The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is nearing completion of an investigation into an increasingly popular but controversial immigration program that provides a visa and possibly a Green Card to foreign nationals who invest $500,000 or $1 million in an approved American business venture that creates jobs, agency insiders told ABC News.
Career employees at the federal agency said that the investigation has focused on the way now-Deputy Secretary Alijandro N. Mayorkas ran the program, which has been under scrutiny for approving visas for foreign investors even when background checks raised suspicions about fraud, money laundering, even espionage.
Mayorkas declined to discuss shortcomings in the program, known by its visa designation EB-5, highlighted in a recent ABC News investigation. That investigation found examples of visas being approved in spite of red flags from the FBI and its own fraud detection unit. In one case, an applicant that had been flagged under suspicion of profiting from commercial child pornography was still granted a visa.
Following publication of the ABC News report, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he was “aware of the concerns” raised by ABC News “centering around security” and said the DHS “continually evaluate[s] whether more security should be provided for the program.”
In response to specific concerns raised about the American businesses certified to recruit investors through the program, known as regional centers, Homeland Security officials said there was little they could do to address the problem. They said in a statement that the immigration agency “only has the authority to terminate a regional center if there is evidence the center is no longer promoting economic growth -– not on the basis of national security concerns.”
“This lack of discretion limits the ability of the Director or the Secretary to terminate a regional center in the event of suspected or even proven criminal activity,” the statement says, adding that the administration sought additional leeway from Congress to act on security concerns but did not receive it.
Career employees inside the department, several of whom have been aware of interviews being conducted by investigators with the inspector general’s office, said they believe the report will focus on the impression that Mayorkas opened the door to politicians who sought to expedite visa approvals for foreign investors who had put money into projects in their home states or congressional districts. In an appearance before Congress in 2014, Mayorkas denied doing so, saying, “I will tell you that the allegations as they have been framed are unequivocally false.”
Congressional critics of the visa program, however, have continued to voice concerns about the vulnerabilities it has created, especially the possibility raised in internal Homeland Security documents suggesting that the boutique immigration program could be exploited by terrorists.
“It is shocking,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican. “Particularly when you have F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies that are saying national security could be compromised or is being compromised -- that's enough for us to be concerned.”
Five different Homeland Security whistleblowers spoke with ABC News for its original report about a range of cases where visas were approved despite numerous red flags. They said objections were often ignored because the immigration program is so popular within the Obama Administration and with members of Congress from both parties. Known as the EB-5 visa program, foreigners who are willing to invest $500,000 in an American business can jump to the front of the line and obtain legal status to live in the U.S. for two years. If the investment is shown to create at least 10 jobs, the investors can receive a “Green Card” -- permanent residency.
Some immigration groups have criticized the program as “nothing more than selling Green Cards.” Brent Wilkes, the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights groups in the U.S. said it “short circuits” the immigration process, allowing foreign nationals “with enough cash” to leap ahead of legitimate applicants who lack the means.
Supporters call the program a “win-win” because as the investors accelerate through the immigration process, their overseas money helps spur job-creating projects in the U.S.
“The American worker [is] able to get to work thanks to the capital investment coming through the program,” said Peter Joseph, the executive director of the Association to Invest in the U.S.A., a Washington, D.C. group that has advocated for the little-known immigration program.
But an ABC News investigation found that in addition to reaching wealthy foreign investors, the program has become a magnet for those seeking to sidestep the scrutiny of the traditional immigration process. In one case, immigration officials pushed through a visa application from Chinese investor in a Las Vegas hotel project despite an internal review that found the investor had previously been turned back at the border, and much of his visa application had likely been fabricated, immigration records show.