Special report: Overselling the American dream overseas

Wed Dec 22, 2010 10:40am EST
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By James Kelleher, Karin Matz and Melanie Lee

SHANGHAI/CHICAGO (Reuters) - In a conference room in an office building in downtown Shanghai, Jason Lee is literally selling the American dream.

Lee runs Maslink, a firm that connects cash-hungry American businesses with Chinese investors keen to move to the United States. His company is part of a global cottage industry that has popped up in recent years to profit from a program that allows foreigners who invest in certain small U.S. businesses to get on the fast track to U.S. residency and citizenship.

Interest in the immigration program, known as EB-5, is so high that Maslink, which already has offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and Chongqing, is expanding to two more Chinese cities.

Firms like Maslink, and the U.S. companies that pay them, promote EB-5 as a quick, easy way to gain legal entry to the United States -- and to make a potential profit in the bargain.

The pitch is effective. In 2010, nearly 2,000 would-be immigrants, many from China, applied for EB-5 visas, the most ever in a single year, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that oversees the program. The surge has been driven in part by a 20-fold increase in the number of U.S. companies looking to participate.

But an examination of EB-5 by Reuters suggests immigrants should think twice before investing in the limited partnerships and unregistered securities that U.S. companies and promoters like Maslink are encouraging them to buy.

Over the past two decades, thousands of immigrants have been burned by misrepresentations that EB-5 promoters make about the program, both inside and outside the United States. Many have lost not only their money but their chance at winning U.S. citizenship.

"I always tell the people who approach me that the EB-5 investment program is a risky business," said Brian Su, a Springfield, Illinois-based immigration consultant who publishes a popular blog on the program. "If you cannot bear the loss, the total loss of your investment, don't play this game."   Continued...

<p>South Korean immigrant Kyung Kim speaks during an interview with Reuters in New York, November 19, 2010. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid</p>