American citizenship for sale?

Posted: Jan 24, 2001 12:00 AM
In his inaugural address, President George W. Bush issued a call to reinvigorate citizenship: "We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them." Bush can do his part by eliminating one of the greatest abuses of American citizenship: the Immigrant Investor Visa program. It has spawned a niche market in skirting laws, scratching backs, and selling out. This fraud-ridden scheme was created under an obscure section of the 1990 Immigration Act, signed by Bush's father. Known as the EB-5 law, it allows wealthy foreigners to purchase green cards by investing between $500,000 and $1 million into new commercial enterprises or troubled businesses. After two years, foreign investors, their spouses and children all receive permanent resident status -- which allows them to contribute to U.S. political campaigns and provides a speedy gateway to citizenship. Making political access and the privilege of citizenship available to the highest foreign bidder offends the very ideals Bush wants to promote. Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, a longtime critic of the program, noted: "All you need is green. You do not have to know anything about the poor and huddled masses that Emma Lazarus wrote about ... How crassly we demean this precious blessing we call citizenship." Supporters of the program claimed it would attract substantial overseas investment to aid struggling American businesses. But the benefits of this economic development plan have gone mostly to former Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, who formed lucrative limited partnerships to cash in on their access. Here's how the racket worked: Immigrant investors paid token fees to these partnerships. The partnerships secured promissory notes for the remainder of the foreign investments, which were forgiven after investors received their permanent green cards. Former INS employees, working for these partnerships, aggressively lobbied their old colleagues to accept such bogus financial arrangements. As a result, according to an internal U.S. Justice Department investigative report, "aliens were paying $125K" instead of the required $500,000 to $1 million minimum, and "almost all of the monies went to the General Partners and the companies who set up the limited partners." A Baltimore Sun investigation last year found "only a tiny fraction of the money ever made it to the companies seeking assistance." Many of the distressed U.S. firms that the program intended to help have closed because they never received promised funding. Steven Perlman, a New York City immigration lawyer who sued the government to disclose parts of the internal investigative report, told me last week that the EB-5 program became a "moneymaking machine." That wouldn't have been possible, Perlman notes, without political protection. One INS document indicates that officials worried about keeping "promises to the Hill." When the agency finally moved to end fraud, "influential members of Congress protested,'' according to the New York Times. Key supporters of the Immigrant Investor Visa program included Democrat Sens. Paul Simon and Ted Kennedy. Republicans embraced it, too. Prescott Bush, W.'s uncle, was on the board of American Immigration Services, one of the leading visa vendors. So was former President Bush's INS commissioner, Gene McNeary. And leading GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell worked closely with the woman who was instrumental in drafting the EB-5 law: Maria Hsia, a McConnell donor who later laundered more than $100,000 in illegal donations to the Democratic National Committee through a California Buddhist temple. At the time Hsia was working for McConnell and others on the immigration bill, she also worked for a campaign fund-raising group called the Pacific Leadership Council. Hsia co-founded the PLC with Lippo Bank officials John Huang and James Riady, the chief figures in the Clinton-Gore Donorgate scandal convicted of campaign-finance crimes. At least six Lippo Bank officials have reportedly benefited from the EB-5 law. Was this visas-for-sale program established to launder foreign funny money into our political system? We may never know for sure, but President Bush should shut down this suspicious pipeline now and stop the shameless pimping of Lady Liberty.