Time to repeal or replace the ‘golden visa’

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2017.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2017. The New York Times

A recurring meme in the immigration debate is that people should wait their turn to enter the United States.

At first glance, that seems eminently fair. But not everyone is allowed to get in the immigration line, and people able and willing to write a large check can move to the front of the queue.

Here’s a shameless example, courtesy of President Donald Trump’s in-laws. Just hours after Trump signed legislation renewing the EB-5 visa program, which opens U.S. doors to people who invest at least $500,000 in commercial enterprises, the sister of presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner pitched permanent U.S. residence — and eventual citizenship — to potential Chinese investors in a luxury apartment project in New Jersey.

There was nothing subtle about the marketing brochure distributed at the event in Beijing: “Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States.”

No need to worry about any walls.

This isn’t Washington selling green cards. The government is giving them away for free, so private businesses can obtain cheap money.

Congress created the EB-5 visa program in 1990 as an incentive to invest in rural areas. But the rules have been twisted so the primary beneficiaries are developers of hotels, office buildings and luxury apartments in big cities, including the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Beverly Hills.

For wealthy foreigners seeking a shortcut to permanent legal residency in the United States, and willing to settle for low returns on their investments, the EB-5 program lives up to its nickname: the “golden visa.” But a Government Accountability Office report in 2015 concluded that it carries a high risk of fraud and has “no reliable method to verify the source of the funds of petitioners.”

A bipartisan group of senators is studying possible reforms of the program. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, would go a step further. They introduced legislation to eliminate the EB-5 program.

“I’ve long called for an end to the EB-5 program,” Feinstein said this week in a written statement. “It says that visas — and eventual U.S. citizenship — are for sale, a terrible message for the 4.4 million people waiting in line for visas — some for as long as 23 years.”

The EB-5 extension signed by Trump was part of an omnibus spending bill and only lasts until Sept. 30.

Trump signed an executive order calling for an overhaul of the H-1B visa program, which allows U.S. companies to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. But the White House has said nothing of substance about the EB-5 program, which Trump used on some of his own projects before becoming president.

The EB-5 program started with good intentions, but it hasn’t lived up to its billing. Congress ought to eliminate it, as Grassley and Feinstein have proposed. Short of that, how about redirecting the program to people who invest in affordable housing rehabilitation of airports, highways and other public infrastructure?

Editor’s note: Editorials from other newspapers are offered to stimulate debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune.