They looked like any other family here in rural Michigan, but they are Dutch citizens. And they are faces of a fast-growing U.S. visa program in which foreigners can gain permanent residence by investing $500,000 in a U.S. project that creates at least 10 jobs.
Through the program, known as EB-5, the Dekkers have a half-million-dollar stake in the Marriott Marquis Hotel rising in the District next to the Washington Convention Center.
In return for their investment — and filing a foot-high stack of documents that includes bank and tax records, criminal background checks and even syphilis tests — they got five shiny new green cards in November.
The cards, emblazoned with their photos and an image of the Statue of Liberty, give them temporary residency that will become permanent in two years — so long as the Marriott project succeeds.
The Dekkers need it to keep their family together. Although they have lived on their farm off a country lane called Bad Axe Road since 2000, they had temporary visas that required their children to leave the country upon turning 21. Investing in the Marriott was their way to prevent that
“We love our life here,” said Judith Dekker, 48. “We have invested so much money because we want to live here in Michigan. And we don’t want to split up our family.”
The EB-5 program is booming in popularity, driven largely by a struggling U.S. economy in which developers are searching for new sources of capital. It is also fueled by rising demand from foreigners looking for access to U.S. schools, safe investment in U.S. projects and — in the case of China, where most of the investors are from — greater freedom.
The program has broad bipartisan support in Congress, and key senators who are negotiating an overhaul of the immigration system have said they are leaning toward expanding visa programs that provide an immediate boost to the economy.
But others argue that the EB-5 program amounts to buying citizenship, and that it unfairly allows wealthy foreigners to cut the visa line ahead of others who have waited for years.
“I don’t think we should sell admission to the United States,” said David North of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration.
Supporters call the program a no-brainer, because it creates jobs and attracts investment.
“If you get highly skilled, highly talented immigrants with money, who are paying and committing to things that are positive, I’m inclined to think it’s terrific,” former Treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers said.
Since the EB-5 program began in 1992, more than 29,000 people have received visas, foreigners have invested more than $6.8 billion and 50,000 American jobs have been created, U.S. officials said.