Underwhelmed with the performance of a visa investment program that was initially pitched as a way to generate millions for the local economy, Miami’s new city manager is making changes to the city’s EB-5 regional center — and catching hell for it.
Emilio González informed the center’s managing director Monday that he’s “substantially” cutting her salary and reducing her role after reviewing the program’s books. He told the Miami Herald that the regional center, which taps into a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program that offers visas to investors who inject $500,000 into qualifying businesses, has so far sustained only losses.
Managing Director Mirta “Mikki” Canton, meanwhile, entered 2018 with an annual compensation package in the area of $200,000. González, who assumed control over the city’s billion-dollar government only two weeks ago, says he’s taking the reins of the center and using the additional money to fund staff in his office.
“This was a business decision,” said González, who a decade ago oversaw the federal visa program when he served as immigration and citizenship director under President George W. Bush.
The action — which led Canton to resign Wednesday — gives a glimpse of how Mayor Francis Suarez’s new administration views the program, which Canton and then-mayor Tomas Regalado rolled out in 2014 while promising to create thousands of jobs and bring millions into the local economy.
The center, which acts as a middleman between investors and federally sanctioned projects, has reviewed more than 40 potential projects since then. But most did not meet the city’s standards, and the center has not yet generated any fees.
So far, it doesn’t appear that a single immigrant has been granted a visa through Miami’s regional center.
The lone sanctioned project, developer Tibor Hollo’s Panorama Tower in Brickell, expected to receive a projected 99 investors and $49.5 million through the agreement, according to public documents submitted to Homeland Security last month. An estimated 2,500 jobs would be created as a result, the documents stated.
We are no longer in compliance with our guidelines nor legally binding representations.
Mirta “Mikki” Canton, managing director of Miami’s EB-5 regional center
A contract between the regional center and Panorama Pedestal Fund shows the center should receive a $5,000 fee for each investor, plus 4 percent of the invested capital. But Canton told the Miami Herald that processing delays lasting longer than a year have kept the center from realizing any of a potential $2.5 million windfall.
Canton, an attorney and the regional center’s only employee, explains the center’s slow start by preaching caution. Canton has also steered the fund away from commercial projects and pushed to finance public endeavors like affordable housing and the planned renovations to the historic and city-owned Marine Stadium on Virginia Key.
“We are being punished for having a novel plan, where it’s a mix of corporate and profit and goodwill,” she said in an interview. “We’re not just a cash register here, God almighty.”
Canton initially accepted the demotion. But on Tuesday she had a change of heart and sent new Mayor Francis Suarez a draft resignation letter by text, warning him that the sudden changes could run afoul of federal law. She said she officially submitted her letter Wednesday, but will stay on as long as needed in order to assist in a transition to a new director.
This was a business decision.
City Manager Emilio González
She said the city could not submit an annual filing to the federal government laying out its governance and finances and then immediately turn around and restructure the program and transfer funds established to pay for its operation.
“By now it is clear to me that you and your administration do not value nor support the work done thus far” by the center, Canton wrote in her letter. “I can not go forward knowing that what we stated to be true to USCIS will no longer be so given what you and your administration propose to do.”
I have full confidence that our manager, who ran the program nationally, can make the proper decisions.
Mayor Francis Suarez
Suarez and González said Wednesday that they haven’t spoken to Canton since Suarez received her resignation text, which was obtained by the Miami Herald. González said he spoke to the head of the EB-5 office Tuesday to inquire about the city’s responsibilities should Canton leave her position, and expects to hold a conference call on the matter Wednesday.
“I have full confidence that our manager, who ran the program nationally, can make the proper decisions regarding legal compliance with the program if he decides to move forward,” Suarez said.
That the city’s new administration might want to make changes to the center was to some extent expected. Last year, Regalado initially left funding for the regional center out of the 2018 budget in order to allow commissioners the conscious decision on whether to continue funding the program. They ultimately allocated $255,000 to the center in late September, including $82,000 in money that Canton had left unspent from previous years.
But now, under a new mayor and administrator, it’s possible the city may move in a new direction. Or, if they don’t like the results, Miami may shut the program down entirely.
“Sometimes you do things with the best of intentions” but they don’t work out, Suarez said. “We have an obligation to take a second look at it.”