How green is the green card of the US? There are options for those looking to live and work in the US - but they're costly and some are set to double by the end of October.
The EB-5 investment visa, used by wealthy South Africans to move to the US is set to see changes that will significantly push up the cost of this American dream.
In the current economic climate, Saffas are hedging their bets by investing abroad and by acquiring a second citizenship or residency overseas at an unprecedented rate, at least according to immigration experts Sable International who have seen 70% increase in enquiries and 45% increase in clients over the past year.
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Sable International's Director, Andrew Rissik says, “The new regulations propose increases to the minimum investment levels to obtain the US EB-5 visa, from $1 million (about R15.m at R15.11/$) to $1.8 million for direct investments and $500 000 (about R7.5m at R15.11/$) to $1.35 million for investing in projects in Target Employment Areas (TEAs)."
The new regulations, with higher costs, are set to become effective 30 to 60 days after publication in the US Federal Register, around the end of October, he says, which means investors wishing to use the existing rules and get in at the lower investment level are "advised to move quickly on their decision”.
“South Africans who have the money, are looking at the EB-5 visa, because it’s the fastest way to get US residency for a family, you can work anywhere, you have access to an excellent education system for your kids, and after five years you can apply for citizenship.”
The EB-5 USA investment visa is among the top residency and citizenship options for locals, including citizenship by investment programmes in Grenada, Cyprus or Malta to the popular range of options for Australia, Portugal and the UK. There are complex tax, wealth and money transfer implications involved in most of the deals, but many offer both a "beautiful environment and a safe haven for investment".
The EB-5 visa is a way to obtain a green card and permanent residency through investment. The EB-5 investor visa programme enables foreigners who make an investment in a US business to obtain a green card and become lawful permanent residents, and eventual citizens, of the United States. The investment can lead to a green card for the investor to permanently live and work in the United States with their spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21. The EB-5 visa programme is operated by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The programme was established by the United States Congress in 1990 to facilitate increased investment in the US economy.
“For foreign nationals with the necessary capital, the EB-5 Programme can be an excellent way to obtain permanent resident status in the US. Unlike other immigrant visa options, the EB-5 Visa requires no US employer to act as a sponsor, nor does it require any specialized knowledge, skills, or experience,” says Rissik.
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The EB-5 visa process
There are four general steps that investors must complete to become US permanent residents through the EB-5 visa programme.
The process involves first finding a suitable business project to invest in, ensure that they meet the investor requirements.
After choosing a project to invest in, the applicants must make the required capital investment amount in the project that they have chosen. The investment must be $1 million or $500,000 if the project is situated in a Targeted Employment Area (TEA). These investments are often made into an escrow account. Then, an immigration attorney provides proof of this investment by filing an I-526 petition with USCIS. USCIS typically informs applicants whether or not their I-526 petition has been accepted after 12 to 18 months. Most regional centres will refund your investment if your I-526 is denied.
The third step of the EB-5 application process is for the applicant to become a two year conditional resident of the United States so they can implement the project funded by their EB-5 investment. EB-5 investors are eligible to become US residents once their I-526 petition has been approved by USCIS.
The final step in the EB-5 visa process is for applicants to become unconditional permanent residents by removing their two year conditional status.
The investor, their spouse, and their unmarried children under the age of 21 can then permanently live and work in the United States and have the option to become U.S. citizens after a five year period from the date they received their initial conditional residency.
“It’s a complex process, but it’s the most efficient way to obtain a US greencard for a family, and we take our clients through every step - our US-based partners have successfully moved over 600 families there.”
A real and attractive alternative?
And while the obvious US visa application would be an investment Green Card, Thomas says it is "no secret that the EB-5 Visa Programme is fast dismantling", leaving South Africans looking to emigrate with a large degree of uncertainty.
"To qualify for the EB-5 visa or investment green card, a substantial financial commitment of US$500 000 needed to be made in a commercial USA enterprise to create additional employment. The process required extensive documentation but once the visa was approved, one was allowed to live anywhere in the United States, regardless of where the investment was made."
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Why the EB-3 visa?
ICG in partnership with Visa Solutions, an USA immigration agency headquartered in Houston Texas, is helping families previously excluded by existing immigration agencies by giving them a viable opportunity to obtain a green card through applications for EB-3 visas.
“South Africans need solid options and alternatives in their relocation strategy and that is what we are providing with our “Live the Dream” Employment based Green card,” says Thomas.
The programme is made up of 100 visas as part of the US Government's allocated 10 000 visas each year for employment based sponsorship through EB-3 ‘Other Workers’ for employers that have proven labour shortages in unskilled work positions.
Though fairly new to the South African market demand and applications for EB-3 visa are growing, says Thomas.
"Our programme resonates easier with applicants that have done some emigration research and able to compare our programme to others.
'Perception out there that applying to the USA is just too difficult'
“Unlike other cumbersome immigration applications our clients are finding the process rather seamless. There is a perception out there that applying to the USA is just too difficult. We have results of people obtaining their green card from very unlikely backgrounds so we know it’s possible. We really want to show the average South African that if they follow through with the process the American Dream can be their reality too," says Lennie De Villiers co-director for Induku Consulting Group.
The risks are very low for applicants who have had no previous visa violations in the United States, (overstaying a visa, deportation, or working without authorisation) and have a clean criminal background.
De Villiers says the "American Dream is far from dead for driven, ambitious and industrious South African professionals interested in pursuing the “American Dream” and relocating to the USA in the next 12-14 months".
When asked about what possible costs applicants could expect to pay with this alternative visa Thomas says,"For the whole process including legal fees and fees to expedite the process the costs come to half the price of administrative fees to process an EB-5 visa" but would not disclose an actual figure due to currency exchanges.
"The EB-3 ‘Other Workers’ Visa leads directly to permanent residence green card status. A 10 - year green card allows one to live, work, and study in the United States permanently. Children who receive green cards with their parents are able to apply to universities with the same privileges as American citizens. After 5 years green card holders become eligible for citizenship."
*Compiled by Selene Brophy
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