WASHINGTON - In the aftermath of a multimillion-dollar visa fraud scandal that sent two men to jail, a House subcommittee is drafting a bill that would enable hundreds of foreign investors to make their investments legal and allow them to obtain permanent U.S. residency.
"We're pretty close to a final draft," said George Fishman, chief counsel to the House Immigration subcommittee, adding that he expected the bill to be put up for a vote within the next month.
The legislation would affect the 11-year-old investor visa program under which foreigners can get permanent U.S. residency if they invest at least $500,000 in an American business and that investment produces at least 10 jobs. Many of those affected by the bill put up only $100,000 and used a loan supplied by promoters for the balance.
A report by the inspector general of the U.S. Justice Department concluded that only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars raised under the program was actually invested in troubled American businesses.
The Sun, in a series of articles published two years ago, reported that in many cases not only were new jobs not created but companies that were supposed to benefit - mostly clothing manufacturers in the South - had shut down.
Opponents call the bill "stealth amnesty" and say it is another example of preferential treatment for promoters who used inside connections at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to profit from the visa program.
"These aliens never qualified for the benefit they received," said Steven E. Perlman, a New York immigration lawyer who has sued the INS to force the release of a report on an internal investigation of the program.
Noting recent moves by Congress tightening immigration requirements, he said, "It's just amazing they would show such generosity to this particular group of aliens who don't deserve it."
Supporters of the bill say it is needed because the INS retroactively imposed tight new standards on the program in 1998.
"It's been over two years, and people are hoping that something will finally go through," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, who heads the investors committee for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "It's a matter of fairness."
The bill would give those who filed for the program before 1998 but have not yet been given a permanent green card a chance to meet the strict new standards, which require that the full $500,000 be invested before a green card is issued.
Though exact figures are not available, experts familiar with the program estimate that the tougher requirements have left nearly 900 foreign investors in a legal limbo.
The pressure for a legislative solution increased after several federal court rulings upheld the INS decision to tighten standards for the program, formally EB5.
Action on the bill comes only a few months after the executives of a now-defunct Virginia investor visa firm called Interbank were sentenced to about 10 years each in federal prison for submitting several hundred fraudulent applications to the INS.
Although federal prosecutors described the Interbank investors as "the perfect victims," it is not clear whether those aliens will benefit from the bill.
Fishman said the proposal, labeled by its backers "the EB5 fix" bill, had been poised for introduction several times, including just before the terrorist attacks Sept. 11. Then, it was once again shunted aside by more pressing business. Thus far, no bill has actually made it to either the House or Senate floor for a vote.
House Immigration Committee Chairman George W. Gekas, a Pennsylvania Republican, has written to INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar urging him not to take action to deport any of the investors since action on the so-called "fix" bill is imminent. The letter states that the measure has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
Fishman stressed that the proposal would not be as sweeping as bills initially advocated by immigration lawyers.
"It's a lot less than they were asking for. They were going to just hand out green cards," said Fishman. "We had to draft it very carefully.
"It's been the committee's feeling that if people in good faith signed up for the program and the INS then changed the rules, then that wasn't fair," said Fishman.
Under the bill, EB5 applicants who initially put up only $100,000 and who the INS determined did not meet program requirements would have a chance to comply with the new standards.
According to the Immigration subcommittee aide, those caught in the rules change would have an additional two years to put up at least $500,000 for investment in an American business. He said they would get credit for the $100,000 already invested.
The applicants would also have to show that the investment produced 10 new jobs.
"If at the end of two years the jobs aren't there, then INS will say no to the application," he said.