EB5 Investors Magazine: 2018 EB-5 Convention Los Angeles
The 2018 EB5 investors Magazine EB-5 Convention in Los Angeles provided a platform to discuss a challenged industry. The dominant theme was EB-5 visa numbers, and the consequences of excess demand for a limited quota. Panels and conversations discussed alternatives to China in view of untenable visa wait times, alternatives to EB-5 for investors and project companies and service providers, alternatives to the visa quota as currently interpreted, and options for deploying past investor funds during the visa wait. I learned that everyone is confused about redeployment and material change, with smart lawyers giving conflicting advice, and that many people are confused about visa availability. I copy below the most important piece of solid information I learned at the conference – the latest DOS statistics on EB-5 visas issued – followed by my comments and predictions.
As of the third quarter of FY2018 (June 2018), Department of State had issued the following number of visas:
- Worldwide: 7,900
- China: 4,049
- Vietnam: 692
- South Korea: 423
- India: 375
- Taiwan: 337
DOS China Predictions:
- On October 2018, the cut-off date for China will move to August 8, 2014 (or maybe August 15).
- China has received a large number of visas annually because it has been able to take visas unused by other countries. Increased marketing in the rest of the world means that the number of visas available for China is dropping. Charlie will allocate 4,675 visas to China in FY2018—much fewer than in previous years. (China received 7,567 visas in FY2017.) Charlie predicts that China will have 3,500 visas available in FY2019, and 3,000 in FY2020.
DOS Vietnam Predictions:
- On October 1, 2018, the Vietnam cut-off date will move up to January 2016.
- In March 2019, the Vietnam cut-off date is expected to retrogress.
- [Suzanne’s note: In other words, the October Visa Bulletin date moves up so that Vietnamese can get the about 700 new visas available to them in the new fiscal year. These having been issued, the March Visa Bulletin will put Vietnam back to the same cut-off date as China — i.e. in the same line as China for any leftover visas.]
The China backlog has the oldest priority dates in the system and thus first claim on all visas left over after the up-to-700 per country allocation. The total allocation to China depends on number of leftover visas. Countries behind China are effectively limited to about 700 visas annually. Data on visas issued for FY2018 to date indicate that Vietnam has already reached its limit for the year, while South Korea, India, and Taiwan are closer than ever before to the 700 limit. (As a reminder, total visas issued to these countries in FY2017: Vietnam 471; South Korea 195; India 174; Taiwan 188.) DOS predicts future visa wait times for investors from these countries. (No FY2018 Q3 numbers were provided for Brazil — don’t know if that means fewer FY2018 visa applications than expected from Brazil.)
Remember that investors from one country don’t all have the same wait time. Individual wait times vary by priority date (date of I-526 receipt). Vietnamese investors who filed I-526 in January 2016 will likely have an almost 3-year wait for a conditional green card (per Charlie’s Visa Bulletin cut-off date prediction above), while Vietnamese who filed I-526 in April 2018 will likely have a 6-year wait (per Charlie’s prediction at the IIUSA conference in April). Each of those estimates is specific to a point in time – that is, to Vietnamese investors who filed on a certain date — not for all Vietnamese. If the number of I-526 filings from Vietnam increased in a linear manner from 2015 to the present, then the visa wait time for Vietnamese investors over that time period is also linear. As a Vietnamese investor, I’d estimate my visa wait by plotting a line through the two wait-time estimates provided by Charlie, and see where my priority date would fall on that line. (i.e. I’d estimate about a 2-year wait if I filed in 2015 and a 4-5 year wait if I filed in 2017, since he estimated 3 years for early 2016 filers and 6 years for early 2018 filers.) The demand line often isn’t linear (e.g. I expect Vietnam I-526 filings to drop in 2019, thus changing the calculation for 2019 Vietnamese investors), but still plot-able given data.
In EB-5 some people have a false sense of panic (i.e. past Chinese investors thinking Charlie estimated a 15-year visa wait for all Chinese as of April 2018, when he just estimated a 15-year wait for new Chinese investors filing I-526 in April 2018), while others have a false sense of security (i.e. current Vietnamese investors thinking an October 2018 Visa Bulletin indicating 3-year wait applies to today’s new investors, when in fact it’s just specific to people who filed by January 2016 and at the visa application stage in October 2018.) The misunderstandings both result from forgetting to think of the visa wait as a waiting line problem, with the wait for any one investor as a function of that investor’s place in a priority-date-ordered queue (subject to country limits, but not in undifferentiated pools by country). Generally, the longer ago you filed I-526, the shorter your total wait for an EB-5 visa. Chinese investors who filed I-525 four years ago are receiving visas today (four year wait), while Chinese investors filing I-526 today will have longer to wait. The EB-5 waiting line problem extremely complex but not impossible, considering the process we know and the fact that we have at least some data. (FYI my spreadsheet of backlog-related data is currently under revision as I try to think out a simpler presentation with clearer country-specific analysis. And I really wish we could get updated per-country I-526 data!)
Misconceptions about visa availability were evident in several promoters who spoke at the conference about demand potential. The EB-5 quota and per-country limit mean that each non-China country can get only about 700 visas i.e. accommodate only about 230 investors annually. (10,000 visa quota * 7% per country + 0 visas leftover after the China backlog) * 1 investor/3 visas = about 230 investors per country, sustainably. Meanwhile, thousands of investor I-526 * 3 visas/1 investor * 1 year/700 visas = many years visa wait for any country that falls for the siren song of big projects. India especially, take note. CanAm alone boasts of securing 200 Indian investors this year – almost a year’s worth of visas to one regional center operator – and I hear about multiple other projects each seeking hundreds of Indians. Investors should be vigilant, and EB-5 promoters consider their long-term interests and watch the activity of other promoters. No market can replace China; raising too much in any one market will simply spoil it. That is, unless the EB-5 visa quota changes.
Will the EB-5 visa quota change, and who will advocate for change? I was reminded at the conference that the industry has conflicting interests. On the one hand, we cannot keep raising money or creating jobs at historical levels without visa relief. Long wait times would ruin the market going forward. Either EB-5 visa numbers increase or EB-5 economic contributions fall. On the other hand, long visa waits result in the golden gift of billions of dollars in past investment free to be redeployed for 10+ years longer than expected with little investor input and no new job creation requirement. Some companies with large amounts of EB-5 money already in pocket may not be motivated to press for change. But a majority of industry players do want change, as do investors of course. A new lawsuit pressing the 10,000 EB-5 visas-for-investors argument has maximized its slim chance of success by being entrusted to rockstar Ira Kurzban. (The 10,000 EB-5 quota has been historically interpreted to include family members, thus making it effectively a 3,300-investor quota.) If Kurzban can’t argue this, no one can. People at the conference seemed to think the lawsuit is, at least, a significant and productive gesture. (Update: here is the complaint.) A new organization has been formed just to advocate for backlog problems: EB-5 Visa Relief Group. We shall see where all this leads. This year the draft EB-5 reform legislation did not touch EB-5 backlog problems, while larger immigration bills offered to increase visa numbers for every EB category except EB-5. I welcome more pressure and lobbying on behalf of EB-5 visa relief.
Based what I heard from panels and in conversation at the conference, I would be willing to bet money on the following predictions:
- The regional center program will get another short-term reauthorization with no changes by the next sunset date of September 30, 2018, as part of the funding bill for FY2019.
- Another EB-5 bill with longer-term regional center authorization and some EB-5 reforms will be introduced following the midterm elections. The bill will not go anywhere, unless finalized regulations motivate the EB-5 factions to consult with each other, accept painful compromises, and figure out a minimum broadly-beneficial platform that Washington can count on being thanked for enacting. In other words, the bill will not go anywhere.
- The EB-5 modernization regulations will be finalized in 2018, probably right when I wanted to focus on pumpkin pie and Christmas shopping. The investment amount increases and priority date protections may be modified from the original draft regulations. Litigation around the rollout may come out of New York City.
- The total number of I-526 filings will fall gradually through 2018, and drop significantly in 2019 as a result in of the regulations and new Visa Bulletin cut-off dates. Because I predict a fall in demand overall, my projections for China visa numbers are more optimistic than Charlie’s. I think that rest-of-the-world demand will fall after 2019, leaving more visas left for China.
- When new Visa Bulletin cut-off dates are imposed in 2019, many people will express surprise that the cut-off dates and associated visa wait effect people who invested back in 2017 and 2018. If the visa cut-off dates come earlier than expected as a result of more/faster-than-expected I-526 approvals, people will be surprised by that too.
- With increasing pressures and alternatives, many regional centers, real estate companies, and service providers (and some past investors) will look to exit EB-5 in 2019.
- Litigators will keep busy, cashing in on questionable interpretations by USCIS and investor frustration with wait times, issuer redeployment decisions, and project progress.
- I-526 processing times will improve significantly with the fall in I-526 receipts. EB-5 will become a fast track again for investors from low demand countries, escrows contingent on I-526 approval will become feasible again, and new types of projects will find opportunity in EB-5.