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Immigrants invest in U.S. businesses in exchange for visas

But because the primary motivation of the immigrant investors whom Wallach is wooing is to create enough jobs to meet the visa requirement rather than to maximize the return on their investment, they might prove less skittish.

'It was worth it to me'

Program participant Eric Canal-Forgues, a law professor and businessman from France, is a case in point. In 2007, he invested $500,000 in a regional center that funded construction of Comcast's headquarters in Philadelphia.

He said it is unlikely that he will get more than a 1 percent return by the five-year point at which he will be allowed to withdraw his money. That will barely cover the roughly $50,000 in administrative costs of his investment, let alone the loss of value because of inflation.

But Canal-Forgues, 47, who has moved with his wife and two children to Miami, said he has no regrets. "I knew the conditions going in, and it was worth it to me," he said. He said that Miami was attractive because of its financial opportunities and that he plans to open a franchise of children's clothing stores.

But more than anything else, he said, "we really wanted our children to be raised in a dual culture, French and American, especially because I think the educational system at the university level is much stronger here than in France."

Statistics suggest that many EB-5 applicants might also find the program appealing because it is considerably speedier than other options: Nearly 70 percent of immigrants granted investor visas in fiscal 2009 were from China or South Korea, countries whose nationals face decade-long waits for family-reunification visas because of quotas on the annual number allowed in from any one country.

Concerns about fraud

That immigrant investors are more focused on obtaining visas than maximizing profits -- combined with the government's limited capacity for oversight -- has caused even some avid proponents of the EB-5 program to worry that a profusion of fraudulent or ill-advised ventures might soon flourish alongside legitimate ones.

"The thing that concerns me most is that some fly-by-night [operation] will lose a large group of investors' money, and it will poison the well for the rest of us," said David Morris, founder of EB-5 America, a Washington regional center that invested $20 million to refurbish the Sugarbush ski resort in Vermont in past years and is now raising money for construction projects in the District.

Yet Morris also notes that some of the stricter rules of the EB-5 program -- including the rigid timeline by which the job creation requirement must be met -- do not always mesh with the realities of the business world, with consequences for both immigrant investors and potential business ventures.

For instance one of Morris's clients, Rodrigo Martinez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Arlington County, was initially keen to invest in a project to renovate the historic O Street Market at Seventh and O streets NW. "The fact that you are helping to have a positive effect on the community that you're joining, I really liked that idea," said Martinez, 27.

But fearing that construction delays would prevent that project from creating sufficient jobs in time, Martinez, who attended law school in the United States and now works as a business consultant, switched his money last year to the Sugarbush resort instead.

Supporters of the EB-5 program also complain that the government's review process for approving potential regional centers is still too slow, especially at a time when a similar Canadian visa program is attracting three times as many immigrant investors.

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