Immigrant Investor Program:

Additional Actions Needed to Better Assess Fraud Risks and Report Economic Benefits

GAO-15-696: Published: Aug 12, 2015. Publicly Released: Aug 12, 2015.

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Rebecca S. Gambler
(202) 512-8777
gamblerr@gao.gov

 

Seto J. Bagdoyan
(202) 512-6722
bagdoyans@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) administers the Employment-Based Fifth Preference Immigrant Investor Program (EB-5 Program) and collaborated with its interagency partners to assess fraud and national security risks in the program in fiscal years 2012 and 2015. Unique fraud risks identified in the program included uncertainties in verifying that the funds invested were obtained lawfully and various investment-related schemes to defraud investors. These assessments were onetime efforts; however, USCIS officials noted that fraud risks in the EB-5 Program are constantly evolving, and they continually identify new fraud schemes. USCIS does not have documented plans to conduct regular future risk assessments, in accordance with fraud prevention practices, which could help inform efforts to identify and address evolving program risks.

USCIS has taken steps to address the fraud risks it identified by enhancing its fraud risk management efforts, including establishing a dedicated entity to oversee these efforts. However, USCIS's information systems and processes limit its ability to collect and use data on EB-5 Program participants to address fraud risks in the program. For example, USCIS does not consistently enter some information it collects on participants in its information systems, such as name and date of birth, a fact that presents barriers to conducting basic electronic searches that could be analyzed for potential fraud, such as schemes to defraud investors. USCIS plans to collect and maintain more complete data in its new information system; however, GAO reported in May 2015 that the new system is nearly 4 years delayed. In the meantime, USCIS does not have a strategy for collecting additional information, including some information on businesses supported by EB-5 Program investments, that officials noted could help mitigate fraud, such as misrepresentation of new businesses. Given that information system improvements with the potential to expand USCIS's fraud mitigation efforts will not take effect until 2017 at the earliest and that gaps exist in USCIS's other information collection efforts, developing a strategy for collecting such information would better position USCIS to identify and mitigate potential fraud.

USCIS increased its capacity to verify job creation by increasing the size and expertise of its workforce and providing clarifying guidance and training, among other actions. However, USCIS's methodology for reporting program outcomes and overall economic benefits is not valid and reliable because it may understate or overstate program benefits in certain instances as it is based on the minimum program requirements of 10 jobs and a $500,000 investment per investor instead of the number of jobs and investment amounts collected by USCIS on individual EB-5 Program forms. For example, USCIS reported 4,500 jobs for 450 investors on one project using its methodology instead of 10,500 jobs reported on EB-5 Program forms for that project. Further, investment amounts are not adjusted for investors who do not complete the program or invest $1 million instead of $500,000. USCIS officials said they are not statutorily required to develop a more comprehensive assessment. However, tracking and analyzing data on jobs and investments reported on program forms would better position USCIS to more reliably assess and report on the EB-5 Program economic benefits.

Why GAO Did This Study

Congress created the EB-5 visa category to promote job creation by immigrant investors in exchange for visas providing lawful permanent residency. Participants are required to invest $1 million in a business that is to create at least 10 jobs--or $500,000 for businesses located in an area that is rural or has experienced unemployment of at least 150 percent of the national average rate. Upon meeting program requirements, immigrant investors are eligible for conditional status to live and work in the United States and can apply to remove the conditions for lawful permanent residency after 2 years.

GAO was asked to review fraud risks and economic benefits for the EB-5 Program. This report examines USCIS efforts under the EB-5 Program to (1) work with interagency partners to assess fraud and other related risks, (2) address any identified fraud risks, and (3) increase its capacity to verify job creation and use a valid and reliable methodology to report economic benefits. GAO reviewed risk assessments and processes to address fraud risks, verify job creation, and report economic benefits.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that, among other things, USCIS conduct regular future risk assessments, develop a strategy to expand information collection, and analyze the data collected on program forms to reliably report on economic benefits. DHS concurred with our four recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov, or Seto Bagdoyan at (202) 512-6722 or bagdoyans@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is responsible for administering the Employment-Based Fifth Preference Immigrant Investor Program (EB-5 Program). In 2015 we reviewed the EB-5 program to determine if USCIS assesses fraud and other related risks facing the program. We found that USCIS had collaborated with its interagency partners to assess fraud and national security risks in the program in fiscal years 2012 and 2015 but that these assessments were onetime efforts but did not have documented plans to conduct regular future risk assessments, in accordance with fraud prevention practices, which could help inform efforts to identify and address evolving program risks. To strengthen the program's fraud prevention, detection, and mitigation capabilities, we recommended that USCIS plan and conduct regular future fraud risk assessments. USCIS concurred with the recommendation, stating that it will continue to conduct at least one fraud, national security, or intelligence assessment on an aspect of the program annually. In September 2015 USCIS stated that the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate unit of its Immigrant Investor Program (IPO) will conduct its next fraud, national security, and intelligence assessment in FY 2016 and one assessment annually thereafter. We will continue to monitor USCIS's efforts to ensure that the agency conducts this next assessment and documents plans to conduct future fraud assessments on a regular basis.

    Recommendation: To strengthen USCIS's EB-5 Program fraud prevention, detection, and mitigation capabilities, and to more accurately and comprehensively assess and report program outcomes and the overall economic benefits of the program, the Director of USCIS should plan and conduct regular future fraud risk assessments of the EB-5 Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2015 we evaluated the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Employment-Based Fifth Preference Immigrant Investor Program (EB-5 Program) to determine the extent to which the agency had addressed any identified fraud risks in the program. We found that USCIS had identified unique fraud risks in the program and had taken certain steps to address and enhance its fraud risk management efforts, including establishing a dedicated entity to oversee these efforts. However, we found that USCIS's information systems and processes limited its ability to collect and use data on EB-5 Program participants to comprehensively address fraud risks in the program. To strengthen the program's fraud mitigation capabilities, we recommended that USCIS develop a strategy to expand information collection, including considering the increased use of interviews at the application for permanent residency (form I-829) phase as well as requiring the additional reporting of information in applicant and petitioner forms. USCIS concurred with the recommendation, stating that IPO will develop a strategy to enhance and expand information collection, including publishing revised EB-5 application and petition forms, and considering the use of interviews. In a September 2015 update to this recommendation, USCIS stated that it had begun internal discussions for developing a comprehensive strategy to incorporate interviews into various stages of the EB-5 process, including the I-829 phase. In addition, USCIS was implementing a comprehensive approach for revising all EB-5 specific forms (I-526, I-924, and I-924A) to improve program integrity and data collection. USCIS expects the revised forms to be available after December 31, 2015. We will continue to monitor USCIS's efforts to develop and implement this more comprehensive EB-5 data collection strategy.

    Recommendation: To strengthen USCIS's EB-5 Program fraud prevention, detection, and mitigation capabilities, and to more accurately and comprehensively assess and report program outcomes and the overall economic benefits of the program, the Director of USCIS should develop a strategy to expand information collection, including considering the increased use of interviews at the I-829 phase as well as requiring the additional reporting of information in applicant and petitioner forms.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2015 we evaluated the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)'s capacity to verify job creation and to use a valid and reliable methodology to report the economic benefits of its Employment-Based Fifth Preference Immigrant Investor Program (EB-5 Program). We found that over time USCIS had increased its capacity to verify job creation by increasing the size and expertise of its workforce and by providing clarifying guidance and training, among other actions. However, we found that USCIS's methodology for reporting program outcomes and overall economic benefits of the EB-5 Program was not valid and reliable because it may understate or overstate program benefits in certain instances as it was based on the minimum program requirements of 10 jobs and a $500,000 investment per investor, instead of the number of jobs and investment amounts collected by USCIS on individual EB-5 Program forms. To more accurately and comprehensively assess and report the overall economic benefits of the program, we recommended that USCIS track and report data that immigrant investors report, and the agency verifies on its program forms for total investments and jobs created. USCIS concurred with this recommendation, stating that IPO will develop a plan to collect and aggregate additional data regarding EB-5 investment amounts and job creation, including revising USCIS data systems and processes, as appropriate. In a September 2015 update, USCIS further stated that IPO officials had already met with officials from the USCIS Office of information Technology (OIT) on August 25, 2015, to discuss EB-5 data requirements, and that IPO is reviewing the fields in the Intranet Computer Linked Application Information Management System (iCLAIMS) database used for maintaining EB-5 and other immigration program data, to define data entry requirements. Once that is completed, USCIS stated that IPO will work with OIT to discuss any system changes needed to reliably aggregate data regarding EB-5 program investment amounts and job creation.

    Recommendation: To strengthen USCIS's EB-5 Program fraud prevention, detection, and mitigation capabilities, and to more accurately and comprehensively assess and report program outcomes and the overall economic benefits of the program, the Director of USCIS should track and report data that immigrant investors report, and the agency verifies on its program forms for total investments and jobs created through the EB-5 Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In 2015 we reported, based on our review of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)'s Employment-Based Fifth Preference Immigrant Investor Program (EB-5 Program), that USCIS had commissioned the Department of Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) to conduct a study of the economic impact of the EB-5 Program. We found, based on our review of the study's preliminary scope and methodology that the study would address some, but not all, shortcomings of prior studies pertaining to assessing the overall benefits of the EB-5 Program. For example, the study was to use information submitted by immigrant investors on EB-5 Program forms and entered into the Intranet Computer Linked Application Information Management System (iCLAIMS) to more specifically and reliably report program benefits. However, the study would not include program costs, which are important for assessing a program's net economic impact. To address this shortcoming in an effort to more accurately and comprehensively assess and report program outcomes and the overall economic benefits of the program, we recommended that USCIS include a discussion of the types and reasons any relevant program costs were excluded from the Commerce study. USCIS concurred with our recommendation, stating that it will recommend to the Department of Commerce that a description of potential costs not assessed as part of the study be included when the study is published-later that year. In a September 2015 update, USCIS further stated letter that it had already made the recommendation to the Department Commerce. Once published, we will review the study to determine whether it includes a description of any potential costs not assessed as part of the study, like we recommended.

    Recommendation: To strengthen USCIS's EB-5 Program fraud prevention, detection, and mitigation capabilities, and to more accurately and comprehensively assess and report program outcomes and the overall economic benefits of the program, the Director of USCIS should include a discussion of the types and reasons any relevant program costs were excluded from the Commerce study of the EB-5 Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

 

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