This article originally appeared in IIUSA’s Regional Center Business Journal, April 2020 edition.
This article has two main parts and goals. The first part is an overview of the U.S. visa allocation system aimed to improve understanding of the EB-5 visa backlog problem. The second part catalogues possible solutions for increasing EB-5 visa supply. The U.S. economy will need to fire all engines to recover from COVID-19. EB-5 capital and job creation served the U.S. economy in the Great Recession, and it can be used for good effect now.
Overview of U.S. Visa Allocation
The Immigration and Nationality Act (the “INA”) sets overall worldwide limits on immigration. The INA also sets per-country limit for preference immigrants at 7% of the combined preference limits – i.e. 25,620.
The worldwide family-sponsored immigrant annual limit is 480,000 and the worldwide employment-based immigrant annual limit is 140,000. However, according to the 2018 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, there were just over 1 million persons obtaining lawful permanent resident status. This is because “immediate relatives” of U.S. citizens, including spouses, children and parents, are not subject to specific numerical limitations, resulting in the family-sponsored cap of 480,000 being pierced whenever immediate relative numbers exceed a certain threshold.
The EB-5 visa category is allocated 7.1% of the employment-based annual limit of 140,000, or a minimum of 9,940 visas annually. As such, EB-5 immigrants comprise less than 1% of the overall annual immigration levels.
Operationally, the U.S. Department of State (“DOS”) is responsible for administering the numerical limitations on immigrant visa issuances. The DOS publishes its monthly progress in the Visa Bulletin, available online and by e-mail subscription.
The DOS Visa Office (“VO”) subdivides the annual preference and per-country limits into monthly allotments. I think of this process as monthly “budgeting” of annual allocations. At the start of each month, consular posts report the list of qualified immigrant visa applicants in categories subject to numerical limits. This list is compared with the monthly visa availability for the next month. The visa availability reflects the monthly allotment and adjustments made based on several variables including return rates and USCIS’s reported demand. Once visa availability is determined, numbers are allocated to the reported qualified immigrant visa applicants.
If the demand is within the monthly allotment, the visa category is considered “current,” and marked “C” on the Visa Bulletin. But when the visa applicants total exceeds the monthly allotment, the category is considered “oversubscribed,” and a visa availability “final action date” is established.
The final action date under the Visa Bulletin’s Chart A is the priority date of the first qualified applicant who could not be allocated a visa number. For example, if there were 700 allocated for the month, the priority date of the 701st visa applicant establishes the final action date. Only visa applicants with a priority date earlier than the final action date may be issued a visa.
The Visa Bulletin also establishes “dates for filing” under a separate Chart B. This set of dates allows applicants who are not yet current under final action dates to assemble and submit required visa application documents to DOS’s National Visa Center (“NVC”). Applicants with priority dates earlier than the dates for filing may so submit.
Note that USCIS has a more ad hoc process from the public’s point of view for receiving adjustment of status applications (Form I-485) based on dates of filing. Adjustment of status applications are available to qualified applicants already in the U.S. and are analogous to NVC-processed visa applications. For example, in March 2020, USCIS allowed adjustment applications for EB-5 visa applicants based on dates for filing, but in April 2020, USCIS discontinued the allowance.
Visa Bulletins establishing final action dates and dates for filing are published around the 8th of each month.
Quick Historical Perspective
Until May 2015, the EB-5 category did not have a final action date (or cut-off date) on the Visa Bulletin. However, 10,692 EB-5 visas were issued in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, up from 8,564 in FY 2013. That combined with the 12,453 cases pending at USCIS at the end of FY 2014 meant that EB-5 visa backlogs were inevitable though not appreciated at the time.
In May 2015, the final action date was May 1, 2013, understood as representing an approximate two-year backlog, three years if being conservative for age-out estimation purposes. With the regional center program scheduled to “sunset” on September 30, 2015 and requiring legislative reauthorization, there was hope, perhaps wishful thinking in retrospect, for a legislative fix. Moreover, the new EB-5 backlog felt manageable particularly by comparison with the longer backlogs for Chinese applicants in other employment-based categories.
Any hope of a legislative fix was quashed the following month in June 2015 when Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) dropped S. 1501, ‘‘American Job Creation and Investment Promotion Reform Act of 2015.’’ Restricting targeted employment area (“TEA”) designations and increasing the EB-5 investment thresholds to $1.2 million for non-TEAs and $800,000 for TEAs, the bill created a massive investor rush to file under the then-current $500,000 TEA investment level.
FY 2015 ending September 30, 2015 saw a 30% increase in I-526 petition filings from FY 2014, hitting a historical high of 14,373. This rate continued into FY 2016. For comparison, in FY 2013, there were 6,346 I-526 petition filings; in FY 2011, there were 3,805.
By the end of 2015, the EB-5 visa backlog was on the way spiraling upward, fed by filing surges throughout calendar year 2016 and into early 2017.
Visa Backlog Estimates and Provisos
The industry’s best source for visa backlog projections, meaning when an investor filing today may obtain an EB-5 visa, is the Visa Office. However, as has been often stated publicly by the Chief, Immigrant Visa Control and Reporting Division, Charlie Oppenheim, these projections are subject to numerous moving variables.
The most recent data were presented at the IIUSA EB-5 Industry Forum in October 2019 featuring Mr. Oppenheim. The estimates showed China mainland-born wait times of over 16 years, India at 6.7 years, and Vietnam at 7.1 years.
However, these projections’ main qualification is that they reflect only estimates, not actual accurate counts, of USCIS inventory and limited visibility into USCIS operations. For example, the August 2019 Visa Bulletin showed an Indian final action date of October 15, 2014, the same as China. But in the next month, the Indian final action date leapt 3 years to September 1, 2017. The VO’s explanation was that there was a “dramatic change in the USCIS demand pattern” during July as well as an unexpected large number of returned July numbers. Similarly, while India was not expected to return to “current” status as of September 2019, it now appears India may become current in later 2020.
USCIS’s recently announced processing changes prioritizing cases by visa availability rather than “first-in-first out” will also change demand patterns, ultimately resulting in more visas being available for worldwide investors and fewer for countries already at the per-country limit.  When USCIS processing changes are added to the mix it would appear the business of projecting visa wait times will be extremely qualified if ventured at all.
Expanding EB-5 Visa Supply and COVID-19 Recovery
FY 2019 data show that I-526 petition filing numbers are down to 2011 levels. With the United States on the verge of economic depression caused by COVID-19, now seems the opportune moment to improve EB-5 program oversight and bring this investment and job creating engine back to life.
Over the years, numerous credible solutions have been discussed within the immigration bar and EB-5 industry to increase EB-5 visa supply. Any or a combination may be considered by one or more Government branches. I focus here on legislative solutions because Congress has an opportunity now to seize EB-5 as a tool in post-COVID-19 economic recovery. I have seen and guided distressed projects at standstill during the Great Recession move forward with EB-5 capital.  EB-5 can do the same now for the post-COVID-19 U.S. economy.
Prior proposals for expanding EB-5 supply have roots in both precedent and legislative history. Notably in 2017, Senator John Cornyn (R-Tx) drafted a comprehensive EB-5 reform proposal that would omit derivatives from EB-5 visa limits. There is good foundation for this approach under current immigration laws along with other legislative approaches discussed below.
- Exempting certain investment visas from annual visa limitations altogether for “compelling U.S. government interest.”
Precedents exist for Congress exempting certain permanent resident applicants from annual limits. For example, in 1981 amendments to the INA, Congress exempted investors applying for adjustment of status before June 1, 1978 from both the annual worldwide limit and the per-country limit. Similarly, 75% of the family-sponsored “2-A” category for spouses and children of lawful permanent residents, is exempt from the per-country limitation by statute.
Although not exactly on point with exemption from numerical limits, the INA exempts certain workers whose work is deemed in the U.S. “national interest” from otherwise applicable requirements for labor certifications ensuring no U.S. worker displacement.
Finally, USCIS policy also allows expediting adjudication of an immigration benefit for, among other listed reasons, “compelling U.S. government interests (such as urgent cases for the Department of Defense or DHS, or other public safety or national security interests)”.
Infrastructure, healthcare, urban revitalization initiatives, STEM-research, public-private-partnerships, and distressed businesses would be ideal use cases for EB-5 visa exemption in the compelling U.S. economic interest post-COVID-19.
2. Omitting derivatives from EB-5 visa limits.
As mentioned, the concept of omitting derivatives from EB-5 numbers was written into the 2017 Cornyn legislative draft. This is significant because it shows a senior Republican senator on the Judiciary committee presenting the idea as a credible solution.
Moreover, exempting dependents from EB-5 limits is supported by solid legislative history underlying the current law. This argument was one of the bases for recent litigation challenging the DOS counting policy, Wang v. Pompeo. Clear Congressional record shows that legislators creating the EB-5 program intended 10,000 investors to immigrate creating 100,000 jobs, not some-3,000 investors and their dependents. Also as argued by David Bier of the Cato Institute, the INA also requires dependents to be accorded the “same status and the same order” as the principal, which is transgressed when dependents are separated due to visa retrogression as can occur when they are counted separately.
These are compelling arguments to support a legislative fix. The same arguments support an executive fix as well. The President could direct DOS to revise its counting policy to omit derivatives as an alternative to Congressional action.
3. Borrowing or redistributing Diversity Visa allocation.
Providing EB-5 with a proportional 1/5th of the 55,000 allocated to Diversity Visas divided evenly among the five employment-based preference categories would provide 11,000 more EB-5 visas. Even merely adding the current statutory proportion of 7.1% of the employment-based worldwide limit would add 3,905 to the current EB-5 allocation. Reallocating the bulk or all of Diversity Visas to EB-5 would align with the economic needs of the day, particularly if earmarked for economic recovery needs involving infrastructure, distressed projects, rural and urban revitalization, and P3 partnerships.
4. Requiring unused EB-4 numbers to “fall down” to EB-5 rather than “falling up” to EB-1.
Since FY 2015, numerical limits for EB-4 have been reached. This means that there have not been excess numbers for allotment to other preference categories. However, if future EB-4 demand is less than supply, a provision requiring unused EB-4 numbers to fall down to EB-5 would ameliorate EB-5 visa shortage.
5. Recapturing unused EB-5 visas from prior years.
By some estimates, there are about 180,000 employment-based visas that have never been used. These visas may be “recaptured” for EB-5 use.
There are two notable Congressional precedents for recapture. The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act (“AC21”) recaptured 130,107 employment-based numbers that were available but not used in Fiscal Years 1999 and 2000. Similarly, the REAL ID Act of 2005 recaptured 50,000 employment-based visas for Schedule A (healthcare) workers. These laws recaptured unused employment-based visas after year 2000.
However, unused employment visas from before year 2000 that “fell across” to family-sponsored limits but were never used remain un-recaptured. The mechanics are complex. But the fact that there is a significant number of unused visas before year 2000 is uncontested. The issue is more one of political palatability.
6. Maintaining low supply but softening the visa wait.
There are legislative fixes, short of expanding visa supply, that would reopen investor demand. EB-5 investors and family members awaiting visas could be afforded travel permits and employment authorization. These benefits are provided in the most recent EB-5 bill, S. 2778, sponsored by Senators Mike Rounds (R-SD), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Cornyn and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) representing bipartisan support for the concept.
S. 2778 also contains age-out protection for dependent children, critical for keeping families together and preserving immigration benefits for the children for whom the EB-5 investments are typically made.
A similar fix is creating a nonimmigrant visa category for EB-5 immigrants to allow work and travel, or amending USCIS and DOS policy to readily permit B visitor visa extensions exempt from public benefits condition.
There are many options Congress can consider increasing EB-5 supply for post-COVID-19 economic recovery. The above is not an exhaustive list. No doubt integrity reform must be a part of any expansion of EB-5 visa limits. Both are timely and needed.
Please see the following link to access a PDF version of this article: EB-5 Numbers and the Covid-19 Economic Response
* Carolyn Lee is the Principal of Carolyn Lee PLLC. Carolyn is IIUSA’s Legislative Counsel and Co-Chair of the Public Policy Committee. Carolyn is the former Chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) National EB-5 Committee. Copyright reserved.
 See Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) Section 201 setting the worldwide preference limits at least 226,000 for family-sponsored immigrants and at least 140,000 for employment-based immigrants. The EB-5 visa category is the fifth preference category within employment-based preference categories.
 See INA section 202.
 See INA section 201.
 The threshold number is approximately 254,000 because there is a statutory “floor” for the other family-sponsored categories of 226,000. Whenever the number of immediate relatives exceeds 254,000 and the other family-sponsored categories reach the 226,000 floor, the worldwide cap of 480,000 is pierced. For an explanation of this calculation, see https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/how-united-states-immigration-system-works.
 Note: before 2015, the “final action date” was called “cut-off date.”
 A “priority date” is the petition filing date reflected on the petition receipt. See redacted example below:
 See https://www.congress.gov/114/bills/s1501/BILLS-114s1501is.pdf. See also https://www.leahy.senate.gov/press/leahy-and-grassley-introduce-legislation-to-improve_extend-job-creating-foreign-investment-program and https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/grassley-and-leahy-introduce-eb-5-reform-bill.
 Of the grand total of 70,198 estimated visa demand as of October 1, 2019, 31,011 are Department of State estimates of applicants represented by petitions on file with USCIS. See also Zixiang Li v. Kerry (710 F.3d 995 (9th Cir. 2013) (Circuit Judge Reinhardt concurs with the affirmance of the lower court’s ruling dismissing the complaint, but is critical of the USCIS “system that produced this error” where “the government erroneously gave these visas to individuals from other countries, many of whom had been waiting far less time for the same type of visa than their Chinese counterparts.”).
 Based on comments of Mr. Oppenheim during the Eb-5 Investor Program Public Engagement (March 13, 2020).
 See Carolyn Lee’s summary of the USCIS EB-5 Engagement at https://iiusa.org/blog/member-analysis-ipo-engagement-regarding-i-526-inventory-processing-change/.
 See supra note 13.
 See reference to EB-5 investment’s role in the Great Recession’s economic recovery at https://www.aila.org/advo-media/aila-correspondence/2017/aila-statement-house-judiciary-committee-hearing.
 Senator Cornyn’s 2017 EB-5 legislative draft is on file with author.
 See Pub. L. No. 97-116, 95 Stat. 1611, 1621.
 See INA section 202(a)(4)(A).
 See INA section 203(b)(2)(B) and 8 C.F.R. section 204.5(k)(4)(ii).
 See USCIS Policy Manual, 1 USCIS-PM A.5; see also https://www.uscis.gov/forms/forms-information/how-make-expedite-request.
 Wang v. Pompeo, No. 1:18-cv-01732-TSC (D.D.C. filed July 25, 2018). See also Carolyn Lee, Summary and Analysis of Litigation to Expand EB-5 Visa Capacity, Regional Center Business Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 2 (IIUSA, October 2018), appearing at https://issuu.com/iiusa/docs/iiusa-rcbj_oct2018-digital.
 See Pub. L. 106−313 (enacted October 17, 2000) at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-106publ313/pdf/PLAW-106publ313.pdf; see also https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/visas/Statistics/FY2001%20app%20D.pdf.
 See Pub. L. 109-13 (enacted May 11, 2005) at https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/real-id-act-text.pdf.
 In short, the INA imposes a minimum or “floor” of 226,000 family-sponsored numbers. If this is not reached, for example, when there are fewer than 254,000 immediate relative visas used (to reach the family-sponsored limit of 480,000), then any employment-based numbers “falling across” are unused.
 For example, when I raised the possibility of recapturing unused visas during a meeting hosted by Congressional staff in 2016, I was advised by the then-majority Republican counsel for the House Judiciary Committee that recapture was a political non-starter. However, Judiciary leadership and economic circumstances have changed since.
 See USCIS Policy Manual, 2 USCIS-PM 4.B.