A much-criticized visa program that allows foreigners to win fast-track immigration in return for investing $500,000 in U.S. properties was extended in a bill signed by President Trump just one day before a sister of senior White House adviser Jared Kushner pitched the program to Chinese investors.
Trump, who advocates for restrictive immigration policies, extended the EB-5 investor program without long-promised changes as part of a massive federal spending bill. The program has offered wealthy foreigners a way around complicated U.S. immigration rules, allowing them to live in the United States and seek permanent residency in return for substantial investments.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that Nicole Kushner Meyer delivered a sales presentation in Beijing at which she urged Chinese citizens to invest in a New Jersey project being managed by the Kushner family’s real estate company. Meyer’s relationship to her brother was mentioned as part of the presentation.
On Sunday, the Kushner Companies, of which Meyer is a principal, said in an email to The Post that it “apologizes if that mention of her brother was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors. That was not Ms. Meyer’s intention.”
The firm stressed that Jared Kushner “stepped away from the company in January and has nothing to do with this project,” which it said would provide $180 million in tax revenue over 30 years.
Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law and headed his family’s real estate company until he agreed to serve in the White House, helped oversee the New Jersey luxury apartment project while managing the family’s vast real estate holdings.
Meyer’s sales presentation about the EB-5 investor visa program brought pointed criticism from Democrats, who said she sought to benefit from her ties to her brother, who, as the husband of Ivanka Trump, has become one of Trump’s closest advisers.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said in an interview Sunday that it was “pretty sketchy” for Meyer to make her sales pitch given that the program’s continued existence is in doubt, and the backlog of applications from Chinese investors may add five years to the process. In 2014, 85 percent of investor visas were issued to Chinese applicants.
“The fact that she is the sister to the top adviser to the president makes it even worse,” Lofgren said.
The sales pitch put a spotlight on what has long been a controversial program. A raft of reports from federal agencies have said it is a bureaucratic nightmare, prone to abuse and difficult to justify in terms of economic return. Members of both parties have said it should be killed or overhauled. The Obama administration proposed that the price of the least-expensive investor visas go from $500,000 to $1.3 million, and it left it to the Trump administration to decide whether to implement the change.
A White House spokesman said the administration would work with Congress to evaluate “wholesale reform” of the program, which might include “raising the price of the visa.”
This year, a bipartisan group of legislators proposed changes that included making it more costly to participate and more difficult to defraud the government. The changes included attempts to revive the program’s original intent of providing investment in rural and distressed urban areas in the United States. In recent years, developers have found ways to funnel investments to high-priced urban areas such as Manhattan by expanding the application area to include lower-income neighborhoods.
However, the two leaders of the reform effort, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said in a March 14 letter that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a real estate group were undercutting the reforms.
The senators wrote that the business organizations “may have recently agreed to a secretive backroom ‘deal’ that undercuts the many good faith efforts we have made during the past two years.” They said the business groups were trying to preempt their proposed reforms with “window dressing.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Chamber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The failure to overhaul the program did not lead Congress to suspend it. Instead, with the program set to expire, Congress tucked a program extension into a spending bill that passed Congress on Thursday. The overall measure was signed by Trump on Friday.
Trump has made immigration overhaul the centerpiece of his campaign and administration. He has called for the construction of a wall on the Mexican border, proposed that the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants be expelled, and called for a ban on many immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries.
Asked why Trump signed a bill allowing the continuation of the investor visa program, a White House spokesman said that Trump had little leeway to adjust a spending bill that was largely assembled by the Obama administration, although Trump did seek to shape the measure in other ways, such as money for the border wall.
It was a day after Trump signed the bill that Meyer made her presentation in Beijing in which she and her associates urged the Chinese to invest in the luxury apartment building, One Journal Square, which is slated to be built next year in Jersey City. “Invest early, and you will invest under the old rules,” one speaker said. A brochure put it even more plainly: “Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States.”
There is no suggestion that Trump signed the bill to help the Kushner firm get investments from the Chinese, but the timing underscored the tenuous nature of the program.
The investor visa program was designed to entice overseas investors to put $500,000 into projects, mainly in higher-unemployment areas, creating at least 10 jobs, or $1 million in wealthier areas. In return, an investor would receive the right to live in the United States and seek permanent residency after two years.
A federal watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, said in two recent reports that the program is subject to fraud and abuse, and that the economic benefits are questionable. One report said that many applications are thousands of pages long, requiring a review of more than 14 million pages a year in a system that still relies largely on paper documents.
Federal auditors said that the government should improve scrutiny of the source of investment funds, noting a case in which a petitioner was found to have potential financial ties “to a number of brothels in China,” according to an August 2015 report by the GAO. That investor was not approved for the program.
Kushner has previously raised $50 million from the program to help finance construction of Trump Bay Street, a 50-story apartment building in Jersey City, according to a Bloomberg report.
Kushner has promised to recuse himself from any administration decisions about the future of the program, a spokesman said.