— -- The obscure immigration program that helps wealthy foreigners get American Green Cards is proving profitable to some people with very familiar names.
Hillary Clinton’s brother is involved. So are powerful California politician Willie Brown and Chicago political boss Richard M. Daley. One firm that helps wealthy Chinese gain access to the little-known immigration program even tried to recruit President Obama’s half-brother, Mark Obama-Ndesandjo.
“There are always going to be people in China -- and in any country for that matter -- who will try to use influence and try to use well-known people for business opportunities,” Obama told ABC News.
The immigration program in question is known by its visa designation -– EB5. It provides a short-cut to a Green Card for foreign nationals willing to invest $500,000 to $1 million in certain American business and development ventures. Obama said he was approached by a Chinese firm trying to find Chinese investors for a transit development in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte.
“They said they wanted to pay a lot,” said Obama, who shared the same father as the American President, but now lives in China. “But I told them I'm out of this, I don't want anything to do with it.”
His gut instinct against further involvement appears to have been well placed. The El Monte development as first proposed was never built and the original developers are no longer involved. And like more than three dozen others connected to the immigration program, it became the subject of a wide-ranging federal investigation, according to documents obtained by ABC News.
Politicians have been an attractive draw for the so-called EB-5 regional centers. The privately-run centers have the job of recruiting foreign investors –- most of them coming from China. The centers then pair the investors (and their money) with various hotel developments, business ventures and construction projects.
Familiar names such as Obama or Clinton -- as in Hillary Clinton’s brother Anthony Rodham, who runs a regional center called Gulf Coast Funds Management -- help lend prestige to the ventures, Obama-Ndesandjo said. That’s even true despite having a distant relationship with his half-brother – a topic Obama discussed in his recent book, An Obama’s Journey.
“My feeling is that they probably felt that they would be able to get some status from that,” he said.
Rodham did not return calls from ABC News seeking comment for this report.
The list of political names with ties to EB-5 continues to grow. Just this week, The Chicago Sun Times reported on Daley's involvement in Tur Partners, a firm the former Chicago mayor opened with his son, and has been approved by Homeland Security to recruit overseas investment for those looking to obtain permanent U.S. residency.
In a number of high profile cases, internal documents show that regional centers with political connections made efforts to use them. When Terry McAuliffe, now the governor of Virginia, got involved in an electric car venture that was funded in part with EB-5 investments, he attempted to unclog the government review process with calls and emails to the head of the program, Alijandro Mayorkas, internal emails show. Sen. Harry Reid also used his political muscle to persuade the immigration agency to expedite the processing of visas for investors in a Las Vegas hotel and casino project.
Sen. Charles Grassley said he has spoken to several whistleblowers who are concerned about the impact of this kind of political pressure.
“I have run across concerns from whistle blowers that people within the Department of Homeland Security administering this program have... responded to political pressure to do what I call get to yes very quickly,” Grassley told ABC News.
The investment program exploded in popularity during the recent economic downturn, in large part because it encouraged investment at a time many development projects were struggling to find financing. Peter Joseph, who heads the trade association for EB-5 regional centers, said there is nothing unusual about politicians getting involved to help cut through red tape in Washington.
“Generally speaking, it's very common for congressional offices to undertake issues on behalf of constituents that -- involve dealing with federal bureaucracy,” Joseph said.
Politicians appreciated that, Joseph said, because in many cases the foreign investment stimulated job creation in their districts. Las Vegas, where construction had stagnated as the recession hit, was a prime example of that.
”Senator Reid is proud to have successfully fought for a project that creates 8,600 Nevada jobs,” a Reid spokesman told ABC News in response to questions.
Increasingly, EB-5 programs have created headaches for the politicians who got involved. In South Dakota, the use of political influence in an EB-5 venture to expand dairy operations in the state became grist for attack ads in the recent U.S. Senate campaign. McAuliffe’s reported efforts to enlist help for his project from Mayorkas (a one-time Clinton appointee) wound up grist for political attacks during his 2013 gubernatorial campaign. McAuliffe released a statement at the time saying he made no effort to prod the immigration agency into granting visas. In his statement, he blamed Grassley for ginning up the controversy.
“I find it unfortunate that a Republican Senator from Iowa -- who has a long history of support for the EB-5 program —- selectively released information for the purpose of partisan attacks instead of getting facts,” McAuliffe said in the statement.
[Editor's Note: This report has been updated to clarify that The Chicago Sun Times reported on former Mayor Richard Daley's involvement with Tur Partners, which the paper said was formed after Daley left office.