Coming To America

As Barack Obama seeks to rebalance the bloated US economy, the EB-5 visa scheme is being used to attract overseas investment by offering a green card, US citizenship and an American passport for those with at least $500,000 to spare. Shai Zamanian and Preeya Malik, from Dubai-based STEP America, outline why it is proving popular with Gulf-based expats
Legal professionals Shai Zagmanian and Preeya Malik launched STEP America two years ago to help Gulf-based expatriates gain an American green card, and potentially passport, by linking them up with eligible projects and investment opportunities.

For decades immigrants around the world have strived for their own piece of the fabled American dream, and for many it has been filled with a green card.

Set up in the wake of World War II, the green card system will next year celebrate 70 years in existence. Despite the global economic crisis, millions annually are still attracted to the United States of America and apply to get their hands on the coveted card.

As in most parts of the world, demand from the Middle East has been high and less than two years ago legal professionals Shai Zamanian and Preeya Malik saw a gap in the market. They realised they could help wealthy middle class expat investors get to the US with a green card – and eventually a passport – and 18 months ago set up the STEP America firm in Dubai.

Zamanian, who was raised and educated in Los Angeles and is a visiting researcher at Harvard University, was working in Miami handling commercial real estate legal matters for a large developer. Meanwhile, Toronto-born Malik owned her own law firm in the city focused on lender refinancing.

The program that united their interests was a scheme known as the EB-5 visa for Immigrant Investors, which was created by the US Immigration Act of 1990. The scheme provides a method of obtaining a green card for foreign nationals who invest $1m, or at least $500,000 in an area with high unemployment or that is mainly rural.

The main objective of the scheme – from the US government’s point of view – is jobs; each investor must create or preserve at least 10 jobs for US workers, excluding themselves and their family.

When the EB-5 scheme was first launched, the pilot was not the huge success US authorities had hoped because it required applicants to set up a new company or entity and physically operate in the US.

In 2005, the government realised the scheme had not been taken up in the numbers they had forecast and decided to amend it to include passive investors who could simply invest a minimum of $500,000 in a real estate or investment project, create US-based jobs and then apply for a green card.

With the easier access, by the end of the 2011 fiscal year more than 3,800 EB-5 applications had been filed, compared to fewer than 800 applications in 2007. With demand so high, for the first time, in August, 2014 the State Department suspended the issuance of EB-5 visas until the beginning of the next fiscal year in October, 2014.