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US 'investment visa' has hidden risks

2011-11-25 17:03    Ecns.cn     Web Editor: Li Heng

(Ecns.cn)--Chinese applicants account for three quarters of all people who applied for an American EB-5 visa in 2011. Of the 2,969 hopefuls, 934 have been approved, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The U.S. Congress created the EB-5 visa in 1990 to stimulate the U.S. economy by opening the immigration door just a crack for foreign investors. Only 270 Chinese applied for the EB-5 visa in 2007, but the number had increased tenfold by 2011. A sharp increase in applications has been evident the last four years, confirming that more and more wealthy Chinese intend to immigrate to the U.S. carrying their huge fortunes.

Regarding this new wave of investment immigration, the Research Center of the China Youth Daily conducted a survey via Qtick.com and minyi.cn, China's two major survey websites. According to 13,552 valid responses to the questionnaire, over 60 percent of interviewees are aware of this phenomenon and consider it a risky investment.

EB-5 does not guarantee a green card

The Immigrant Investor Program EB-5 administered by USCIS offers entrée to the U.S at a price rich foreigners can meet and acts as a driver for the U.S. economy in today's sluggish times. It seems to be a win-win game for both sides; however, the terms for the EB-5 visa more than suggest the game won't be an easy one for investors to play.

To obtain the visa, individuals generally need to invest a minimum of one million U.S. dollars in the U.S. or half a million in a "targeted employment area". The targeted areas are confined to rural settings or areas experiencing high-unemployment - at least 150 percent of the national average.

For China's big spenders, half a million U.S. dollars may not be a big price to pay, but holding an EB-5 visa does not automatically entitle the investor to a green card. An EB-5 visa is only valid for two years, and the investment must create or maintain ten full-time jobs. The money goes into the hands of the U.S. company rather than its investors. Whether any company turns out to be competent enough to maintain adherence to these strict conditions, nobody can know until the two years are up.

Risky or not

Of the 13,552 interviewees, over 55 percent were born in the 1980s, about 25 percent were born in 1970s and the post 1990s participants only accounted for nine percent. In the gender dimension, 52 percent are male and 48 percent female. As for educational background, undergraduates and graduates make up nearly 60 percent of the sample, while the remaining 40 percent are college or high school students.

Concerning the riskiness of this immigration investment, about 61 percent agree there is risk, with 16 percent specifying a high risk. Only 20 percent deny there is any risk or think the risk slight.

What kinds of risks may be inherent in the Immigrant Investor Program? Some 52.6 percent of interviewees selected "the unknown environment for investment", and over 31 percent singled out "once it has failed within those two years, the investor loses the visa".

"The EB-5 was initiated in the early 1990s, but few Chinese qualified for it then. Many Chinese are ideal candidates now and some U.S. immigration companies come to China to actively promote the program." says Qi Lixin, the chairman of the Beijing Personal Immigration Agency Association. Qi added that in the first phase of this program, few Chinese applied and the approval rate was relatively high, so some people simply concluded the time was ripe for immigrating to the U.S. Also many campaigns exaggerated the opportunity, and media reports accordingly mislead their audiences.

Uncertain ending

Even when everything goes smoothly and the investor is granted a green card, it may not mean achieving "the American dream".

In terms of business development, Chinese have fewer opportunities abroad than in China, argued Jin Canrong, a professor from Renmin University, "Many Chinese businessmen can easily achieve an annual profit margin of 10 to 20 percent in China, warns Jin, "but in developed countries, it is nice to see an annual profit margin of five to six percent".

Besides misguided financial comparisons, first-generation immigrants may find themselves burdened with issues involving family and cultural identity. Professor Jin said he has 31 college classmates who once went to develop their career abroad, but fewer than ten are still drifting around over there and the rest have returned home. "Some of my friends complain that life overseas is boring and lonely" said Jin.

First-generation immigrants also endanger their emotional connections with their children, said Jin. American Born Chinese (ABC) are alleged to be cultivated and hold western values. Chinese parents and their ABC kids probably have difficulty maintaining close relationships because of cultural differences and other issues.

Qi Lixin suggests Chinese investors make a decision tempered by wisdom and forethought. "The investor should first consult law experts, think about the financial burden, then make a comprehensive immigration plan that includes business or career development, family building and offspring education."