Foreigners Get Visas For Investing In Bay Area, Nation

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(CBS)

(CBS)

SEATTLE (CBS 5) — Can you put a price on living in America? The Bay Area is set to cash in on a little-known program that lets foreign investors obtain a green card.

It’s a program that is already going gangbusters in Seattle. Russia-born Svetlana Anikeeva is helping fund a development boom in Seattle with an investment of $500,000. For that, she expects a modest return on her money, and something far more valuable; a permanent green card.

It’s called an EB-5 visa. EB stands for Employment Based. Anikeeva invests half a million dollars in a project that creates 10 American jobs, proves her money is clean, and sees the project through to completion.

Or, as Anikeeva explained, “It’s pretty much like a marriage visa. Once you’ve proven it’s for love, they give you permanent residence.”

It’s expensive, but it’s also one of the fastest routes to permanent legal residency.

“If you have the money, you do this,” explained Henry Liebman, an immigration attorney turned real estate developer. Everything he builds is financed with foreign money.

Most investors are Chinese families, many of whom want to send a child to school in the United States. Others include Europeans who would like to retire in a place like Florida.

Just four years ago, fewer than 300 Chinese investors applied for EB-5 visas. Now, that number is approaching 3,000 a year. At 20 years old, the program is just now taking off largely because of the economy.

“Until the bust, it really wasn’t popular at all, then it became one of the few sources of financing,” said Liebman, who is likely the largest EB-5 developer in the country. With more than 1,500 investors, at $500,000 a piece, he has a lot of financing.

The investments are enough to singlehandedly reshape the Seattle area known as SoDo, or “South of Downtown.” His vision is based largely on what has happened in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. Walk by Safeco Field, Seattle’s baseball stadium, and there are several blocks of construction. It’s the result of a massive influx of foreign investment.

Seattle’s EB-5 construction boom doesn’t end with private buildings. The massive upgrade of State Route 520, also known as The Floating Bridge, includes a healthy dose of foreign investment. The highway project is literally a path to American citizenship for 95 families.

The use of foreign money was the brainchild of developer Mike Mattox. He calls the EB-5 program “one of the best tools The United States has for creating jobs and bringing money into this country.” He describes it as “a win-win for everybody.”

In the Bay Area, dozens of new EB-5 investment centers are popping up. Foreigners can put money in Wine Country, Silicon Valley, and maybe even professional baseball. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan wants to keep the A’s from moving by building a new stadium with EB-5 dollars.

There are some catches. If a project goes bust, applicants lose their money, along with their path to that permanent visa. Also, developers are not allowed to solicit investors. The investors have to track down developers like Liebman. That usually happens with help from the Internet and investment advisors abroad.

The EB-5 program is now bringing more than $1 billion into the United States every year. Not only is the economy driving up the number of EB-5 applications, President Barack Obama wants to expand the program. His administration is looking for ways to get as many as 10,000 issued per year.

Back in Seattle, Anikeeva watches her investment grow, as her family settles down for life in America. She has just one wish for the seven-story office building she helped fund across the street from Safeco Field: a brewery.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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