Thursday, November 12, 2015

Lawsuit hammers feds on visa-cash gerrymander

By Kenric Ward

A Texas nonprofit is suing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accusing the federal government of improperly approving an immigration-funded project in South Texas.

The lawsuit — naming DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and Leon Rodriguez, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as defendants — asserts that a hotel-convention center venture in Laredo should not receive discounted funds via the EB-5 visa-investor program.

The suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Brownsville by Urban Equality NOW, which tracks economic development policies and projects.

Under EB-5 rules, foreign nationals can obtain U.S. green cards by investing $500,000 in job-creating projects located in Targeted Employment Zones plagued by high jobless rates. But the hotel’s census tract has an unemployment level of just 1.4 percent.

To meet the TEA threshold, the developer strung together 190 economically stressed census tracts in what the lawsuit calls “gerrymandering.”

The lawsuit cites similar tactics by high-end developers on Manhattan’s “Millionaire’s Row.”

“Congress tasked DHS and USCIS with the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that immigrant investors who seek TEA-supported green cards do so by actually investing in areas experiencing high unemployment,” the lawsuit states.

“The collective failure to do so deprives residents in these areas of the full benefit of the laws designed to assist them,” according to the court filing, which noted that USCIS imposes an annual cap on investor visas.

In approving expanded economic boundaries, immigration officials broadened the Laredo project’s fund-raising prospects. The TEA designation halves the buy-in cost for EB-5 applicants, who otherwise would have to invest $1 million in non-TEA areas to obtain a green card.

“This is a wonderful and very positive opportunity for the community,” said Laredo City Manager Carlos Villarreal.

The Laredo TEA spans 200 miles along the Gulf Coast. The zone was created by Civitas Laredo Regional Center, a public-private partnership.

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