US selling fast-track citizenship amid economic crisis

Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin drew public ire last month following the revelation that he had renounced his U.S. citizenship, a move widely seen as a tax dodge. But thousands of wealthy foreigners are lining up to replace him, making investments in the United States and putting themselves on a path to citizenship in the process.

Americans may not be aware of it, but Washington has pretty much already put up U.S. citizenship for sale - indirectly. A sleazy visa program lets the rich buy green cards while other immigrants wait in line. Here is how it works; the EB-5 immigration program allows citizens of foreign countries who do not qualify for admission to the U.S. under any other immigration category to buy the right to live and work in the U.S. by investing at least $1 million in a new or recently created business, or $500,000 for businesses in rural or high-unemployment areas.

The investment must also create or preserve at least 10 full-time jobs for U.S. workers. If this condition is met, green cards authorizing legal permanent resident status are issued to the investors and their families, and can apply for full citizenship three years later. Up to 10,000 people a year can be admitted to the U.S. under the EB-5 program.

The U.S. State Department expects to issue over 6,000 “investor visas” in the current fiscal year, which would be an all-time record. “Our goal is certainly job creation, and that’s what this program is all about,” said Bill Wright, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “At the same time, it’s allowing somebody from a foreign country to come and invest in our nation.”

Demand for U.S. citizenship has been surging lately, fueled in large part by China’s growing elite. The Chinese are responsible for buying up 70% of the roughly 3,500 U.S. investor visas issued last year. State Department officials expect the program’s quota of 10,000 visas per year, which includes visas given to the spouses and children of investors, to be completely filled for the first time ever within the next year or two.

Immigrants who arrive via the program have no guarantee of recovering their investments, and may face deportation if they don’t produce the required number of jobs. Once they become U.S. citizen however, they cannot be deported and cannot be denied entrance to the USA.

Interest for Western citizenship has been growing in recent years, not only that, the U.S. is facing increasing competition from other countries trying to woo well-heeled foreigners with the promise of residency or citizenship. Ireland and Australia for instance, recently unveiled similar programs for immigrant investors.

“Governments are reinvigorating their policy and their resources around this,” said Eric Major, the CEO of Henley & Partners Ltd, an international consulting firm based on the European island of Jersey that specializes in immigration assistance for the wealthy.

Around 20 countries currently offer residency or citizenship by investment, Major said, a figure that may soon grow with economies struggling in much of the developed world. Major said he had met with five governments in the past eight months to discuss such programs.

Demand shows no sign of slowing down, either. International travel, banking and communication have become increasingly easy, while Asia, in particular, is minting new millionaires at a rapid pace.

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