Today, USCIS held a teleconference stakeholder meeting about the EB-5 program. Carlos Muñoz, program manager for the Office of Citizenship at USCIS, led the conference, and introduced five of USCIS’s current goals: reducing processing times, improving filing options to reduce the amount of paper necessary for petitions and applications, updating regulations to be aligned with statutes, improving customer service for increased transparency and visibility, and more frequently soliciting stakeholder input on program changes.
The new director of the EB-5 program, Nicholas Colucci, commented on the current status of the program, as well as its plans and goals for the future. He stated that as of Feb. 14, 2014, all I-526 and I-924 adjudications will be transferred to the D.C. Service Center, while all other adjudications will remain in the California Service Center. While this will increase processing times in the short-term, Mr. Colucci hopes that USCIS will soon be able to hire more staff and work through the backlog, something every industry professional knows should be a top priority.
Mr. Colucci also mentioned USCIS ELIS (their Electronic Immigration System), which has already made filing EB-5 petitions online possible. He hopes to test the system in the near future and increase user confidence, which should reduce the amount of necessary paperwork and increase adjudication efficiency. USCIS will be further digitizing with the introduction of the “USCIS idea community,” a crowdsourcing tool for stakeholders to post ideas about EB-5 topics on the USCIS website, and then vote on each other’s ideas and comments. He hopes that this will help USCIS pinpoint relevant issues that stakeholders share.
Mr. Colucci also offered filing tips for applications that will help USCIS adjudicate paperwork more quickly:
- Don’t file applications with duplicate copies of supporting documentation
- Do include up-to-date TEA letters
- Do include, in I-526 cover letters, information about the regional center (contact information, identification number, etc.) and the name of the new commercial enterprise
- Do include, in I-924 petitions, whether the application is for a hypothetical, actual, or exemplar project
They will also be adding more tips to their website.
Mr. Colucci then discussed his three-point plan to improve the EB-5 program, which he hopes will increase efficiency, timeliness, consistency, and predictability:
1. Build the program’s foundation.
He wants to do this through personnel and programmatic changes, in order to reduce the backlog, expand the office, and increase consistency. By the end of the fiscal year, he wants to have a staff of about 100 individuals, mostly dedicated to EB-5 adjudications. These staff members will have to undergo a rigorous, five-week training program and continually attend classes to foster consistency and improve program knowledge. USCIS is also working on a comprehensive policy manual and a quality control policy for future guidance, which may help make clear USCIS’s currently muddy rules and regulations.
2. Increase program performance and predictability.
Mr. Colucci’s goals are to seek and use efficiencies, establish goals, and reward success. He did not go into further detail as to his specific plans for achieving this.
3. Improve customer service and transparency.
Mr. Colucci wants to post monthly EB-5 data and statistics on filing times and numbers of applications/petitions received, approved, denied, and sent RFEs. He also wants to provide more information (and more accessible information) on the USCIS website, as well as respond to inquiries in a more timely manner. This would help EB-5 investors and professionals maintain a current view of USCIS processing times and application volume.
If these three goals are actually met, the EB-5 program could become not only more predictable for EB-5 applicants and professionals, but also more attractive to prospective immigrant investors.
The conference then moved onto a FAQ portion, which provided answers to some of the most common questions they receive. Most of the questions centered on regional center and TEA regulations, and what may lead to denial for I-924 applications. It seems USCIS will soon need to clarify its position on the differences between hypothetical, actual, and exemplar regional center projects; standards for regional centers’ geographic range for establishing projects and creating jobs; rules for what counts as a new commercial enterprise and a for-profit enterprise; and acceptable forms of bridge financing. For the most part, USCIS did not offer new insights; rather, they restated policies set forth in the May 2013 Policy Memorandum.
When the conference was opened to outside questions, those questions also had similar themes, and centered on clarifying regulations for regional centers and project developers, including those for tenant occupancy, bridge financing, and regional centers’ geographic areas. Unfortunately, USCIS often could not answer these questions in much detail. They either referred the inquirers to vague rules listed in the May 2013 Policy Memorandum, or said they would address the questions later and post answers to their site. Much of what they said does not help EB-5 investors or service providers today, who still seem to need to go through the lengthy and inconvenient process of waiting for and responding to RFEs to have their case-specific questions answered.
The recent explosion in the number of regional centers and EB-5 projects seems to have left USCIS with more than it can handle—hundreds of cases requiring knowledge of rules and regulations not yet written down. Perhaps by the end of this fiscal year, a larger staff and the direction of Mr. Colucci’s goals will mean a USCIS that is quicker, more efficient, and more responsive to EB-5 investors’ and professionals’ needs. The EB-5 industry has the potential for faster adjudication times and a finished policy manual; now, we must wait to see if this progress is made.