USCIS December 5th, 2014 Stakeholder Call Unofficial Transcript Notes
From Strategic Element, your source for EB-5 Business Plans
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Mariela Melero: I want to thank every single one of you for joining us today; I want to thank those you that are here but also those that are joining us telephonically. My name is Mariela Melero and I am the Associate Director of USCIS Customer Service and Public Engagement. Our engagement today, my distinguished colleagues and friends from the immigrant investor program office, Nicholas Colucci who is the Chief of the Immigrant Investor Program Office and Julia Harrison, who is the Deputy Chief of the Immigrant Investor Program Office. In addition, we are extremely honored to have with us today USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez who will be addressing us shortly.
Mariela Melero went on to state that the members of the media who were joining them in the room or over the phone could contact the USCIS at 202-272-1200 for additional information.
I would also like to take just one minute to go over today’s agenda. The first thing that we are going to have is the opportunity, as I just mentioned a second ago, to hear from our Director. Following the Director’s remarks, we will hear from both Nick and Julia, who will highlight various EB-5 program updates and several upcoming initiatives. After their presentations, we will move fairly quickly into a question and answer session with them and with some of our SMEs that are here as well to allow amole time to address every single one of your questions. Now we will turn the session over to our Director Leon Rodriguez.
Good afternoon, it’s great to see everybody. This afternoon was supposed to be my introduction to you and your introduction to me. What has been very interesting just about the last ten minutes is that in all the stakeholder gatherings that I’ve had since becoming USCIS’s Director five months ago, this is the one in which I knew the most people. So as I worked the room when I first walked in I actually had a number of prior interactions, dealings, relationships with so many of you in this room and one in particular [INAUDIBLE] my days as the County Solicitor Montgomery County Marilyn really reminded me of a critical theme for the discussion we are going to have today and really for my attitudes and perspectives of the EB-5 program.
When I was County Solicitor, a big part of our role was supporting the County Office of Economic Development, supporting the County Executive as he travelled all over the world to stimulate foreign investment in Montgomery County, from China, from Korea, from Israel, from all over really seeking those business relationships with other parts of the world and they have formed in me the seeds of a belief that this is a program that is very critical to the economic development of our communities because it can mean investment, it can mean jobs if you look at the EB-5 program just in the last year talking about 5.5 billion dollars in potential investment in our communities; so I really have the desire to not merely be an operator of the EB-5 program, not merely a manager of the EB-5 program but really to be an enthusiast of the EB-5 program, to really champion the potential that it represents for our communities in the United States, subject of course to the fact that we have to do our jobs with respect to national security, with respect to the integrity of the program. So my commitment to you is to find that appropriate balance in the program between making sure that we realize the full potential of this program with full intent that the Congress had when it passed this program, but really managing it in the most efficient and appropriate way that we can with respect to the program.
Now one of the things that I really want to accomplish this afternoon, unfortunately I am not going to be able to stay here for the entire time, is really take the advantage of sitting in this environment to hear the kinds of things that we are going to talk about, the kinds of concerns that you may be raising; I look forward to a de-briefing after because I think it’s you who are really going to present to us the critical perspectives on how this program can run best, how it can run better.
I do think that the decision that we made to bring the program here in Washington, its process by the way not a complete process just yet, represents the right way to treat this critical program and so I’m gratified to see that our goals to further staff up the program, that those goals are moving closer and closer to fruition; I actually had the opportunity to be a little cheeky with one of you and to say well what should I talk about and you said well how about you talk about that fourteen month wait and that’s why it’s critical to point out that we are still building the program, we are still getting it up its full level of staffing and so really hopeful that once we reach that full level of staffing that those waits will become a thing of the past. We know that that’s among the many issues that we need to work on – that’s a critical one that we do need to work on. So I look to hearing feedback, exactly like that feedback, because it gives us the opportunity to do better; it gives me the opportunity to as the new Director to really immerse myself in this really critical program.
By the way, I would take a close look at the president’s executive action; there are a couple of things in there – I think the business visa stuff is stuff that you were following all along but there are a couple of entrepreneur programs and investor programs that I think are going to be important to your community; so I would commend you attention to those programs as well and that signals my moment to be quiet and start listening. So I just want to thank you all for being here today and I look forward to a long and fruitful relationship. Thank you.
[Nicholas Colucci] :
Thank you Director. Good afternoon everybody; it’s really nice to see you all here in person. We’ve done three of these now and they’ve all been a few of sitting in a speaker room talking to 500-600 people so it’s nice to get some audience reaction. The 50 or so of you in this room are joined by about 500 individuals on the phone line; it includes are colleagues within IPO as well as the administrative appeals office and other colleagues across the agency.
Before we begin, I’d like to introduce just a few members of the IPO staff they are going to join me today in the stakeholder engagement; you met Julia, the Deputy Chief of the program. We have our three division chiefs here as well [INAUDIBLE NAME] and Lori Melton are here. They are division chiefs over the adjudicators and then John Lion is our chief of the economists or leads the economist group.
I’m going to start today by looking at fiscal year fourteen which just by way of background for us ran October 1st, 2013 to September 30th of 2014. I’m sure you will all agree that it was a particularly noteworthy year for the EB-5 program, just with respect to the administration of the program to the program side some of the things that the Director talked about in terms of building the program and getting staffing together. We have excelled in our new space; we moved about a month and a half ago and it’s much more conducive to sort of our work flow needs, as well as our file storage needs; we’re happy to have that. I’m also happy to inform you that as of September 30th, all of the forms have now been transitioned to the immigrant investor program office. As you will recall, the 829 was being worked at the California service center that is since been transitioned.
You know one of the things that was critical throughout the year was, as the Director mentioned, was really building our staff and we were able to really recruit train and hire, not necessarily in that order, but recruit, hire and train really capable and motivated staff. I can’t speak enough of their talents to adjudicate these applications and petitions. At the end of the fiscal year 14’, we had 83 individuals on board with the program and that’s specific to IPO. With respect to our fraud detection and national security officers who support the program, thirteen of them were on board at the end of fiscal year 14’, and with respect to chief council we had eleven attorneys on board; again these groups provide direct support to the program. Today IPO stands at 94 strong and we are working to bring on board ten employees on board in the next few weeks and we do enjoy that same level of support that I’ve talked about from chief council and FDNS.
Now to turn to the program itself, as you know, the program just experienced really unprecedented growth in fiscal year 14’. The number of approved regional centers at the end of the fiscal year neared 600. This is an increase of nearly 230 from the end of fiscal year 13’; so a significant increase year over year. We received nearly 11,000 immigrant investor petitions throughout the fiscal year. These ranged a great number of projects and a wide variety of industries; things from huge infrastructure projects, commercial construction, mining operations, the entertainment industry; these types of projects really do run the gamut of the American economy.
Just another interesting statistic, the 11,000 petitions that we received, equalled greater than one quarter of the petitions that we’ve received since the program began in 1990. So again just a remarkable year; and as a result, I know as you are all aware, for the first time the program used an allocation of approximately 10,000 visas which became unavailable as we closed out the fiscal year. As you also know, those visas are now available once again. One thing I want to mention about the fiscal year 14’, is we undertook a fairly comprehensive review of the regional center population to determine continued eligibility to the review of the I-924 As that were submitted by the all of the active regional centers at the end of fiscal year 13’. As a result of this review, we terminated seven regional centers for failing to file the I-924A. We also issued 28 notices of intent to terminate to regional centers that no longer served to promote economic growth. We’re currently the reviewing the responses to some of those and we’ll take any appropriate final actions in the coming months. While we are on the topic of the 924A, some of you mayors have received on Wednesday an alert that went out just reminding those regional centers that were active and had an active designation at the end of fiscal year 14’, that the I-924A is due on Dec 29th. So please try to get those in by that day if you haven’t already. And then finally on the 924A, in preparation of this engagement we received a number of questions and more of the questions, actually more of the comments, asked us to revise the 924A we organize it and just to let you know the 924, the regional center application and the I-924A are currently open for public comment. We have made revisions to both of those forms. Any event you don’t know; if you have any suggestions on how we can improve the forms please do visit the [INAUDIBLE] register and leave a comment. For those of you in the room we have the site on a slide in the room; for those of you on the telephone, we’re going to provide that after the call.
Before we begin a look at 15’, I just want to take a few more minutes to again look at the growth of the program in 14’. As I mentioned, we received, again 11,000 petitions. We also received, and as the Director mentioned, that represents nearly 5.5 billion dollars of potential investment in the United States economy. We also received 270 924s either applications or amendments to regional centers and more 2500 petitions to remove conditions. Let me just go over those again; I know those of you on the phone are probably writing things down – Nearly 11,000 petitions, 270 applications or amendments to regional centers and more than 2500 petitions to remove conditions.
Just to give you an idea of the year over year growth in each of those form charts, form fiscal year 13’ to 14’, that’s a 72% growth in the I-526, again greater than 70%. For the I-924, it’s a 34% growth and then finally 829 106%. We do a number of briefings on the EB-5 program and one of the things we emphasize is the growth of the program and I think one of the most telling statistic is the one that we use when we compare what we have now compared to just 2007 which was just a short time ago. In 2007 we had eleven active regional centers. We received fewer than 800 immigrant investor petitions, the 526s and received fewer than 200 of the 829s. So again that just speaks to the explosive growth of the program.
Just to talk a little bit about, very quickly about the processing time and I’ll address it in a few minutes as well. As the Director said, our 526 processing time stands at 14.3 months at the end of the fiscal year. On the 829s we’re at 6.8 months and then finally for the 924 8.5 months and those processing times are available on our website.
Now to look at fiscal year 15’, one of the things we did this year as a staff is we put together an operational plan that is going to help guide our work, measure our progress because as you know what gets measured, gets done and then finally keep our collective eye on the ball; we don’t want to get distracted by shiny objects; so, we want to make sure we have this plan to guide our work. We wanted to do this so that we can communicate to all of our stakeholders within the agency, the department, members of congress and all of you some of the things that are important to us and we’re trying to get down in fiscal year 15’. Two of our priorities are internally focused: maintaining a strong infrastructure and assuring that we continue to develop our workforce and I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing them today; I would know however that with respect to both of those, we want to continue to attract, retain and develop top talent and this has become increasingly important as the complexity and the size of the projects we’re seeing continue to increase. In terms of what I’ll call the initiatives a little bit more operational in nature, we’re going to focus on three primary areas: improving customer service and outreach, providing high quality services and strengthening program integrity. I’m going to spend a few minutes discussing a component or two under each one of these areas.
For customer service and outreach we’re going to continue to hold quarterly stakeholder engagements and provide timely responses to the 1000s of inquiries we receive each year. Just by way of background, we set up a customer service branch April of this year and that branch has responded to about 5000 inquiries in that time; so that just speaks to the number of inquiries that the program receives. You know one of the benefits of processing times going down, that number is going to go down as well too. We are going to expand the number of engagements and Julia is going to talk a little bit about some of those in a few minutes; however, one of the new [INAUDIBLE], we’re going do is going to have IPO personnel to travel out to the field to get to know some of our federal and local partners, help them better understand the program which is absolutely critical with a program of this size and scope and then also to establish those relationships.
While we are in the area, we do plan to hold outreach events; so, we’ll make everyone aware when we do that. To move to high quality services, this is processing times, we’re going to try to get those forms in processing times while maintaining the high level of quality in all of our adjudications and communications. It’s going to be challenging, I mean honestly, with the processing time for the 526 of 14 months, we’ve got our work ahead of us but we’re going to make every effort to achieve the goal. We just came off of a month where we challenged the entire office, including me, we wanted to get a 1000 actions done in the month of November and we finished the month with a 1048; so, we actually hit that goal and we’re excited about it.
Just in terms of the staff that we have working the petitions and applications, we currently have 40 non-supervised re-adjudicators who work with staff, we have four who work the forms and applications, we have four more who are going to be coming on board and we have seventeen non-supervised re-Economists. We had our last group of adjudicators come on between the middle of September and the middle of October and I’m happy to report they’ve already completed training and done mentoring and they’re actively contributing to the program in a huge way so we’re very pleased with the progress of that group and the progress of the direction that we’re going and we expect to see processing times on the 526 come down in the near future.
One of the other things with respect to providing high quality services is to issue well-timed guidance and one example of that is guidance on the area of retrogression. We’re certainly aware of the impact that visa retrogression may have on the EB-5 program and we’re working internally to prepare policy guidance on several related issues. We did receive, prior to this engagement, a number of questions on retrogression and we’re going to respond to those later in the session.
And finally the last thing I want to talk about in terms of our three operational goals is further strengthen the program integrity in the coming year. As you know program integrity is something that is vital to all of us. For us it continues to be a top priority to collaborate with those law enforcement and regulatory organizations to help prevent fraud and develop new ways to further enhance confidence in the program.
In the year ahead, we plan to expand site visits both domestically and abroad to validate supporting documentation, we expect to expand our regional center to comply interviews, that’s the review of 924A, bringing in new commercial and government data sets to assist. Our FDNS team, fraud detection and national security team, is going to continue to expand in size and receive additional training on combating money laundering, fraud and international banking crime to enhance their knowledge and capabilities. They have acquired new software tools to assist them in building cases and they’re going to continue to build their tool box. You know, as you know, maintaining program integrity is not something just that we can do; we have to all work together. You’re going to be in a position to encounter incidences of fraud, whether it’s through prospective partner, potential investor or just something you see on the internet. I urge you to contact us and let us know so that we can work with our partners to investigate the activity.
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