Pay to stay: Visa program offers green cards to immigrants — for a price

James Falaschi, Brendan Heafy and Michael Hastings of the Bay Area Regional Center have positioned their company to channel the contributions of immigrant investors into Oakland development projects.

OAKLAND — In bustling Oakland Chinatown, an office full of empty cubicles sits ready to greet executives — all of them newly arrived immigrants who have paid as much as $500,000 for the privilege of living here.

Blocks away at Jack London Square, local developers have transformed a harbormaster building into a meeting place where they hope to channel foreign investments into new hotel construction.

In Napa and Sonoma counties, another venture hopes to woo would-be investors with wine tours, and convince them to buy some vineyards in the process.

The projects all hang on the promise of wealthy immigrants so eager to move to the United States they are willing to risk their own money to do so. By investing in a troubled sector of the American economy, in a venture that creates at least 10 full-time jobs, recipients of the investor visa, or EB-5, can get a green card.

“The majority of the inquiries come from China,” said Christina Lau, director of the newly opened California Wineries and Vineyards Regional Center, which is seeking immigrants to pump money into troubled North Bay wine businesses. “It’s amazing. Maybe they really have that much money to spend.”

The number of immigrants getting EB-5 visas nearly tripled last year after a decade in which the 20-year-old program languished because of disinterest, complicated rules and a tarnished reputation.

Congress allows up to 10,000 immigrants to come in on the visa each year, but most years attract fewer than 1,000.

That is rapidly changing, as the number of visa-holders nationwide rose to 4,218 last year from 1,443 in 2008, according to government statistics.

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