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For Latin America's wealthy elite, investment can buy U.S. residency

Every few months, Miami attorney Marisa Casablanca flies to South America to meet with wealthy individuals who want to invest $500,000 for the chance to immigrate legally to the United States.

In Colombia and Peru, she gives presentations on the investor visa that’s big in China and growing in popularity in Latin America. In Venezuela, where fears of kidnappings make the rich queasy about sitting in a single room together, she arranges one-on-one meetings with potential clients.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in interest from Latin America, which we attribute to security reasons,” said Casablanca. “People I’ve helped get green cards for in recent years are now contacting me, asking me to please talk to their cousins because they need to get out of there.”

And Miami has drawn significant interest from both the Latin American elite looking to escape political instability and drug violence — and the developers who want their money. By investing $500,000 in a designated high-unemployment or rural area, or $1 million anywhere else, a foreign national and his or her family can obtain conditional EB-5 visas that become permanent if the investment creates at least 10 jobs for two years.

What’s more, experts say, is that the U.S. recession has contributed to a growing EB-5 industry as dozens of private companies seek permission to pool investors’ money in order to finance projects such as hotels and housing developments that can’t get traditional loans from banks. For the foreigners, applying through a so-called EB-5 regional center lets them live in the U.S., put their children through school here and sit back while somebody else manages their investment and worries about fulfilling the job creation requirements.

“It’s access to capital,” said Emilio González, a former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President George W. Bush. “It satisfies the U.S. need to create jobs and it satisfies an investor’s need to get a green card for whatever reason.”

In recent months, the Obama administration has promised to streamline the EB-5 process in order to encourage more foreigners to make investments that will create jobs. The program is estimated to have created about 34,000 jobs since its inception in 1990. Meanwhile, two U.S. senators recently proposed a similar program that would grant visas to foreigners who spend $500,000 on real estate as a way to bolster the housing market.

In the 2009 fiscal year, about 1,000 foreigners applied for EB-5 visas, according to USCIS. The number doubled in 2010. And, in just the first 10 months of the 2011 fiscal year, 3,355 foreigners had petitioned for the visa, of which about 1,400 have been approved.

More than half the applicants are Chinese. However, in the past two years petitions from Latin Americans rose by about 71 percent, with Venezuela and Mexico leading the way. Government statistics show that 95 Latin Americans applied for the program in the 2010 fiscal year. Another 163 applied in the first 10 months of 2011. Of these, USCIS approved 44 petitions in 2010 and 68 in 2011.

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