What do these things have in common: an Idaho gold mine, a proposed wind farm in central Washington, a new hotel in Portland and the replacement floating bridge across Lake Washington?
They're all investment vehicles for well-to-do families seeking U.S. green cards.
Under U.S. immigration law, wealthy foreigners can get a green card by investing at least $500,000 to create at least 10 jobs here. In the Northwest, an increasingly diverse range of projects are competing for such foreign investment.
Canadian Jordan Gagner and his wife had a problem a few years ago. They needed to relocate to a drier, desert climate. Something like Arizona.
"My wife has a rheumatoid arthritis condition," explains Gagner. "Being from Vancouver, Canada, I'm not sure you could pick a worse climate for her condition."
At first glance, the prospects for permanently relocating south of the border looked daunting.
"Being a self employed wealth manager and a teacher, those are two occupations that are not on the top ten lists of visas being given to foreigners to come down to the U.S.," he says. "Trying to get an executive visa of some sort would've been very hard to do."
But then Gagner discovered a short cut - the immigrant investor visa. He and a bunch of other foreign investors chipped in $500,000 each to build an assisted living complex outside Bellingham. Gagner got credit for creating lots of construction jobs in the midst of the recent recession. And the whole family received green cards.
Matchmaking for investors
Bellingham immigration lawyer David Andersson orchestrated the deal. He's made a business out of bringing together senior housing developers who need low cost capital and prospective immigrants with money.
"If you have a solid investment and there may be a benefit which exceeds mere return such as the ability to move your family to America, then an investor may consider a lower return than, for example, a bank."
Andersson was a pioneer in a field that he says is now experiencing "amazing proliferation" and growth. He's risen to president of the industry association.
The matchmaking companies are officially known as "EB-5 regional centers," so named for the relevant provision of U.S. immigration law. Andersson's is called Whatcom Opportunities Regional Center. In the early going, these investment centers stuck to straightforward real estate deals. But now the options for wealthy, would-be immigrants are much more diverse.
Well over 200 immigrant investors from China are financing the revival of 100-year-old gold mines in southwest Idaho. In a marketing video, the former VP of Gold Hill Reclamation and Mining Ryan McDermott described how his Boise-based company reprocesses leftover ore and mine tailings. "See, each one of those scoops is probably 2-2.5 tons of material. There's an ounce of gold in there - $1,300 right there."
"We have economic development"
Here's another Northwest project paving the way to U.S. citizenship for Chinese investors: the new floating bridge between Seattle and its eastside suburbs. But investing in highway construction bonds turned out bumpy at first. There were unexplained delays at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There was conflict with the state treasurer and bond underwriters. Angry Chinese investors demanded refunds.
Mike Mattox and his Lacey, Washington-based firm Access the USA organized this deal. He says now that the kinks have been worked out, offering municipal bonds could "be a game changer."
"If the underwriting is in place, the relationship is in place, if it is done correctly, it will be very successful," says Mattox. "As far as marketing, this is what the market wants."
The owner of a different immigration and economic development firm based in Lynnwood, Washington thinks there's also a market for wind power investors. The firm invited well-off Koreans to back a proposed wind farm in central Washington's Kittitas County.
But nearby landowner Harland Radomske fears a wind farm next door will reduce the value of his horse and cattle ranch. And that's not all.
"What upsets me is also just the plain fact to realize we have all of this controversy going over immigration, the borders of Mexico, and all of that, issues before the Congress and Senate and so on," Radomske says. "And now we find out unbeknownst, if you’re a rich foreigner, you can buy your way to citizenship."
The wind project developers declined multiple requests to give their side of the story.
Attorney David Andersson, whom we met earlier, says it is true this visa program accounts for only a small fraction of direct foreign investment. Even so, he says, "In creating jobs in your neighborhood and in our state, the unemployment rate goes down. We have more taxpayers. Therefore, we can have more services. In other words, we have economic development."
The immigrant investor program has an annual cap of 10,000 visas. It's never come close to that number before. But the regional center industry group predicts investor visa applications could hit the cap in 2014.
On the Web:
Investing In Citizenship: For The Rich, A Road To The U.S. (Jan. 2013) - NPR
520 Bridge Paves Path to Citizenship (12/8/2011) - KUOW