Investors follow INS rules and now fear deportation

February 20, 2000|By WALTER F. ROCHE JR. AND GARY COHN | WALTER F. ROCHE JR. AND GARY COHN,SUN STAFF

It's not hard to see how Sing-Young Wang and his wife, Chin-Hua Lu, would feel betrayed by America.

Four years ago, Wang gave up his medical practice and sold everything he owned in Taiwan to come to the United States so his 7-year-old son, born with a birth defect, could have a chance at a normal life.

The Wangs pinned their hopes on a little-known American program under which immigrants could get a permanent green card, the ticket to citizenship, in return for investing up to $1 million in a U.S. business. It is called the investor visa program.

Hard as he tried to follow the rules, Wang, his wife and their three children now face the threat of deportation. They and hundreds like them are caught in a dispute over what Congress intended when it created the program a decade ago. In an abrupt change in policy implemented in 1998, the Immigration and Naturalization Service reinterpreted its rules. Investor now face an almost-certain order to leave the United States.

The INS reversal has spawned legal challenges from Hawaii to South Carolina. For immigrant families, the waiting is painful.

"Sometimes I cannot sleep at night," Wang said. "I never felt so scared in my life."

Jeffrey was born with hydrocephalus -- fluid accumulated inside his skull, pressuring the brain. In Taiwan, he would face a life of institutionalization.

"I took him to every doctor and physical therapist," said Mrs. Wang, who refused to abandon hope. Even her mother disagreed when the Wangs decided that the best chance for their son was to come to America.

Fighting tears, she described how her mother, visiting a few years later, conceded that her daughter had been right -- Jeffrey was markedly improved.

"She said, 'You try your best to stay here,' " Mrs. Wang recalled.

To qualify for investor visas, the wangs were determined to adhere strictly to the law. They'd heard of programs where you could put up $125,000 instead of $509,000 or $1 million, but rejected them.

He abandoned his ophthalmology practice and invested in a California computer business with relatives there. When it failed, the Wangs lost about $700,000.

Intent on keeping their visas, they invested $509,000 in a Fresno partnership formed by Spencer Enterprises, which INS had approved for the program. They later learned INS had rejected investor visas for other partners.

Attorneys for Spencer Enterprises have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Fresno alleging that INS violated due process when it reversed itself and revoked the approvals of four immigrant investors and their families.

The Wangs are not plaintiffs in the lawsuit because their visas have not been revoked. Earlier this month, the INS notified the Wangs that the agency intends to revoke its approval.

"The INS is the judge and the jury," Wang said. "you can never fight back and win."

But Jeffrey's parents still believe they did the right thing.

"We lost a lot of money, but it's worth everything," said Wang. "Here, even if you have just one dollar you have a chance. He still has a chance to be independent."

Andy Su came from Taiwan to study at the University of Southern California, where he earned a bachelor's degree in structural engineering.

Su wanted to stay in the United States to get more experience before joining his family's contractlng business. He considered staying permanently. In 1996, he heard about the investor visa program.

Backed by money from his family, Su decided to take no chances, sidestepping programs that promised citizenship for only a fraction of the cost under the investor visa law.

He found what seemed an ideal opportunity -- the Hilltop Motor Lodge in Vista, Calif. The owner was deeply in debt and about to close. The 72-unit motel had lost money for two years and accumulated debt of $1 million.

Su put up nearly $1.3 million and bought it outright, not taking out a mortgage. He put 10 people to work, the number required under the 1990 investor visa law.

He gained a temporary visa in 1997. Last April, the INS gave notice that it intended to revoke his visa, questioning the source of his funds and whether his investment continued to meet job creation requirements. Su provided further documentation. On Aug. 25, he received final notice of revocation.

Fearing that he would be forced to leave, Su looked for an other means of staying in the country. He learned of the investor treaty program, which does not promise a permanent green card, has no set investment levels and is limited to immigrants from countries with trade relations with the United States.

Su went to Texas, crossed into Mexico and returned as a treaty investor, using the motel he had used to qualify for the investor visa program. As a treaty investor, Su will face reviews of his Investment every five years and will never get a permanent green card.

"I'm frustrated and feel like I've been cheated," Su said. "I thought that here in America, the rule was the rule. Sometimes you ' play by the rules and you get burned."

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