CHICAGO - U.S. immigration officials did not appear yesterday at a session on a controversial investor visa program - which was designed to spur foreign investments here - as officials of the American Immigration Lawyers Association blamed the federal government for a virtual freeze in the plan.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the immigration lawyers group, attorney Ira Kurzbaum told his colleagues that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service changed the rules for the investor visa program, and then made those changes retroactive.
"It's like Alice in Wonderland," said Kurzbaum.
An INS official, Kathy Lorr, had been scheduled to appear at the conference to explain the government's position on the change. But officials for the lawyers' group said they were informed at the last minute that Lorr was barred from attending by her superiors.
Instead, they said, the INS sent a two-page fax that provided association members with "no new information."
Seven lawsuits have been filed against the INS over the investor visa program, which was created by Congress in 1990 to attract more investment from outside the country.
Known formally as "EB5," the program allows foreign residents to get permanent green cards - the ticket to permanent U.S. citizenship - if they invest $1 million in an American business and that investment creates at least 10 jobs. Smaller investments qualify in areas of high unemployment.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, a New York attorney who also appeared on the panel yesterday, said that because of the new stringent INS rule interpretations, only a handful of investor visa applications have been approved in the past year. The law provides for up to 10,000 such visas a year, he said.
Critics of the program contend that INS officials, beginning in late 1997, drastically changed the standards used to determine eligibility for the program - leaving thousands facing the prospect of being forced to leave the country.
As The Sun reported in February, however, other government officials have charged that the problems were created much earlier when several former top INS officials obtained questionable and favorable rulings from their former government colleagues.
Those rulings allowed investors to qualify by only putting up an initial investment of as little as $100,000. Among those participating was former INS Commissioner Gene McNary, who by his own estimate, represented some 200 applicants for the investor visa program.
The former commissioner, court records show, represented not only investors, but a Maryland-based company called AIS, which was created specifically to market the investor visa program.
Those charges of favoritism have led to an investigation by the Inspector General in the U.S. Justice Department, the results of which have not been made public.
The INS actions also sparked the lawsuits, including cases now pending in South Carolina and California.
In one case, decided earlier this year, a federal judge upheld INS action in rejecting an investor visa program based in Hawaii. That decision is now under appeal.
At the conference yesterday, Kurzbaum said that the INS did issue a memo to its staff in early March that will allow some investors in the program to amend their applications to meet the new requirements. The memo was made public earlier this month.
If the only problem with the original application is related to the financial arrangements, then an amendment may be possible, he said. Yale-Loehr noted that one part of the investor visa program allowing the investments to be made in so-called regional centers is due to expire Sept. 30.
He said it was possible Congress may vote to extend the current law or shift the program to another federal agency, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration.
"It's hard to know what's going to happen," he said.