Amid the cornfields and upstart subdivisions in McHenry County, a debate is under way over a $52 million vision for the future — all-American in concept but fueled by investors from places such as Dubai and China.
CHICAGO — Amid the cornfields and upstart subdivisions in McHenry County, a debate is under way over a $52 million vision for the future — all-American in concept but fueled by investors from places such as Dubai and China.
A sprawling sports complex planned in the village of Lakewood, Ill., would feature baseball fields, bicycle trails and restaurants meant to draw families from throughout the region. In return for kicking in $500,000 apiece, foreign investors in the project would jump to the head of the nation’s often-tangled line for legal immigration and win a route toward U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families.
The arrangement comes courtesy of an arcane but increasingly popular federal immigration program that has provided a ready source of cash to foster development in a weak economy.
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But at a time when all aspects of immigration are subject to debate, the dramatic growth of the EB-5 visa program has also sparked resentment, particularly from opponents of the scores of projects sprouting across the country — including an NBA basketball arena in New York and a ski resort in Vermont.
“Nobody here wants to sell their birthright to a foreign investor just because he has money,” said Al Stenstrom, who lives in a subdivision near where the McHenry County sports complex would be built.
Launched in 1990, the EB-5 program was designed to stimulate the U.S. economy by attracting foreign investors able to create new jobs. Nearly 10,000 visas are set aside every year that serve as a pathway to U.S. citizenship for the investors, their spouses and dependent children.
Most of the recent growth has come under an initiative that enables third-party brokers to profit from the investments by creating federally approved “regional centers” that facilitate projects in areas of high unemployment.
Since 2007, the number of regional centers has grown by more than 10 times, to 117 — with applications pending for 88 more, federal immigration officials said. During the 2009 fiscal year, 4,218 investors and their relatives got their EB-5 visas, more than five times the number in 2007.
But with the spurt of popularity have come concerns of fraud that hark back to the late 1990s, when brokers of some regional centers were caught trying to steal millions of dollars in investments.
The principal broker for the Lakewood project is Taher Kameli, 38, an Iranian-born Chicago attorney who has partnered with a Naperville, Ill., dentist and a small group of other board members to launch the two regional centers now operating in Illinois.
Well-versed in laws governing immigration and U.S. securities, Kameli recently sat inside his downtown law office overlooking the Chicago River and rattled off plans for other developments in the region for which he has been soliciting tens of millions of dollars during numerous trips to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
“The local governments are happy because you’re bringing all that sales tax and property-tax revenue to them. The U.S. government is happy because you’re creating jobs.”
Yet, as the program gains fresh steam, so have worries over questionable practices from regional-center representatives who have flooded China, India and the Middle East in search of investors — often wrongly guaranteeing U.S. citizenship and huge profits.
“The whole marketing strategy is not controlled,” said Lu Sun, a Beijing-based EB-5 broker with strong ties to the Chicago area. Federal immigration officials “are not aware of what’s happening with the program outside the U.S.”
Sun and others involved in the program vividly recall the instances of fraud that nearly upended the program in the late 1990s. In one case, two Virginia men wound up in prison for running a $21 million scheme that produced hundreds of fraudulent EB-5 visa applications and illegally funneled investors’ money into offshore banking accounts.
Officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the program, acknowledged that their investigators are looking into cases of possible fraud but declined to offer details.
Kameli, whose regional centers in Illinois have not been accused of any wrongdoing, said he welcomes more federal scrutiny.
Local supporters of the Lakewood sports complex laud the idea of new immigrants creating a recreational paradise with arcades, shops and restaurants that developers say would create 400 new jobs.
To qualify for the program, the investors must undergo intense screening that includes verification that their money is not tied to any criminal activity, federal officials say. They and their families are then allowed temporary U.S. residency for two years, after which they must prove that their money created at least 10 new jobs per investment. If they meet that goal, the investors are processed for permanent residency, which would open the door to U.S. citizenship.
Smith said the sports complex could function as a town center in a village that has no downtown shopping area. Lakewood included the proposed site in an ongoing annexation of 685 acres of unincorporated land and is studying how to provide sewer services and other utilities to the project’s 165-acre site.
The state qualified the site for EB-5 financing in February.
A Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman in Washington said the agency has yet to review the application. If it doesn’t qualify, investors would have to up their ante to $1 million.