Offer of visas for the wealthy gets few takers But program attracts highly vocal critics

December 22, 1991|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- The United States put its new "millionaire visas" on the market this month, offering U.S. residency to big-time investors. But it discovered that among the world's rich, there are not many takers.

After months of preparation and publicity, the government has just issued its final regulations for the special visas, which offer permanent residency status to foreigners who invest $1 million or more in a business that employs at least 10 people.

After almost three weeks, only 177 potential investors, far fewer than the government initially expected, have applied for the 10,000 visas, which are the first step toward citizenship.

This hesitancy by foreign millionaires contrasts with the avalanche of nearly 19 million applications that the government received two months ago in a first-come, first-served lottery that offered 40,000 visas to people from 34 selected nations.

Immigration lawyers say a host of fine points contribute to the reticence of rich foreigners, who can easily find other ways to stay in the United States.

But these difficulties are only a part of a larger debate about the program, which was created last year.

Critics of the visa offering say the nation is abandoning its historic ideals of immigration, which have traditionally held open America's doors to the poor and the oppressed. They say that for the first time, sheer wealth is a criterion for citizenship.

"The new concept is, 'What is in it for the United States?'" said Arthur C. Helton, an immigration specialist with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "This is a matter of concern in that it may signal a turning away from more traditional humanitarian bases including family unification and protecting refugees from persecution."

But the visas are drawing praise from others who say that at last America is putting its national interests ahead of sentiment and seeking new citizens who can invigorate the economy.

"I believe we've done a great job with boat people, and I think that a few yacht people are not going to hurt America," said Harold Ezell, a former regional commissioner for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who is now a middleman for potential millionaire visa applicants.

The 1990 immigration act took a similar pragmatic approach in nearly tripling the number of permanent residency visas offered to people with special job skills, to 140,000 a year. The shift was seen as a move to compete with other nations for the world's most accomplished people, including its wealthy entrepreneurs.

The bulk of the nearly 700,000 immigrant visas authorized by law each year will continue to be issued following traditional criteria, primarily for family reunification.

The investor-visa program, which offers 10,000 residencies a year, puts the United States in a competition with Canada and Australia to lure wealthy investors.

In Canada, for example, thousands of foreigners, particularly Asians, have won residency over the last four years by investing in or starting businesses.

But a number of factors make the U.S. offer less attractive than those of its competitors: It demands a higher investment, it requires the hiring of a fixed number of employees and it calls for a audit in two years to assure that the investment and the employees are still in place.

Moreover, a visa is already available, the E-visa, that allows a non-immigrant investor to live in the United States as long as he runs a business in this country.

Immigration attorneys also say a number of potential investors have been frightened off because citizenship will mean they must pay U.S. taxes on all their earnings worldwide.

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