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Editorial: Visas for Sale; EB-5 Program Caters to Wealthy Investors

Many people would say that the opportunity to live in America is priceless. To the contrary, the federal government assigns to it a very precise figure: $500,000.

As our colleague Jim Kenyon reported in the Sunday Valley News, under the EB-5 program run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, foreign nationals can purchase the right to live permanently in this country by investing a minimum of $500,000 each in private development projects in rural areas that will create at least 10 full-time jobs for American workers. Those who acquire coveted “green cards” in this fashion can bring their immediate family members, including children under 21, along with them, and become eligible for U.S. citizenship after five years. They also don’t have to live in the state in which they invested. The only apparent downside is that they are not guaranteed any return on their investment, although that apparently is not an issue to those who seek to take advantage of this program, under which up to 10,000 visas a year can be issued .

As Kenyon reported, developers of one of the largest private economic development projects proposed in Vermont history — one with the potential to remake the state’s pristine but poverty-ridden Northeast Kingdom — are taking full advantage of EB-5, which is championed in Washington by the state’s powerful senior senator, Patrick Leahy, and in Vermont by the governor, Peter Shumlin.

Developers Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros want to raise more than $800 million from EB-5 investors to build a variety of manufacturing, research and tourism-related projects that they say promise to directly or indirectly create 10,000 jobs, with a significant core of them in high-end manufacturing and scientific research.

“Ten thousand jobs in the Northeast Kingdom is not a small deal,” says Shumlin, for once appearing as the master of understatement. Indeed, Governor, it’s a very big deal, especially for a region where unemployment and poverty have proven stubbornly resistant to state efforts to promote prosperity.

The developers, who have already turned Jay Peak into a four-season resort with the aid of EB-5 money, also point out that commercial banks that have the wherewithal to finance projects as ambitious as the one they have in mind for the Northeast Kingdom are not exactly falling all over themselves to lend in rural areas. In Stenger’s view, the stars are aligned in a way that they might never be again, and EB-5 money is instrumental to realizing the dream of revitalizing the Northeast Kingdom. And, it must be noted that sometime this year, he’s planning to begin repaying the 35 foreigners who originally invested in Jay Peak.

So this seems to have all the ingredients of a win-win situation, right? To which we must answer “Yes, but ...”

Yes because this appears to be an innovative way to finance worthy projects that might not otherwise get done.

The reservation is this: Whatever the benefits on the ground in terms of job creation, the EB-5 program has a fundamental flaw. Something as precious as permanent residency in the United States should not be auctioned off. It would be far better to confer such status on potential immigrants whose particular talents, expertise and initiative will contribute to the country’s general well-being, no matter their current economic status, or to those fleeing persecution abroad who have traditionally looked upon America as a beacon of hope. That’s the kind of immigration policy money can’t buy, and one worthy of a great nation.