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The U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent watchdog for Congress, has begun an audit of a controversial visa program at the request of three U.S. senators.

The program, known as EB-5, provides wealthy foreigners access to permanent-residency visas, also known as green cards, in exchange for an investment of at least $500,000 that creates 10 full-time jobs in the United States. The majority of the visas are going to applicants from China.

GAO spokesman Chuck Young confirmed that the agency received a request to review the EB-5 program from senior Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

The senators are influential members of committees on immigration law, national security and foreign relations.

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“The work just started last month and the final scope of what we will be covering has not yet been determined,” Young wrote in an email.

Sen. Grassley said, “I’ve had too many whistle-blowers come forward expressing concerns with the EB-5 program, to not have some trepidations with it.” Federal agencies have raised national-security concerns, he noted, and efforts have been made at the request of politically influential people to expedite visa requests.

“There are a number of flaws in the program itself and in how the program is run,” he noted, adding, “The GAO can help Congress sort through the vulnerabilities as we look at reauthorizing the program.”

Spokespeople for the two other senators had no immediate commentWednesday.

EB-5 visas account for less than 1 percent of the total permanent-residency visas issued in 2013 but have become a critical source of capital for high-profile urban-development projects in cities like Seattle, New York and Los Angeles.

Many of the EB-5 industry’s leaders hail from Western Washington, which has seen numerous projects financed with the mechanism. Seattle-based American Life was a pioneer in using EB-5 funding to develop commercial projects in the Sodo neighborhood and elsewhere. The industry’s trade group, the Association to Invest In the USA, or IIUSA, is led by Bellingham-based David Andersson.

The latest inquiry comes as Congress is poised to take up the program’s reauthorization next year. Congress created a pilot program in 1992 to allow funders known as “regional centers” to pool investments from wealthy immigrants seeking EB-5 visas.

The EB-5 program, which was essentially shut down through much of the 1990s due to fraud, has exploded in size: There are about 600 regional centers today, compared to fewer than 50 beforethe 2008 financial crisis.

The trade group IIUSA is lobbying Congress to expand the number of investor visas — most of the 10,000 visas issued annually go to investors’ spouse and children — and give the federal government more tools to ensure the program’s integrity.

“The program needs to be made permanent to give certainty to investors and to compete in the global marketplace,” said Peter Joseph, executive director of IIUSA, in an interview. Immigrants under the EB-5 program invested about $3 billion in the U.S. economy last year, he said.

But the program has had its problems.

In August, a federal grand jury indicted Anshoo Sethi, a 30-year-old Chicago operator of an EB-5 regional center, on charges of fraud for allegedly duping 290 Chinese nationals seeking visas into investing $160 million in a hotel and convention- center project near O’Hare International Airport. About $147 million was frozen by the Securities and Exchange Commission and returned to the Chinese investors.

A year ago, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security delivered a blistering critique of the federal agency charged with managing the EB-5 program, Citizenship and Immigration Services. Among its conclusions:

• Existing rules don’t allow the agency to bar a regional center from the program, even if officials have concerns about fraud or national security.

• Poor data collection makes it impossible to verify that foreign investors’ funds actually created U.S. jobs.

• The agency is ill-equipped to oversee a job-creation program.

The Inspector General’s work was finished in June 2013, before the agency carried out changes to address some of the criticisms.

The GAO’s review “should really capture the program and how it’s being administered today,” said Joseph, IIUSA’s director.

The audit will be wide-ranging, according to people briefed at a meeting in Washington, D.C., last Friday. Among other things, the review will look at instances of fraud in the EB-5 program, the economic models used by EB-5 investors to forecast job creation and the program’s economic impact.

The Department of Commerce is already studying the EB-5 program’s economic impact and is expected to issue a report next year.

“This is the only government program that doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything,” said Henry Liebman, American Life’s CEO.

The Seattle firm, which manages 10 regional centers in Washington and four other states, has developed more than 3.6 million square feet of buildings and assisted about 1,700 immigrant investors since 1996.

Liebman said the program funds speculative development and, in turn, job creation, but federal immigration officials are more focused on enforcement.

“This program would be better off in the Commerce Department,” he said.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com