The Marriott Marquis
The Marriott Marquis Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The ribbon-cutting for the Marriott Marquis convention center hotel was a patriotic affair. A choral rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” opened the June 10 ceremony, which took place against a backdrop of three hulking metal sculptures titled “America,” “Flag,” and “The Birth of the American Flag.”

But as Mayor Vince Gray took the podium to welcome D.C.’s new largest hotel, China was on his mind.

That day, he announced, marked the beginning of direct flights on Air China between D.C. and Beijing—something his office says it’s worked to bring to fruition. “Today is the maiden flight,” he told the assembled crowd. “We will have a flight bringing people from Beijing to our city, and we hope they will stay in the Marriott Marquis!”

It would be fitting, given that foreign investors—half of them from China—contributed a portion of the money to pay for the hotel, earning green cards in the process.

Five million dollars of the financing for the development of the $520 million Marriott Marquis came via a federal visa program called EB-5. Through it, foreigners can trade job-creating investments in American projects for green cards. In other words, they can buy their way into permanent U.S. residency.

The federal government provides five vehicles for foreign nationals to obtain immigrant visas through their employment. There are visas for star athletes, internationally recognized professors, and multinational executives; for advanced-degree holders and people of extraordinary ability, with a job offer in hand; for workers and professionals with Department of Labor certification; and for certain special workers, like Iraqi and Afghan translators who have worked with the American military.

Since Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990, the fifth employment-based preference, or EB-5, has been granted “for capital investment by foreign investors in new commercial enterprises in the United States which provide job creation.” If a foreigner invests $1 million in a U.S. enterprise—or $500,000 in rural areas or “targeted employment areas,” designations that cover nearly all projects—and creates at least 10 American jobs, he or she is eligible for a visa to become a permanent U.S. resident.

The Marriott Marquis is one of a growing number of major D.C. development projects using EB-5 funds. In fact, the same day the Marriott Marquis opened—May 1; the ribbon-cutting a month later was, in typical fashion, purely ceremonial—saw the opening of another hotel just four blocks to the north, the Cambria Suites in Shaw’s CityMarket at O development. CityMarket at O, which also includes residences and a Giant supermarket, used $97 million of EB-5 funding, earning green cards for nearly 200 foreigners.

At a December press conference marking the first anniversary of his five-year economic development strategy, Gray took umbrage when asked which of the city’s economic gains could be attributed to policies of his administration on its own, as opposed to the work of his predecessors. He didn’t name any specific efforts of his, instead challenging the premise of the question, but his spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, quickly cited one: EB-5.

A stronger business relationship with China, the primary source of EB-5 funding in D.C. and nationally, has been a top priority of the Gray administration. In 2012, Gray and the developer of CityMarket at O traveled to China together, returning with $40 million in EB-5 commitments for the project. Gray’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, Victor Hoskins, has paid multiple visits to China during his time in government.

Just how much credit the administration deserves for EB-5 investment in D.C. is a point of contention. So are the merits of the program itself. On its face, there’s something unsettling about a law granting automatic entry to America, the country whose symbolic gatekeeper welcomes the tired and the poor from overseas, to those who can afford to cut a hefty check.

Yet in a sense, everyone involved wins. The investors get their green cards. The developers get low-cost loans from people who aren’t really in it for the money. And the middlemen who set up the projects, connecting the investors with the developers, collect a healthy fee.

The Hyatt Place hotel project on E Street SW Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Two people dominate the EB-5 game in D.C. The first is David Morris, an immigration attorney with the Visa Law Group. Morris has worked as an immigration lawyer for 22 years. But as he saw more and more money flowing to American projects through EB-5 investments, he decided to get in on the action himself.

“Like a lot of entrepreneurial lawyers,” Morris says, “I thought, ‘Why can’t I just do the project?’”

So in 2008, he co-founded the DC Regional Center with the other top player, Angel Brunner. Brunner previously worked at the National Capital Revitalization Corporation, the former D.C. development authority, and at the Neighborhood Development Company, which has completed several residential buildings along Georgia Avenue NW.

That put Morris and Brunner at the middle of a big, and growing, pool of overseas money heading D.C.’s way. Regional centers are federally approved entities that connect foreign investors with developers in need of funding, and take a commission. Some EB-5 investments are made by individual investors, but the “vast majority” run through regional centers, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley. (USCIS doesn’t keep data on the number of EB-5 projects undertaken each way.)

David Morris Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The District government’s involvement in EB-5 began under the administration of Adrian Fenty—though it wasn’t the mayor’s office that took the initiative. “Truth be told, the idea wasn’t one that originated within the administration,” says Neil Albert, who served as deputy mayor for planning and economic development and city administrator under Fenty. “It was brought to us by Angel Brunner and David Morris.”

Brunner and Morris started working together on their first big project, CityMarket at O, before having a falling out. They both still officially work through the DC Regional Center, but in practice they operate separately.

“She does her thing and I do my thing, and we don’t really cross each other,” says Morris. “We see things differently.”

“David’s an immigration lawyer, and I’m an economist and an urban planner,” explains Brunner. “So we just have different views on how to do projects.”

There’s been plenty of work for both of them. Morris has raised around $230 million in EB-5 investments in the last six years, including two projects in Vermont and Baltimore. His D.C. portfolio is rapidly expanding: He raised $65 million for the ongoing Hyatt Place hotel development on E Street SW, a project that’s to thank for the shiny groundbreaking shovel proudly displayed in his office. And he’s lined up $55 million in EB-5 funding for Skyland Town Center, the mixed-use Ward 7 development for which Walmart is expected to be the anchor tenant—meaning another 110 green cards for foreign investors.

Brunner, for her part, has brought more than $80 million in EB-5 capital to D.C., including the $5 million she raised with Morris before their split. She’s currently working on a Hilton hotel project on New York Avenue NE, with $39 million in EB-5 investments, and a 305-unit residential development near the Navy Yard with developer MRP that has yet to break ground.

Brunner also has an office in California, but in the District, Morris notes, “I’ve done more projects and we have more capital.” If Morris is the kingpin of an increasingly lucrative trade in D.C., you wouldn’t guess it from his office, in an unassuming rowhouse building on 11th Street NW near Logan Circle. Then again, he spends a good chunk of his time elsewhere.

When I pay Morris a visit recently, he’s just returned from a trip to China. He’s helped investors from 23 countries get visas to live in the U.S., but 80 percent of them are from China, he estimates. He travels there about four times a year to hunt for investors.

Brunner, who spends about a fifth of her time abroad, has similar numbers: She has clients from 43 countries, but about 70 percent are from China. When I ask which other countries are represented in big numbers, she names one: South Korea. “Really, it’s South Korea, and then there’s a huge dropoff.”

Out of 8,564 EB-5 visas issued nationally last year, 7,032 went to people from China, according to
figures from the State Department
. South Korea came in a distant second with 364; Mexico was third with 145.

“Everyone in China is an amateur EB-5 lawyer,” says Morris. “You can’t have a dinner party without someone talking about EB-5.”

When Morris travels to China, he collaborates with the emigration companies that are proliferating across the country to set up conferences with potential investors. At these conferences, he says, he gives presentations to around 200 prequalified would-be investors, some of whom sign up on the spot, although that’s more of an expression of interest than a firm commitment. (The typical commission paid to the regional centers, according to Morris, is around $50,000 per investor, used to cover the regional center’s labor and expenses, including any marketing work done by the emigration companies. The federal government does not regulate these fees, other than stipulating that they be paid on top of, rather than out of, the $500,000 investment.)

The large and growing EB-5 investment in the District is just one of several sources of foreign funds flowing into the city. The first phase of the ongoing CityCenterDC project, the mixed-use development taking place on a wide and valuable piece of city-owned downtown land where the old convention center once stood, has been financed by a $622 million investment from the sovereign wealth fund of the state of Qatar. The investors’ desire that the development conform to Islamic law, known as shariah, sparked fears—unfounded, as it turned out—that restaurants in the complex would be unable to sell alcohol.

The sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi also invested in the Marriott Marquis, while Kuwait’s bought an 11-story downtown office building last year. A Norwegian bank purchased two downtown buildings last year, while South Korean investors took over Washington Harbour in Georgetown.

Angel Brunner Credit: Darrow Montgomery

It makes sense that foreign investment is drawn to real estate in D.C., where the market is considered stable and has grown sharply in recent years. “It usually tracks to whatever the economic drivers are in that market, and Washington, D.C.’s primary economic drivers are real estate development and government,” says Brunner. “Well, we can’t fund government.”

D.C. isn’t alone in this foreign real estate investment boom, nor is it even an extreme example. Foreigners bought nearly half of the luxury homes sold in the first half of last year in Vancouver, which has become, according to a recent story in the New Yorker, the most expensive housing market in North America. Latin American money, sometimes fleeing political unrest, has flowed to Miami’s real estate market, while Credit Suisse predicts that Chinese investors will buy $44 billion of Australian real estate over the next seven years.

These places, to investors, promise financial security. When the national housing market tanked during the recession, D.C.’s mostly held on, in large part because the federal government is a steadier employer than any private company. Currencies bounce up and down. Companies go bust. But the real estate market of the American capital, a city whose population is increasing by more than 1,000 people a month, looks to many foreigners like the safest investment around, a sure way to make a buck.

Still, EB-5 is different from these foreign direct investment projects in one key area: Its investors don’t necessarily care if they make a buck or not.

Part of the reason for the substantial Chinese EB-5 investment these days is ability: An increasing number of Chinese citizens have the means to invest $500,000 in an American project. And partly it’s opportunity: The EB-5 program offers a straightforward and relatively speedy path to an American visa, which can otherwise be hard to come by. (According to State Department figures released this month, the backlog for certain family-based visas for Chinese citizens stretches back to people who applied in 2001; for several of the employment-based visas, the wait times are more than five years. EB-5, by contrast, is listed as “current,” meaning there’s no backlog.) Even as China’s economy grows, the ability to move or travel to America is enticing to many Chinese citizens.

“The number one reason Chinese investors are putting their money in the U.S. is education and putting their children in our school system,” says Ning Shao, who runs the D.C. China Center in Shanghai, opened by Gray in 2012 to build business relationships between China and the District, with a $200,000 annual budget. The second-biggest draw, Shao says, is the ability to own private property, which can be difficult in China. There’s also the desire to diversify one’s investment portfolio.

“You want to have a get out of jail free card,” says Morris. “And that’s a green card.”

“There are three things every investor cares about, and there’s an order in which they care,” concurs Brunner. “The most critical thing they care about is a green card.” The second priority is getting their $500,000 back.

“What’s least important to them,” she continues, “is how much they’re going to make on that capital. Because in most of their home countries, they can make a much higher return.”

The Marriott Marquis Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In 2006, only 486 people applied for EB-5 visas nationwide. Two years later, applications were up to 1,257. In between, of course, the economy had collapsed.

The EB-5 visa has been around for more than two decades, but it didn’t fully take off until the recession hit in 2008. “Developers are a relatively risk-averse group,” says Brunner. “The last thing they want to hear about is a new form of financing that’s going to take a lot of work. But then we had the recession.”

With bank loans drying up, developers struggled to find ways to finance their projects. EB-5 offered a steady stream of money from investors willing to bear a low rate of return in exchange for American residency. By 2010, USCIS figures show, 1,955 people applied for EB-5 visas. In fiscal year 2013, there were a record-high 6,343 applications.

Now that the economy is recovering and traditional lending is on the rise, it’s not clear what will happen to EB-5. “I think it’s getting harder, because more and more projects have access to bank financing or traditional financing,” says Morris.

Still, EB-5 offers one advantage: It’s much cheaper than other modes of financing. “The reason that U.S. developers are asking for EB-5 investments is sometimes not because they cannot finance their project, but because EB-5 is among the lowest-cost financing for projects,” says Shao. “EB-5 has probably half of the commercial cost of lending. You’ll probably still see developers and projects tapping into EB-5.”

Morris says his EB-5 investors typically make between 1 and 6 percent on their investments, depending on the form the financing takes—generally around half of what the private market might charge. Brunner declines to provide figures for her investors’ rate of return.

The low cost of borrowing explains EB-5’s appeal to developers, and its staying power. “The investors certainly appreciate that we’re buying their way into some of the best projects in Washington,” say Brunner. “How do I buy them into those projects? I buy them into those projects with their reduced return requirement.” Essentially, the program leverages foreigners’ desire for a green card to give developers a good deal, and regional centers a cut. It’s a win-win-win.

But how much does the city benefit? This is a more complicated question. Most of the projects that get EB-5 financing would have been built anyway, though it might have cost their developers more. That’s because the investors have two years to demonstrate that they’ve created 10 jobs—which means they need to sign on to projects that are sure to move quickly, and that likely already have much of their financing lined up. The EB-5 money often comes in relatively late in the process, and covers a relatively small portion of the cost.

“You find a project where the stars are all aligned,” says Morris.

Take CityMarket at O, which Richard Lake, its developer, says would have been built regardless of the green card investors. “EB-5 was not the savior,” he says. “We were moving forward with the project with or without it. It was just a very attractive vehicle.”

Both Brunner and Ribeiro argue that even if the projects would have been undertaken without EB-5, the foreign investment still helps, because it frees up bank funds for other projects. Of course, there’s nothing to say that those projects will be developments that serve the D.C. public rather than, say, mortgages for apartments in Gaithersburg. Even so, the developer, investors, and intermediaries all come out ahead, and no one really suffers.

Except when things go wrong.

CityMarket at O Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In D.C., EB-5 is all about real estate development. In South Dakota, it was all about cows.

The state wanted to attract investors to expand its beef and cheese operations, and it turned to EB-5. The $100 million Northern Beef Packers plant opened in Aberdeen, S.D., in 2012, funded largely by EB-5 investments. But the plant went bankrupt last year, shortly after it opened, and dozens of Chinese investors lost their money; after earlier investments from Chinese and South Korean citizens, the final round of funding consisted of $25 million from 50 Chinese nationals. Amid state and federal investigations into potentially shady dealings at Northern Beef Packers and other EB-5 projects, South Dakota’s former secretary of tourism and state development, who oversaw the EB-5 program, died from a gunshot wound that was ruled a suicide.

The scandal caused EB-5 to become politically toxic in the state. In May, Rick Weiland, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in South Dakota, said in a television interview, “People being able to buy their way into citizenship for half a million bucks, that doesn’t feel right to me.”

In Virginia, EB-5 became an issue in the 2013 governor’s race when the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into an electric car company co-founded by Democrat Terry McAuliffe. The company, together with a partner firm run by Hillary Clinton’s brother, Anthony Rodham, allegedly misled EB-5 investors by guaranteeing returns on their investments. McAuliffe went on to win the race anyway. The SEC has yet to file any charges, and a spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on the status (or even the existence) of the investigation.

Last year, the SEC announced charges against two companies in Illinois that had allegedly carried out a $156 million investment fraud against more than 250 investors, mostly from China. According to the SEC, the perpetrators, who sought EB-5 investments in a Chicago hotel and conference center, lied to the investors about having secured permits and submitted falsified documents to USCIS, while spending more than 90 percent of the administrative fees they collected and sending $2.5 million to a personal bank account of the companies’ founder. Later in the year, the SEC filed fraud charges against a Texas couple for allegedly collecting funds from foreign investors they said would be used for EB-5 projects and instead spending the money to open a Cajun restaurant and settle another lawsuit.

A proposed $6 billion, 2,200-acre China-themed cultural and amusement park in upstate New York, called China City of America and pitched as an opportunity for Chinese EB-5 investors, has generated recent opposition among startled locals, as well as from environmentalists who say it would damage important wetlands. In New York City, a 2011 New York Times investigation found that the city government had gerrymandered census tracts together into strangely shaped zones to allow projects in wealthy areas to qualify for the lower investment threshold that comes with targeted employment areas.

D.C. has so far avoided EB-5 scandals. But the targeted employment area concerns pertain here as well. Federal regulations define TEAs as areas with an unemployment rate that’s at least 150 percent of the national rate, with the goal of promoting development in struggling areas. But cities are free to combine census tracts as they like to form areas with high unemployment rates. The ease of qualifying for TEAs is such an open secret that the American Immigration Lawyers Association fact sheet on EB-5 states simply, “Each immigrant investor must create 10 US jobs with an investment of $500,000 or more”—rather than the $1 million required outside of TEAs.

CityMarket at O Credit: Darrow Montgomery

As a result, all D.C. EB-5 projects have been in TEAs, even if they’re not exactly in poverty-stricken areas. The U.S. Census Bureau reports unemployment rates below the District average, and well below 150 percent of the national average, in the census tracts of both the Marriott Marquis and CityMarket at O between 2007 and 2011, although the figures come with high margins of error. (In the Marriott Marquis tract, median household income is more than $78,000 as of 2010, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.) And yet by combining these tracts creatively with adjacent ones, the city has managed to designate them as TEAs—making it easier for developers to finance projects in high-demand areas, and perhaps reducing their incentive to boost poorer neighborhoods.

“There is a very limited number of regional centers that operate,” says a former city official who requested anonymity to talk freely about the program. “They know the law extremely well, and they will do whatever they think is necessary to find city backing for a project. They don’t care if it’s in a distressed neighborhood or not.”

A particularly perverse TEA designation came with a plan to renovate the Watergate Hotel in Foggy Bottom with EB-5 funding. The project ultimately failed—in part because of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, a partner in the venture, and in part because of concerns that funds from an Iranian investor might not be allowed by the U.S. Treasury Department—but it did get approved as having a TEA location.

That drew ridicule from a USCIS official, who wrote in a 2010 report, “The proposed investment will be wholly and entirely within Ward 2, a ward that is not itself suffering high unemployment in relation to the national unemployment rate.” While there was nothing illegal about the designation, the official continued, “it is clear that the petitioner’s investment of only $500,000 wholly within a ward that is not itself suffering high unemployment completely undermines the congressional intent…that the reduced investment amount would encourage investment in areas that are truly suffering high unemployment.”

But Brunner, who helped the city draw TEAs back in 2006, defends the system. She says she and city officials started with 100 percent of the city covered as a TEA, then carved out areas they knew couldn’t reasonably qualify (even if the Watergate was still deemed eligible). The results were expansive.

“What we came up with was, Washington, D.C., is very small,” she says. “The residents of D.C. benefit from all areas of job creation.” She draws an analogy to a five-star hotel in Beverly Hills. The hotel’s employees, she says, won’t live in Beverly Hills, so the hotel will benefit poorer parts of Los Angeles as well.

Despite Morris’ and Brunner’s growing portfolios of completed projects, there appears to be less-than-complete trust in the EB-5 regional center players among the people with whom they do business. As a result, says one former city official who asked to remain anonymous, developers who work with them aren’t always keen on going back for more projects.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of loyalty or repeat business for those who are operating in this space in Washington,” says the official.

“Both of them haven’t been terrible,” Albert, the former deputy mayor, says of Brunner and Morris, “but you do hear on the street that people have varying degrees of comments on their ability to be fair, whether or not they can legitimately deliver.” He quickly adds, “I know they can deliver.”

Brunner and Morris both say they’re surprised by this criticism. “There’s no possible way you could doubt our ability to deliver,” says Brunner, who boasts a 100 percent visa petition approval rate on her website. “I don’t know where they could get that from.” She notes that Lake’s firm, Roadside Development, went back for several more tranches of EB-5 funding for CityMarket at O after receiving the first, and says that both MRP and Capstone Development, which built the Marriott Marquis, have approached her about doing more EB-5 projects. Morris likewise says, “On every project that I’ve made a promise to deliver funds, I have,” and adds that Roadside included Morris in its ultimately unsuccessful proposal to develop the Walter Reed site on Georgia Avenue NW.

There are several registered D.C. regional centers besides the one founded by Brunner and Morris, but their operations are limited. Ben and Dan Miller, who launched the crowdfunding investment company Fundrise, have one, but it’s only provided a single $500,000 investment, for the H Street NE market Maketto, which Fundrise also backed. Ben Miller says the brothers have no plans for additional EB-5 work now that they have their hands full with a recent $31 million investment from tech and real estate ventures—led by Renren, a large Chinese social network.

The Capital Area Regional Center has yet to fund a project successfully—its efforts to help develop Poplar Point near Anacostia fell through in 2007—but is putting together funding for the big Wharf project on the Southwest Waterfront, says the center’s Mike Sears. The Anacostia Regional Center likewise hasn’t completed any projects, but is working on several, including a venture to produce energy-saving devices which will most likely involve EB-5 funding, according to Bill Hague of the Anacostia Economic Development Corporation, of which the regional center is a subsidiary.

D.C. could also theoretically set up a regional center itself, which would allow it both to share in the profits and to play a greater role in steering EB-5 investments toward truly struggling neighborhoods. Vermont and Michigan have state regional centers; the City of Dallas Regional Center is owned by the city but managed by a private company. But Morris argues that by working through private regional centers, D.C. is getting the benefits of EB-5 investment without having to shell out for more government bureaucracy. “Why should the city hire more people and deal with all this stuff when they get the benefits when folks like me support the projects that are on their priority list, like Skyland?” he asks.

Still, given the lucrative nature of the business, Brunner says, “We will have a lot more competition before the day is through.”

She’s right. Albert, who’s now a senior policy advisor at the law firm Holland & Knight, and Steven Siegel, D.C.’s director of development under Fenty, are forming their own EB-5 operation. With their experience bringing together developers and the city government, they could become immediate heavy hitters in the EB-5 world, even if they don’t have Morris’ and Brunner’s networks of Chinese investors. They plan to work with existing regional centers rather than starting one of their own.

“Steve and I both worked in the deputy mayor’s office,” says Albert. “And I thought, since we were some of the early folks involved in EB-5, why don’t we try to play in this space?”

The Hyatt Place hotel project Credit: Darrow Montgomery

With former administration officials getting into the game, there’s some question about how much of the credit for the flourishing EB-5 program the current administration can claim.

“D.C.’s the number one market in the country to attract foreign direct investment in real estate,” says Brunner. “So do you credit the mayor for all of that? I think it’s a philosophical question of what do you believe government is responsible for and what do you believe the private sector is responsible for?”

Brunner concedes that the program wouldn’t be doing so well if the administration were working against it, but adds, “I do think that an actively supportive administration could bring in hundreds of millions more of EB-5 to the District [than it already has].”

Still, for Chinese investors who have never been to D.C., know nothing of the city’s real estate market, and want a safe investment, having the mayor stand behind a project can make all the difference. Gray and Hoskins’ trips to China certainly helped give the impression that the city would do its part to make the investors whole.

“They’re looking for a safe place to park their money that’s overseas,” says Ribeiro. “Having the mayor there shows them that it’s a safe, solid investment.”

“When we went to China with the mayor,” says Lake, “having the mayor with us, with the investors, having them see the mayor going halfway around the world to support a project is very important. Because these folks are used to only projects that are government-supported going forward.”

Promotion of EB-5 projects by city officials is arguably a public cost that goes into the program, especially if it involves taxpayer-funded trips overseas. If the promotion allows major civic projects to take place, it’s a worthwhile use of city officials’ time; if it simply provides cheaper funding to developers for projects that would happen anyway, it’s more questionable.

And to an extent, D.C.’s already doing its own marketing. Chinese investors may not know Anacostia from Acapulco, but they do know that D.C. is the capital of the richest country on earth.

“It’s just brand recognition,” says Shao, who places D.C. among the top EB-5 cities in America for Chinese investors, along with New York, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay area. “If you have a property five minutes’ walk from the White House, that’s a prestigious location.”

The economy will keep ebbing and flowing, and D.C.’s development market could someday slow down. But as long as EB-5 remains a part of federal law and there continue to be projects “just blocks from the White House,” to quote the cliche, foreign investors in search of greener pastures—or cards, at least—are likely to keep pouring their money into the District.