By Bucky Fox
Leon Rodriguez knows all about people coming from across the globe to America. Now, he sees them from his perch as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security.
"I am the son and grandson of immigrant entrepreneurs who came to this country as refugees and started from scratch," Rodriguez told EB5 Investors Magazine from his office in Washington, D.C. "I certainly appreciate the motivation of immigrants to provide a better life for their families."
Rodriguez, 54, grew up the son of Cuban immigrants in the ethnic brews of Brooklyn and Miami, fitting right in as a Jew with a Hispanic name.
"I am a Sephardic Jew, whose grandparents were Ladino-speaking Jews from Turkey," he said.
Rodriguez returned to the Northeast to land a history degree from Brown University and his law diploma from Boston College.
By the spring of 2014, he was running an army of 19,000 with the task of processing asylum and refugee applications, immigration benefits and naturalization and visa petitions.
As if that doesn't keep him busy enough, Rodriguez and his wife have two children. And the patriarch complements his English with Spanish, French, Hebrew and Italian.
Rodriguez recently answered questions on C-SPAN from Jerry Markon of The Washington Post and Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times, saying: "One of my favorite things about EB-5 is the fact that unlike just about anything else we do, there is both bipartisan dislike of the program and bipartisan support of the program, which makes it very unusual among other areas. There were a lot of things that my predecessor and now my deputy, (Alejandro) Mayorkas, did to improve the program where we've been really consolidating during my time as director. The most important of those were the actual consolidation of the EB-5 function here in Washington as a very specialized unit with economists, with fraud specialists, white collar specialists, and also increasing the number of people working EB-5 cases to precisely go after the kind of issues that (reporters and others) identify.
"We want to admit people who really are going to create jobs, who are going to stimulate our economy, who are not going to be bad guys and commit fraud. And that effort on the whole has been bearing fruit. We have increased the effectiveness of that unit and increased our ability to monitor the economic benefit that has been created by this program."
Rodriguez also said in the C-SPAN interview: "The EB-5 investors have in fact been the victims of fraud. You have an EB-5 promoter, someone here in the United States, who has been defrauding the prospective immigrant, and there have been cases on that basis. We do watch for what a regional center is really doing to promote economic development, we watch for the investment really doing what it is supposed to do, with all its mechanisms to avoid fraud."
Now it's EB5 Investor Magazine's turn with the immigration chief.
EB5 Investor Magazine: How satisfied are you with the EB-5 program?
Leon Rodriguez: I am proud of the great successes the program has achieved and of USCIS’ oversight of the program. USCIS has built a strong foundation that supports its administration of the EB-5 program as it fulfills Congress’ intent to stimulate the U.S. economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors, while safeguarding national security and program integrity.
The program has existed for more than 25 years and in recent years has become exceptionally popular. The number of investors seeking to participate in the program has soared, and so has the number of regional centers. Just five years ago, there were fewer than 200 regional centers; today, there are more than 850. In the first three quarters of fiscal 2016, 8,638 investors submitted Form I-526 Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur petitions seeking participation in the EB-5 program, and USCIS approved 4,781 Form I-526 petitions. Each approved investor represents at least $500,000 already invested or obligated toward an NCE -- a new commercial enterprise -- in the United States. In terms of capital coming into the U.S. economy, 4,781 investors equals, in a conservative estimate, nearly $2.4 billion in new capital for NCEs.
With the increased popularity of the EB-5 program came some challenges, which USCIS is working diligently to address. In 2013, USCIS created the Immigrant Investor Program Office (IPO) in Washington, D.C., to handle EB-5 matters. The agency invested in IPO by hiring staff with expertise in economics, law, business, finance, securities and banking to enhance consistency, timeliness and integrity within the EB-5 program.
USCIS created a Fraud Detection and National Security EB-5 Division and embedded its personnel within IPO to work alongside adjudications officers and economists.
The establishment of the new program office has also enhanced USCIS’ partnerships with several other government agencies, including the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to strengthen the EB-5 program.
USCIS continues to hire more staff to assist with the more than 25,000 pending petitions and applications. During the first half of calendar year 2016, more staff and greater efficiencies helped reduce pending I-526 petitions by 12 percent and I-924 regional center applications by 8 percent.
USCIS is taking a variety of steps to improve its administration of the EB-5 program, including establishing an audit program, updating the EB-5 forms, and developing a new data system to enhance our ability to analyze and publish EB-5 data. In the coming months, USCIS plans to translate some of our EB-5 web content into foreign languages, and to continue to work more with the financial industry to alert the agency to instances of potential fraud.
Additionally, USCIS continues to provide briefings and technical assistance to Congress as the Sept. 30, 2016, reauthorization deadline for the regional center program approaches, and continues to draft new potential regulations, and stands ready to provide guidance to the industry in the coming months.
EB5 Investors Magazine: What aspects of EB-5 can be improved?
Rodriguez: USCIS works continually to improve all aspects of the EB-5 program. USCIS has focused significant effort on enhancing program integrity and has accomplished much to achieve that goal. USCIS has also provided technical assistance to congressional staff regarding key legislative enhancements to strengthen the program.
Additionally, USCIS is exploring potential regulatory action, including changes to make targeted employment area designations more consistent and to increase minimum investment amounts that have remained unchanged for 25 years.
Another area that USCIS seeks to improve is its ability to provide more refined estimates of the capital invested and the jobs created through the EB-5 program. Acting on a recommendation from the DHS inspector general, USCIS arranged for the Department of Commerce to conduct a valuation study of the EB-5 program to assess the investment and job creation impact of the EB-5 program. The results of this study should be published in the near future.
USCIS is also taking steps to improve processing times for all EB-5-specific form types. Last year, USCIS experienced notable surges in Form I-526 and Form I-924 receipts prior to two potential regional center program sunset dates, the first in September 2015 and the other in December 2015. Although these influxes of receipts hindered USCIS’ efforts to reduce processing times in fiscal 2016, the agency has taken many actions to improve overall efficiency, including concentrating resources to review and adjudicate aging cases, continuing to hire adjudicators and economists to reduce the backlog, improving operational efficiencies and engaging with stakeholders to inform them of operational updates, offering filing tips, and providing the latest statistics on each form type.
EB5 Investors Magazine: When you want improvement, how do you go about it?
Rodriguez: USCIS is always striving to improve its administration and oversight of the EB-5 program, and continually seeks to identify and address changing program concerns. To improve the EB-5 program, USCIS will continue to use the administrative tools available to the agency and will continue to work with Congress regarding areas where statutory reform may be warranted and provide technical assistance to Congress as requested.
USCIS also recently held a listening session, in April 2016, to receive individual feedback from stakeholders on potential EB-5 regulatory revisions and policy issues.
Reforming the EB-5 program is a priority for the Department of Homeland Security and USCIS, and we are working diligently on reforms through the formal rulemaking process. USCIS encourages interested parties to provide comments during the public comment period to any proposed rules.
EB5 Investors Magazine: If the EB-5 program were to sunset, what would potentially happen to investors currently in the process?
Rodriguez: As you know, the EB-5 program as a whole is continuing law, but the regional center program is scheduled to sunset on Sept. 30, 2016. USCIS is closely monitoring any developments in Congress on this question and, if necessary, will provide appropriate guidance to the public regarding any sunset.
EB5 Investors Magazine: How do you see EB-5 expanding or receding in the coming years?
Rodriguez: The EB-5 program has seen unprecedented growth in recent years. While only 16 regional centers existed in 2007, there were 861 approved regional centers as of Sept. 6, 2016. Similarly, the number of visas issued to investors and their dependents increased from 1,360 in fiscal 2008 to 10,692 in fiscal 2014.
Despite the growth in popularity of the program in recent years, however, it’s impossible to forecast whether the number of applications and petitions will continue to stay at current levels or increase due to the number of contributing factors outside the agency’s control.
EB5 Investors Magazine: What is your agency doing to educate Americans in how EB-5 helps the country?
Rodriguez: There are two main ways IPO provides information to the public about the EB-5 program. The first is publishing information on our website, and the second is through in-person and teleconference engagements.
IPO also actively works with federal, state, and local agencies and organizations to provide information about the program.
Website: IPO uses our website (www.uscis.gov/eb-5) to promote awareness and educate the public about the EB-5 program. IPO has published detailed information on program policy, regulatory information, program updates, and links to EB-5 resources on our website. IPO has also expanded its online information to include lists of regional centers by state and answers to frequently asked questions. IPO also posted a page about the EB-5 program translated into Mandarin Chinese.
Engagements: In the past two years, IPO has held over 30 national and local public engagements. Each engagement averages 730 participants, including participation either by telephone or in person.