Investment Visas: Road to Greencard and Citizenship

11 08 2009

As wealthy foreign nationals increasingly flock to Florida to buy distressed real estate, some are seeking an added return on their investment: a green card.

Local immigration attorneys say a growing number of Latin American and European clients are applying for investor visas, which in some cases lay down a fast track to residency and eventually citizenship. Others offer a chance to live and work in the country indefinitely.

As the region’s real estate market continues to buckle under unsold properties, widespread foreclosures and failed condo projects, new interest in investor visas is helping whet the already hearty appetite of foreign nationals being drawn to the market by steep bargains.

The visa opportunity isn’t for someone buying a single condo: a significant investment is required.

“Clients are coming to us primarily because of the economic opportunity they see in the market,” said Randall Sidlosca, an immigration lawyer with Fowler, White & Burnett’s Miami office. “It’s mind-boggling to see the amount of interest. … It’s rather good news. It could mean the market will turn around faster than in other parts of the state.”

The purpose of these visas, which have been around for more than two decades, is to offer immigrants the opportunity to come and create jobs, rather than those who come as a result of family relationships and may do little to stimulate the economy, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes immigration controls.

Developers and entrepreneurs are catching on to the program. They are hoping the attraction of U.S. residency will help generate new sources of badly needed capital at a time when access to credit has all but dried up. They have new reason to hope.

Eduardo Namnum, a Mexican national, got a green card about eight months ago after investing about $1 million in a restaurant in Bonita Springs. Since then, Namnum said he had purchased a condominium as well as an acre of land in Sunny Isles Beach he plans to develop in the next year as office condos.

“A lot of my friends [from Mexico City] are buying real estate here because there are very, very good deals,” Namnum said.

Incentive

With them, he is also exploring the possibility of partnering to develop the office condo project.

“It looks very interesting to them, especially if they can get the visa and residency,” Namnum said.

In March, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services included Miami-Dade and Monroe counties in a pilot program that gives temporary residency to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in a new or established business that creates – directly or indirectly – at least 10 full-time jobs.

Until the two counties were approved for the pilot program, a $1 million investment was typically required to be eligible for the EB-5 investor visa, which required investors to employ 10 workers directly. The lower investment threshold could be a significant incentive for more people to apply, attorneys say.

About 10,000 EB-5 investor visas are available annually, of them about 3,000 for the pilot program. Last year, fewer than 1,000 were issued under the relatively obscure EB-5 visa program. A move is under way in Congress to make the pilot program permanent in the aftermath of growing interest brought about by the recession.

David Hart, a Miami immigration lawyer, helped win the designation for Miami-Dade and Monroe with his partner Eric Gould and has established the South Florida Investment Regional Center to connect foreign investors with local companies.

The first project: helping Miami developer Arva Jain finish the $12 million build-out of 45,000 square feet of commercial space attached to the Marina Blue condominium at 888 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami. The mixed-use project includes plans for a restaurant, a spa, hotel, office and retail space.

“A lot of these projects can’t get financing from banks,” Hart said, “This is a pretty interesting way of financing a project that can’t get a temporary loan or a loan based on the asset itself.”

Hart said $500,000 investment packages were being prepared for 24 potential clients. Marketing – through foreign immigration agents in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Taiwan, China, Russia – begins at the end of the month.

Investors remain silent or limited partners in the project, with no day-to-day responsibilities. A temporary green card allows them to live and work anywhere in the country, including a spouse and children under 21 for two years. At the end of that period, they can get permanent green cards; and, after five years from the initial approval, apply for U.S. citizenship.

The visa can be renewed indefinitely.

The investors’ route to residency is one of the fastest available. It can take up to four or five years for applicants who are sponsored by a U.S. company and 12 to 15 years for applicants sponsored by a family member, depending on the relative’s relationship to the sponsor and their country of origin.

Competitive edge

Because many people prefer to live where they invest, South Florida could have a competitive edge over other regional investment centers, Hart said. There are more than 65 around the country, up from 23 a year ago, according to USCIS.

In Orlando, investors who sink $1 million into the Lake Buena Vista Resort Village and Spa get three two-bed, two-bath condos with their fast track to U.S. residency. So, far there have been no takers for the program that launched in January.

While no comprehensive statistics exist, recent research from analyst Craig Werley of Focus Real Estate Advisors in Coral Gables, suggests at least 12 percent of the new condos in the greater downtown Miami area are now owed by foreigners. The preliminary research is based on closings in 10 buildings representing more 1,200 unit sales.

Maralyn Leaf, a Miami business immigration lawyer, said foreign investors should be welcome. “They are bringing money from abroad for our financial institutions,” Leaf said.

Other options also exist for foreign investors interested in making the U.S. their home. An E-2 Treaty Investor Visa, for instance, is good for up to five years and requires only a “substantial” investment in a business activity that contributes to the economy, providing more flexibility in terms of eligibility. The applicant, however, has to actively manage the investment, which usually means setting up a company.

Buying a single-family home and renting it out does not suffice.

Only investors whose countries have trade and commerce treaties with the U.S. are eligible for the visa, which excludes Brazil and Venezuela and others.

For foreign investors interested in the region, the stars could not have aligned at a more opportune time to apply for residency, said Alfredo Vizcarrondo, president of AV Group, a Doral-based real estate services firm that facilitates Latin American investment in South Florida.

Political and economic uncertainty in many countries is pushing the well-heeled to look for secure places to stash their money abroad. Meantime, South Florida properties – foreclosures, short sales and other distressed situations – are going for fire-sale prices.

Said Vizcarrondo: “They are trying to put their money into something that means security.”

Source: The Miami Herald

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