By: Angelo Paparelli
Seyfarth Synopsis: The EB-5 Immigrant Investment program is at a critical juncture. As Congress contemplates reform legislation, little is known about how newly appointed officials in the Department of Homeland Security will administer and enforce the EB-5 program. The President has named two new officers, Francis Cissna as Director of USCIS (subject to Senate confirmation), and Julie Kirchner, who has already begun to serve as the USCIS Ombudsman. Their past actions foretell only part of the EB-5 program’ s future. Time will tell the rest.
Memes, apocrypha, obfuscation, head feints, hand-wringing, and supposition: These are the misleading and unreliable stuff of the Interweb. To a great extent, alas, they also infect the EB-5 ecospace. This article will avoid conjecture and look at the few hard facts we know about Trump Administration appointees and the positions they will hold, while encouraging EB-5 stakeholders momentarily to suspend their hopes and fears.
Facts: Former Senator Jeff Sessions (a stalwart opponent of legal immigration) is the Attorney General. Sen. Charles Grassley (no friend of the EB-5 program) has proposed legislation, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to eliminate the EB-5 program.
Facts: Trump Administration appointees and nominees have previously worked closely with Messrs. Sessions and Grassley, or with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a nonprofit widely regarded as an anti-immigrant advocacy group. The decisionmakers include:
Stephen Miller, now Senior Advisor to the President for Policy.
Gene Hamilton, now Deputy Chief of Staff at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for Policy and Senior Counselor.
Lee Francis Cissna, nominee for Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, now Chief of the USCIS Office of Policy and Strategy.
Julie Kirchner, now USCIS Ombudsman.
Aside from Stephen Miller, reportedly an author or coauthor of Versions 1.0 and 2.0 of the controversial Executive Order described by the President as the “travel ban,” not much is known publicly about the intended policy positions of these individuals, except for Mr. Cissna and Ms. Kirchner,  both lawyers of strong pedigree.
Mr. Cissna has been most recently “detailed” to Sen. Grassley where he helped write S.2266, the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2015 — a bill that would have dramatically enlarged the enforcement authority of the U.S. Department of Labor and restricted H-1B and L-1 visa requirements and benefits, as well as S.1501, the American Job Creation and Investment Promotion Reform Act of 2015 — introduced by and Sen. Grassley and Sen. Leahy — which included an array of what have come to be known as EB-5 “integrity” measures.
Before and after his stint with Sen. Grassley, Mr. Cissna spent years as a lawyer at DHS immersed behind the scenes in immigration policy. His testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and his written answers to questions from three Senators tell us how he intends to deal with the EB-5 program if approved as USCIS Director:
- He will finalize the two prior rulemaking efforts of USCIS during the Obama Administration (an advance notice of proposed rulemaking and a proposed rule) into final effect “according to the process set forth in the Administrative Procedure Act and related DHS and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] guidance.”
- He is “committed to enforcing USCIS policies ensuring the integrity of all USCIS adjudications, no matter who the applicant or petitioner is, as well as policy deliberations, including their independence from any inappropriate external influences.”
- He has observed that the “USCIS Ombudsman and the USCIS director should maintain an independent, yet respectful and cooperative relationship, as both share the goal of improving USCIS” and acknowledged the “USCIS Director’s statutory obligation to ‘meet regularly with the Ombudsman . . . to correct serious service problems identified by the Ombudsman . . .’”
- He confirmed his intention to “strive to ensure that the agency carries out its mission in a fair, lawful, efficient, and expeditious manner.”
Before becoming the Ombudsman, Ms. Kirchner apparently did not make any public statements revealing her personal views on the EB-5 program. During her tenure as Executive Director of FAIR, however, the organization actively opposed EB-5 program.
In accepting her position and taking her oath of office, Ms. Kirchner is no doubt aware of Section 452 of the Homeland Security Act, the statutory mandate prescribing the authority and duties of the Ombudsman, which provides:
Section 452 of the Homeland Security Act (HSA) provides:
(a) IN GENERAL – Within the Department, there shall be a position of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman (in this section referred to as the ‘Ombudsman’). The Ombudsman shall report directly to the Deputy Secretary. The Ombudsman shall have a background in customer service as well as immigration law.
(b) FUNCTIONS – It shall be the function of the Ombudsman—
1) To assist individuals and employers in resolving problems with [U.S.] Citizenship and Immigration Services;
2) To identify areas in which individuals and employers have problems in dealing with [U.S.] Citizenship and Immigration Services; and
3) To the extent possible, to propose changes in the administrative practices of [U.S.] Citizenship and Immigration Services to mitigate problems identified under paragraph (2).
In addition, Section 452(c)(F) of the HSA requires the Ombudsman to report annually to Congress and recommend “such administrative action as may be appropriate to resolve problems encountered by individuals and employers, including problems created by excessive backlogs in the adjudication and processing of immigration benefit petitions and applications[.]”
The responsibilities of the Ombudsman are particularly significant given that in August 2015 USCIS published a set of EB-5 “Protocols,” which limited the direct intervention of USCIS leadership in specific EB-5 cases, but exempted the USCIS Ombudsman from its prohibitions. Since direct outreach to USCIS senior leadership in specific cases is now greatly restricted, the statutory role of the USCIS Ombudsman in assisting “individuals and employers in resolving problems with” USCIS becomes essentially the only way that EB-5 stakeholders can raise quality assurance problems in specific cases. To be sure, the USCIS Office of Public Engagement (OPE) conducts regular EB-5 stakeholder engagements and listening sessions. These OPE opportunities, however, are often structured to preclude posing questions or concerns about specific cases.
Ms. Kirchner, the fifth individual to hold the title of Ombudsman, will likely review and adapt for herself the varying approaches of her predecessors. At least one Ombudsman took a more aggressive approach, which understandably produced resistance at USCIS. Others in varying degrees have been more or less assertive, innovative, affable and collaborative in finding ways to communicate directly with USCIS Service Center adjudicators and help resolve individual and employer problems.
So, how much power does an Ombudsman have in interacting with USCIS? As a matter of historic practice, prior incumbents often achieved a measure of success by acting as disinterested intermediaries, but did not offer or make public the Office’s own interpretations of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), deferring instead to USCIS. As a coequal component of DHS with USCIS, however, the Ombudsman is authorized by its mandate in HSA § 452(b)(2) and (b)(3) to “identify” problematic areas in the public’s “dealing with [USCIS]” and to “propose changes in the administrative practices” of USCIS.
Clearly, therefore, the Ombudsman’s duties of identifying problems and proposing changes to USCIS’s administrative practices are sufficiently broad to include problems and practices stemming from misinterpretations of the INA and agency regulations. A recent instance in which a legal interpretation by the Ombudsman would have been appropriate and welcome is on long-unresolved issues of the period during which EB-5 conditional resident’s funds must be redeployed and whether the redeployment must be in “at-risk” assets once the investment project has concluded but before conditions on residency have been removed.
Knowledgeable immigration lawyers recognize that the role of the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Department’s component agency, USCIS, is to “administer” and “enforce” the INA and all other immigration laws, whereas the Attorney General possesses exclusive authority within the Executive Branch to determine and rule on all questions of law.
Since the Ombudsman’s role is to identify problematic areas in the public’s dealings with USCIS and to propose changes in its administrative practices, the Ombudsman undoubtedly holds coequal authority with USCIS to challenge the latter’s legally unsupportable and troublesome administrative interpretations of the law and regulations underpinning the EB-5 program, subject only to the Attorney General’s power to conclusively determine questions of law that are binding within the Executive Branch.
Recently, Ms. Kirchner provided welcome insights on the EB-5 program. In the Ombudsman’s 2017 Report to Congress, she acknowledged the adverse consequences caused by the lack of robust anti-fraud and national- security protections, and by the failure of the House and Senate to agree on a permanent or multi-year reauthorization of the Regional Center program. Concerning the unfortunate pattern of successive short-term EB-5 Regional-Center reauthorizations, Ms. Kirchner observed:
Legislative efforts to reform the EB-5 program have stalled over numerous issues, including the methodology for determining TEAs, the two-tiered investment framework,and effective dates for any new provisions. In the meantime, Congress has reauthorized the Regional Center program in a series of short-term extensions. These short-term extensions trigger filing surges by investors seeking to secure a place in the queue before the minimum investment amount is increased or changes are made to other provisions. They also contributed to delays in updating EB-5 regulations as the agency yielded to signals from Congress that it intended to make statutory changes to the program.
In addition, Ms. Kirchner observed in her 2017 Report that extremely long backlogs in EB-5 adjudications at USCIS continue to plague the program, and, with regard to the predominant segment of all EB-5 investors, namely, individuals born in mainland China, that the lack of annual EB-5 immigrant visa numbers “will likely [require them to] wait 10 years or longer for their EB-5 immigrant visas due to oversubscription, absent an increase in or recalculation of the annual quota.”
One troubling observation in the 2017 Report hinted that the Office of the Ombudsman may not offer its own independent statutory and regulatory analysis in situations where USCIS’s policy guidance appears to deviate from the INA and agency regulations, even though the views of USCIS cause problems for individuals and businesses:
In November 2016, USCIS released an addition to its Policy Manual titled “Investors.” This six-chapter policy treatment is a significant achievement, as it synthesized and aligned the agency’s regulations, decisional law, policies, and procedures with enabling statutes. Given the complexity of the EB-5 Program, the creation of this comprehensive and authoritative resource has been well received by EB-5 stakeholders.
This statement no doubt comes as a surprise to many external EB-5 legal experts. The lawyers who submitted an eight-page AILA Comment replete with numerous and wide-ranging suggested corrections to the EB-5 chapters in the USCIS Policy Manual would likely disagree with the characterization that this sub-regulatory guidance can be fairly characterized as a “comprehensive and authoritative resource [that] has been well received by EB-5 stakeholders.” Thus, it remains to be seen just how much future federal litigation (likely brought under the Administrative Procedure Act, the INA, and other statutes) will be spawned raising substantive legal questions on the degree to which the manual is in fact comprehensive or authoritative. Hence, scholars of EB-5 jurisprudence must stay tuned as EB-5 jurisprudence evolves.
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In the final analysis, insufficient hard facts are known to foretell how Mr. Cissna, Ms. Kirchner, and their respective agencies will discharge their responsibilities under the immigration laws. As noted, they are both accomplished lawyers, and during their respective honeymoon periods, EB-5 stakeholders should accord them the respect and confidence, consistent with existing rules of professional responsibility, that the views of their former employers are not necessarily predictive of their future policies.
Time will tell whether and how well Ms. Kirchner and Mr. Cissna engage together in resolving EB-5 stakeholder concerns over backlog reduction, wayward adjudications, kitchen-sink requests for additional evidence, and other frustrations. Until more is known about real-world actions of the Ombudsman and adjudications at USCIS, EB-5 stakeholders and their immigration lawyers must decide for themselves whether resort to Ombudsman intercession will more likely help or hurt regional centers and immigrant investors in specific cases. The calculus in approaching or avoiding the Ombudsman should be based on a variety of factors, such as, the financial strength of the project and its potential or actual job-creation activities; the factually-demonstrable urgency in receiving an adjudication; the presence or absence of red-flag factual or legal issues; and the likelihood that the particular case presents issues that, once resolved, would benefit multiple EB-5 stakeholders, and thereby allow the Ombudsman to husband its scarce resources, and get more bang for its intercessory buck; and other relevant considerations.
This author believes that USCIS (under Mr. Cissna) and the Office of the USCIS Ombudsman (under Ms. Kirchner) will be led in good faith by talented and accomplished lawyers who have taken oaths to support and uphold the Constitution and the immigration laws of the United States, unless either of them, by their conduct, demonstrates otherwise.
For the time being, as a matter of fact, this author will continue to seek the intervention of the Ombudsman in worthy cases, given that (a) Office of the Ombudsman continues to be staffed by experienced lawyers and other career officers who have historically been helpful in employment-based immigration matters, (b) the EB-5 program continues to be a tax-generating engine of economic growth and job creation, and (c) fully law-compliant EB-5 petitions continue to encounter “problems” at USCIS.
As for USCIS itself, the agency’s widely-known endemic problems continue to cry out for resolution. Submission of well-documented cases establishing EB-5 eligibility, participation in public engagement, advocacy at public conferences and through print and social media, and litigation — this author believes — remain the tools of choice.
 Responses to Sen. Durbin, available here, No. 9. Sen. Durbin expressly asked “How would you ensure that President Trump’s family business interests won’t affect the adjudication of [the EB-5 program] . . . or the consideration of possible reforms to [the program].”
 Responses to Sen. Durbin, No. 6.
 Responses to Sen. Feinstein, No. 2. In the preface to her question Sen. Feinstein stated that “one of the agency’s strategic goals is ‘providing effective customer-oriented immigration benefit and information services’ . . . [and] one of USCIS’s core customer service principles is ‘to approach each case objectively and adjudicate each case in a thorough and fair manner.’”
 Based on the remarks made by a representative of the USCIS Ombudsman at the Federal Bar Association Annual Immigration Conference on May 12, 2017, Ms. Kirchner reportedly has indicated to staff that she is interested in the EB-5 investor program, the H-1B visa category and other areas of employment-based immigration law.
 Ms. Kirchner is listed, for example, as a lobbyist in 2012 concerning S.3245 sponsored by Sen. Leahy, a bill to “permanently reauthorize the EB-5 Regional Center Program, the E-Verify Program, the Special Immigrant Nonminister Religious Worker Program, and the Conrad State 30 J-1 Visa Waiver Program,” regarding provisions “relating to more controversial issues in three of the four programs because of significant deficiencies in oversight and fraud.” See Form LD-2 for Third Quarter 2012, available here. Also, in 2012, while Ms. Kirchner served as FAIR’s Executive Director, the organization published “Selling America Short: The Failure of the EB-5 Visa Program,” available here.
 As discussed in the text below, on June 29, 2017 Ms. Kirchner, in her formal capacity as Ombudsman, submitted to Congress her Office’s 2017 Annual Report (“2017 Report”). The report, discussed later in the text, is available here (last accessed on July 12, 2017).
 Entitled, “Ethics and Integrity: Protocols for Processing of EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Petitions and EB-5 Regional Center Applications, Including Stakeholder Communications,” the document is available here.
 The USCIS’s continuing at-risk “sustainment” requirement for redeployed funds, lasting until conditions on residency have been removed, is an issue that begs for interpretation by the USCIS Ombudsman. See June 14, 2017 USCIS Policy Alert, “Job Creation and Capital At Risk Requirements for Adjudication of Form I-526 and Form I-829,” (accessible here) and amendments to the USCIS Policy Manual at Volume 6: Immigrants, Part G, Investors [6 USCIS-PM G] (accessible here). See also, “USCIS Finalizes EB-5 Sustainment and Redeployment of Capital Issues and Consequences of Regional Center Termination,” by Robert C. Divine in the current issue. For arguments opposing the USCIS redeployment and sustainment interpretations, see American Immigration Lawyers Association Comments on the USCIS Policy Manual Regarding Eligibility Requirements for Regional Centers and Immigrant Investors. Volume 6: Immigrants, Part G, Investors (December 14, 2016; AILA Doc. No. 16121565 Posted 12/15/16 [“AILA Comment”]), at pp 6-7 (noting that the at-risk requirement is a creature of the regulations and not the INA, and that as a matter of law the EB-5 investment need merely be “… sustained over the two years of the petitioner’s conditional permanent residence in the United States”).
 See INA § 103(a).
 See, 2017 Annual Report at 32 (footnotes omitted).
 Id. at 33.
 Id. at 31-32 (footnotes omitted).
 Rules of legal ethics generally hold that “a lawyer’s representation of a client . . . does not constitute an endorsement of the client’s political, economic, social or moral views or activities.” See American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.2(b)(“Scope Of Representation And Allocation Of Authority Between Client And Lawyer”), accessible here. The author understands that Ms. Kirchner apparently did not serve as an attorney of FAIR, but as its Executive Director. In this author’s view, however, merely because an individual on behalf of a prior employer has opposed immigration relief for unauthorized immigrants (see, e.g., Ms. Kirchner’s November 8, 2007 testimony before Congress to that effect, accessible here) does not require or necessarily justify the conclusion that she would ipso facto take steps to maintain America’s legal immigration system in its clearly dysfunctional state.