaowai manager who now runs the competing Guanyi Investment Consulting Group. “He was no Buffett, and leveraging on him could not be convincing.” Qiaowai instead promoted the project’s proximity to Manhattan. A video put viewers behind the wheel of a car driving through Jersey City as Woke Up This Morning, the theme song from The Sopranos, played. It was still a difficult sell; Wang says it took Qiaowai a year to find 100 investors for the Trump-Kushner project.
In June, a month after Qiaowai held the event in Beijing featuring Nicole Meyer and the big photo of Trump, people crowded into the grand ballroom in Shanghai’s Four Seasons Hotel for another Qiaowai seminar. Two massive TV screens looped a video profile of Ding and shorter stories about successful immigrants. “These are all true stories,” Song Ying, a sales manager, told the crowd. Qiaowai hadn’t had an easy start with the EB-5 program, she confided. Early clients doubted they’d get their $500,000 back. When the first of them did, Song recalled, they threw a party.
This day, Song was announcing the company’s newest project (its 88th, according to the company website), a Criterion Group development on the Astoria waterfront in Queens, N.Y. Even though congressional critics were calling for an investigation of Qiaowai’s claims at the Kushner event, Song repeated the pitch. “Choose Qiaowai,” she told attendees, “you will get what you want. Guaranteed.”
At the seminar’s next session, a tax expert highlighted an important benefit of emigrating to the U.S.: The country hasn’t signed on to an automated international information exchange, designed to reduce tax evasion, that China had just joined. “The Chinese government won’t know how much money you have in the U.S.,” he said to a room of investors, some of whom rose to snap photos of his slide presentation.
The families, some with toddlers, spilled from the ballroom into a foyer. There, more experts stood by to answer prospective investors’ questions on housing, education, and other aspects of resettlement. Jannie Zhang, a business development officer from the China offices of Standard Chartered Plc, was there to advise on perhaps the most important concern: getting money out of the country. China allows its citizens to move only $50,000 abroad each year, far below the minimum EB-5 investment of $500,000. To get around this, investors often line up friends and family, or even pay strangers, to wire money overseas, a process known as “ant moving.”
China monitors transfers from multiple sources into a single overseas account. Zhang told people that transferring money out of mainland China into multiple overseas accounts, instead of just one, should be enough to avoid the government’s attention. She said investors could open an account at one of the bank’s branches in China for 500,000 yuan ($76,500) and get additional accounts in Hong Kong or Singapore. From there, the money could be routed freely to the U.S. “This is a service that we are not allowed to promote proactively,” Zhang said. “But we can answer questions.”
Not every agent can afford Qiaowai’s trappings at the Four Seasons. Two smaller operations set up shop in smaller conference rooms next door, and in the lobby, a man approached every person leaving the hotel who carried one of Qiaowai’s gray tote bags. “Do you need immigration service?” he asked. “Take my card.”
In 2009, as Chinese investors were flocking to EB-5, Larry Wang, founder of Well Trend United Consulting, a large immigration agency based in Beijing, joined a nationally televised debate about the program. Some participants argued that it was unfair to China—just a way for the U.S. to squeeze money out of the country during the Great Recession. Wang, an EB-5 supporter, countered that the program was good so long as agents brought solid projects to their customers. Thinking back on that debate today, he says, he wishes he’d been more critical. “It’s getting too popular in China,” he says. “Are most Chinese clients knowledgeable enough? Are most agents good enough, capable enough to handle the situations? I don’t think so.” Wang learned the hard way about the risk that clients will be swept up in fraud. In 2010, Well Trend found four investors to supply $500,000 apiece in EB-5 funding for a factory that a Beverly Hills businessman was proposing to build in Moberly, Mo., 130 miles east of Kansas City. The facility was meant to produce Sweet-O, an artificial sugar substitute developed by a company called Mamtek. The city of Moberly sold $39 million in bonds to help fund the project.
A year later, Mamtek was broke. The businessman, Bruce Cole, was charged with theft and fraud after it emerged that he’d used the money to avoid foreclosure on his California home. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2014 to seven years in prison. The city defaulted on its bonds, and investors lost their money. Wang says he personally repaid his clients $2.5 million to cover their lost investment and other fees.
In 2013 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued an alert warning investors to avoid companies that guarantee returns or visas or that claim to be supported by the U.S. government. But frauds big and small continue to haunt the program. In Seattle, a Tibetan monk-turned-developer was recently sentenced to four years in federal prison for misusing money he raised from more than 280 Chinese investors. Another developer misused $200 million in EB-5 money raised from 731 investors to build a biotech center in rural Vermont, according to the SEC. The commission also says it’s stopped some scams in progress, including one in which a man raised about $160 million from more than 290 Chinese nationals for the “World’s First Zero Carbon Emission Platinum LEED certified” hotel in Chicago, then never even went so far as to apply for building permits. The investors got $147 million of their money back—and those who were still interested had no choice but to start the process over again.
The U.S. hit its annual quota of 10,000 EB-5 visas for the first time in 2014. Eighty-five percent of them went to Chinese nationals. The quota system stipulates that no country’s citizens can claim more than 7 percent of the total EB-5 visas in a year, as long as any other country wants them. But demand from outside China is small—though it’s growing—so in practice, citizens of every other country go directly to the front of the line and Chinese investors hoover up whatever’s left. The most visas ever claimed by a country other than China was 903, by South Korea in 2009.
Just before Trump took office, Homeland Security proposed rules that would raise the minimum investment for an EB-5 visa to $1.35 million and tighten the qualifications for distressed areas. The Trump administration hasn’t yet made clear whether the rules will go into effect.
Congress, for its part, continues to scrutinize the program. Primarily because of opposition by Grassley, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, and a few others, EB-5 has been surviving on short-term extensions for the past two years. Feinstein wants to kill the program entirely.
But that appears to be a minority view. Most politicians find it hard to turn down any program that promises economic development, and even some of those who take a hard line on immigration can stomach EB-5. In July, Senator Ted Cruz spoke in San Francisco at the EB-5 & Investment Immigration Convention. The Texas Republican told attendees that EB-5 creates jobs at zero taxpayer expense. The program also meshes with the priorities Trump set in his immigration proposal to curtail family preferences while maintaining those based on skills or wealth. Trump and his son-in-law, of course, have benefited from the program themselves through the Jersey City project. Kushner says he’s recused himself from any administration decisions on EB-5.
It may be that the only losers in this system are the prospective immigrants. Over the past four years, 13 percent of EB-5 loans failed to perform, more than twice the rate of commercial mortgage-backed securities, according to Mark Elletson, managing director at Brandlin & Associates. Lance Jurich, a Los Angeles bankruptcy attorney, says he’s been hearing lately from more EB-5 investors, and they’re often in a tough spot, because their loans are typically junior to others in bankruptcy proceedings. In addition to getting their principal back, Jurich’s EB-5 clients want help proving their money created jobs while the project was still viable, so they can maintain their immigration status. “When you’re representing a financial institution like a bank, the loan officers don’t get deported if the project fails,” Jurich says.
Basic math is also working against aspiring immigrants. The number of visas available to Chinese nationals is falling—to about 7,500 in 2016—as more people from other countries apply for the program. There are now so many pending applications from China that the U.S. government estimates a Chinese investor filing now may have to wait 10 years from the time he forks over his $500,000 to when he gets approval to move to the U.S. Liu, who paid his money in late 2013, didn’t get an interview with a U.S. visa officer until this May. He flew to Guangzhou, where a visa officer at a U.S. field office, seemingly without a glance at the files Qiaowai had prepared for him, granted him, his wife, and their son conditional visas good for two years.
In September, Liu plans to visit Los Angeles and see Disneyland with his family. Then he’ll start looking for a job in the area. He’s trying not to share his unease about the uncertainty of the visa process. “I’m actually quite worried,” he says. “But I leave the pressure to myself.”
As the backlog in the U.S. builds, Chinese agents see a new kind of opportunity: They’re trying to sell clients on destinations where investor visas are easier to obtain. At the seminar in June, Qiaowai’s Song suggested investors check out Malta, which is part of the European Union. It’s pricey, but fast. And there are other options. Whyte, the consultant, isn’t convinced of the potential. “The agents say to me, ‘My clients are also considering Australia,’ ” he says. “And I say, ‘Let them go to Australia. Go ahead!’ They want to come to America.”