Civic leaders in El Monte, California, saw the Transit Village development planned for land around the bus station as a way to revitalize downtown.
Developers John Leung and Jean Lang pitched it as something else to wealthy Asians: a ticket to a U.S green card.
The pair solicited $500,000 from a South Korean eager to win a resident visa through a federal program designed to stimulate job creation. The developers’ company went bust, the investor doesn’t have a green card and Transit Village didn’t produce any jobs in El Monte, a city of about 120,000 east of Los Angeles. Leung and Lang said they did nothing wrong. City officials said federal authorities didn’t do enough.
“Little El Monte stepped up to expose these people,” said Rene Bobadilla, the city manager. “Where the heck is the federal government?”
The 22-year-old program gives foreigners a shot at U.S. residency if they invest in businesses putting Americans to work. While it’s grown in the past four years, its success as an economic engine and a safe investment is being challenged.
Projects aren’t rigorously vetted and have been hyped by operators and brokers, and immigration authorities have botched visa claims and stranded investors and their families, according to lawsuits and participants critical of government supervision.
“It’s great in concept,” Bobadilla said. “But it’s very poorly monitored.”
Funding Ski Resorts
Known as the EB-5 program, it has attracted more than $2.2 billion, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. About $1 billion of that came in during the last fiscal year, according to the Chicago-based trade group Association to Invest In the USA. The money has funded shopping malls, hotels, wind farms and ski resorts.
Regional centers -- authorized to pool foreigners’ money into equity stakes or loans for approved projects -- have grown to 218 from 11 in 2007, according to USCIS. Most EB-5 immigrants get visas through regional centers. The agency issued 2,364 EB-5 visas in the first three months of this fiscal year, up from 158 in all of fiscal 2005.
Congressional authorization for the regional centers expires in September. The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness has called for the EB-5 program to be “radically” expanded to generate at least 40,000 jobs a year.
Government estimates that the program has produced 43,280 so far are questioned. There’s no way to know because EB-5 investors get credit for a project’s total employment, “even if the capital of others is fueling the enterprise,” according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report.
In one case, Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards real-estate development, immigrant investors are putting about 30 percent of the capital into one pool financing the project, and claiming all jobs that pool is expected to create, according to George Olsen, managing principal of New York City Regional Center LLC.
The EB-5 program rules don’t demand enough proof that promised jobs, however they’re calculated, will be generated, said Jose Latour, a Miami immigration lawyer who co-owns American Venture Solutions Regional Center LLC in Florida.
“There’s no accountability,” he said. “Atrociously inflated projects are going to result in a lot of rejected green card applications.”
Foreigners are eligible for temporary residency for themselves, spouses and unmarried children under 21 if USCIS sanctions their investments. They have to show they’ll spur 10 jobs for every $500,000 in a rural or high-unemployment area, and for every $1 million elsewhere. If USCIS finds that hasn’t happened in two years, the investors don’t get green cards.
No Public Reports
Fewer than 10 percent of EB-5 pools seeking money today may succeed in getting participants both green cards and their cash back, Latour estimated. According to USCIS, 42 percent of past investors received permanent visas. The agency doesn’t track whether they recover their money.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of USCIS, said the agency is “very focused on enhancing the integrity of the program” as it grows in popularity.
The agency doesn’t make public regional centers’ annual reports, which it began to require in a standardized form last year to keep the government better informed. It also hired two economists and three business analysts to review applications.
“Our approval of a particular petition doesn’t mean that their investment is a good one,” Mayorkas said. “We don’t really get into the business models.”
Calls For Monitoring
Businesses that solicit EB-5 money should be “very strictly” monitored, said Edward C.Y. Lau, a San Francisco attorney. He represents three Chinese citizens who say in a lawsuit they lost $3 million they gave to developers for what was advertised as an EB-5 project for a Chinese restaurant in San Bruno, California. Their money vanished, they say in the suit against the developers, and the restaurant wasn’t built.
The defendants didn’t file a response to the suit. There was no answer at a number for the developers listed on paperwork submitted to the city proposing the project, and the Oakland address on the documents is a spa offering massages and facials. Lau said his clients declined to be interviewed.
“It is a good program,” Lau said. “That doesn’t excuse the fact that there may be foreign parties investing in projects that are improper.”
In December, five South Korean investors and their families sued USCIS claiming the agency wrongly denied them permanent residency. They received temporary resident visas, moved to the U.S. and faced deportation because of the agency’s “refusal to recognize normal business practices,” according to the complaint in federal court in Los Angeles.
Two Dairy Farms
They put $2.5 million into a South Dakota dairy farm that went out of business while their funds were in escrow, and reinvested in another dairy farm marketed by the same regional center, now called SDRC Inc., according to the suit. USCIS denied their green cards, saying they should have reapplied before giving the second farm money.
USCIS has agreed to reopen their cases and they’ve put their complaint on hold, their Miami-based lawyer, Ira Kurzban, said. USCIS officials declined to comment on the suit.
Joop Bollen, president of Aberdeen, South Dakota-based SDRC, is a defendant in a civil case filed in federal court in Sioux Falls in October. It claims he provided “inaccurate and incomplete information” to Chinese citizens who put $500,000 each into the Northern Beef Packers cattle processing plant in Aberdeen in 2009 and 2010. He failed to disclose there were liens against the plant and that it was then about two years behind schedule, according to the suit.
‘Really Crappy Projects’
The four original plaintiffs dropped out of the suit and were replaced with four others in November. Their lawyers declined to comment.
Bollen, who denies the allegations, filed a counter-suit against Beijing-based Henry Global Consulting Group, which SDRC hired to recruit the investors. He says in his complaint the company has “falsely advised” them about the plant and continues to try to turn them against it because of a dispute over the fees Henry Global charges. Lawyers for the defendant couldn’t be reached for comment.
So many people are trying to make money off the EB-5 program now that it’s difficult to know the difference between “really crappy projects and really good projects,” said Bollen, whose center has put EB-5 money into a wind farm, a hotel and casino and a turkey processing factory. “There are a bunch of sleazebags who will sell anything.”
New Nets Arena
Some claims about job generation are dubious, said Michael Gibson, a Tampa-based investment adviser who vets EB-5 deals for foreigners. When a project “substitutes EB-5 capital for more expensive bank financing or bond funding or even equity,” he said, “that isn’t really creating new economic activity. It’s margin for the developer.”
The Atlantic Yards developer, Forest City Ratner Cos., is borrowing $228 million in EB-5 money for a $1.4 billion infrastructure and arena fund that’s paying for a new subway entrance, parking facilities, municipal water and sewer line upgrades and other work in the vicinity of Barclays Center, according to Joe DePlasco, a spokesman for the company. The arena, which is being built for the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets, will be an anchor of the $4.9 billion development, planned to include up to 6,430 housing units and 247,000 square feet of retail space.
The loan money is coming from 456 foreigners through the New York City Regional Center, according to Olsen, the managing principal. Forest City first asked for EB-5 money to pay off loans to the company from a unit of New York-based Gramercy Capital Corp., a real estate investment trust. When USCIS ruled against that, the plan was revised, Olsen said.
Four Property Lots
Part of one Gramercy loan was taken care of. On July 26, 2011, New York City records show, Forest City paid off some of a loan from the REIT that was secured by property including four lots on Dean Street, Pacific Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. Forest City said it used a line of credit to pay that debt. The next day, according to the records, the regional center loaned Forest City $24 million in EB-5 funds for infrastructure costs, and that loan was secured by the same four lots.
“If this is simply a debt replacement,” Gibson said, it isn’t “bringing new capital to stimulate job creation.”
Forest City’s DePlasco said the company worked with the regional center to make sure EB-rules were followed. Olsen said the investors’ money is “doing what it’s supposed to.”
To win green cards, the foreigners’ $228 million has to generate 4,560 jobs within two years of their investments. Olsen said the EB-5 business plan shows that number will be met, plus a “cushion” that could put it at more than 5,400.
The number of EB-5 jobs that will be created was calculated by forecasting the jobs the $1.4 billion infrastructure and arena fund will generate, excluding jobs spurred by state money that USCIS rules say can’t be counted, Olsen said.
By his reckoning, the $228 million represents about 30 percent of $760 million in the non-state money -- and the EB-5 investors are allowed to take credit for all the jobs created by the $760 million.
Using a different economic model, Empire State Development has figured all of Atlantic Yards will spur about 8,000 permanent jobs, according to Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the state agency, which oversees the project.
For would-be immigrants to lay claim to so much of the employment for so little money is “shady business,” said Norman Oder, a Brooklyn freelance writer and Atlantic Yards critic who maintains a blog about it.
EB-5 regulations are right to give immigrant investors credit for all jobs on a project even if their money represents a minor part of the total spent, said Peter Joseph, executive director of the trade group Association to Invest In the USA. “It’s been really successful at laying the ground work for other pieces of financing,” he said.
In El Monte, Transit Village was going to include shops, apartments, offices, restaurants and hotel space and an incubator for environmental businesses. The El Monte Community Redevelopment Agency awarded TV LLC, headed by John Leung and Jean Lang, the development deal in March 2008.
Four months later, USCIS approved an El Monte regional center, which the application said would attract at least 476 investors. The city didn’t learn about the Leung-Lang center for a year, according to Isabel Birrueta, a lawyer at Olivarez, Gallagher & Padilla in Los Angeles who represents El Monte.
In May 2009, Leung and Lang were arrested after a business partner made allegations of fraud and forgery in connection with bank loans. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department didn’t pursue the case when it learned the FBI was investigating them, said Lieutenant Sherri Anderson of the department’s commercial crimes unit. Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said she couldn’t comment.
While Leung and Lang settled the dispute with the partner for $850,000 last August, they’ve haven’t made the settlement payments, according to a March 7 civil court filing.
El Monte terminated the development deal in May 2010. TV LLC filed for bankruptcy protection in January 2011 and two months later sued the city, claiming breach of contract and seeking at least $18 million in damages. The bankruptcy was converted to Chapter 7 liquidation two months ago.
Leung and Lang said they’ve appealed USCIS’s September 2011 revocation of their regional center. They blame administrative glitches, misunderstandings and bad communication.
As for the South Korean investor and her money, “we are trying to work out a program” to repay her, Leung said. He said her $500,000 went into the failed business incubator.
El Monte is still involved with the EB-5 program: Last August, a regional center in Illinois loaned the city $10 million to clear land for an expansion of the bus station in what’s now called El Monte Gateway.