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Prices Increasing For Visas To Foreign Nationals Who Invest In American Companies


For three decades, foreigners who put at least $1/2 million into projects that create American jobs have been able to trade that investment for visa and a shot at a green card. It's known as the golden visa, and it's about to get more expensive. The federal agency that oversees the visa program, known as EB-5, is raising the price for participating.

Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: You're in downtown Los Angeles surrounded by tall buildings and digital billboards looking up at a sleek, gray 23-story hotel. Standing here, one thing you can't see is the big pool of investors who paid to build it - about 360 of them. This is one of dozens of projects here in LA and many more around the country financed through EB-5. Every year the program provides visas and a path to citizenship for a limited number of foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in a job-creating American venture.

ISHAAN KHANNA: I'm well aware that I'm from a family that has more resources than most.

SCOTT: Ishaan Khanna is 26 years old and originally from New Delhi. He became an EB-5 investor a few years ago, which was good timing because on November 21, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to raise the program's minimum investment to $900,000. Even for a program that favors the wealthy, that's a big difference.

KHANNA: So both my parents are educated in the United States. You know, both of them knew the value of the U.S. education. But they're in...ended up coming back to India.

SCOTT: Khanna came here for college, too, to Loyola Marymount University in LA. There he decided to stay in the States after graduation and looked at various options. He liked that EB-5 offered the security of permanent residency.

KHANNA: So I'm lucky that a lot of the money that I used for my investment came from my parents.

SCOTT: With their help, Khanna invested in a Four Seasons hotel in Puerto Rico. Not all EB-5 investments are in hotels or real estate, but that's where a lot of the money ends up. Khanna learned so much about the program he now works finding other Indian investors for the company that helped put his deal together, EB5 United. But he probably couldn't have afforded the new $900,000 minimum.

KHANNA: I have a younger sister. She studied in the U.S. as well. My parents had to quite literally choose which child to do it for. I'm sure if they had the ability to do it for both, they would have done it then and there.

STEVE YALE-LOEHR: I think we'll still see a fair number of people willing to put that money down.

SCOTT: Steve Yale-Loehr teaches immigration law at Cornell University. He predicts in the long run, there will always be demand for this kind of visa. But in the short-term, the new higher cost could lead some foreign investors to turn away from the U.S. to other countries with similar programs.

YALE-LOEHR: Obviously countries like to see money coming in if it's going to create jobs. And so the United States is competing with these other countries.

SCOTT: This month, on top of the new cost, federal officials will start exercising more oversight of projects soliciting investments. That's partly to prevent would-be investors from getting swindled into bogus deals, which has been a problem. Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, is one lawmaker who's pushed for reforms.

CHUCK GRASSLEY: It's cracking down on corruption, and it's also ensuring investments go to places that need them the most.

SCOTT: See, EB-5 was originally designed to help the economies of rural and high-unemployment areas. Those who invest outside those places are technically supposed to pay more. But with lax rules around defining high-unemployment areas, it often hasn't worked out that way. The new rules also tighten up those standards.

Back in downtown LA, another EB-5-funded project is called Metropolis - three soaring towers with luxury condos and a hotel. For now, EB-5 remains popular, as investors have lined up to enroll before the new rules kick in.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE STATES' "YOUR GIRL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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