Indians are discovering a quick — though super-expensive — way around the long wait for an American permanent residency.
In a small conference room in a plush New Delhi hotel, a small audience is listening to a presentation on the quickest route to realizing the American dream.
The U.S. firm AVG America Investments — run by Shalabh Kumar's family, the largest Indian-American donor to Donald Trump's presidential campaign — is trying to woo these people to spend $500,000 to secure a green card or permanent residency in the United States.
The presentation starts with a video highlighting the Kumar family's Indian roots and political clout. Accompanied by Bollywood music and religious Hindu chants, the video shows the Kumar family celebrating the festival of Diwali with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, and hobnobbing with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other political bigwigs both in India and the United States.
They go on to explain the EB-5 visa program to the audience. In a nutshell: invest $500,000 in a project that employs at least 10 people in a designated high unemployment area in the United States, and would-be clients could secure a green card in about 18 to 24 months.
"At the moment, the EB-5 price is the same as it was 30 years ago. There are not many things you can buy today at 30-year-old prices."
Alternately, they could invest $1 million in any project that employs 10 people, anywhere in the United States. The AVG group, for a fee, will guide clients through the process
"The Indian market is quite hot right now. I travel to India every month. I see a five times increase in applications," Shalabh's son Vikram Kumar, who heads the venture, told CNBC. He had just returned from the northern India town of Chandigarh, where he said five people paid $5,000 to sign on the spot right after his presentation.
An expensive gift
Getting their first work visa, or H-1B, in the United States is getting tougher for Indians. Many wealthy families who are already spending about $250,000 on their kids' American education are not thinking twice about shelling out another half a million to secure their future there.
While some Indians are buying it to enhance their children's careers, others are simply giving it as a gift because they like "living in New York," said a Delhi resident who has several friends and relatives invested in the EB-5 program.
"My daughter's dream is to study in Stanford University, and my son wants to pursue his master's in computer science. And they would want to work in the U.S. after that."
There are still others, like those at the AVG presentation, who are willing to sell all their Indian assets for a chance at an EB-5 visa that will let them move to the United States with their families.
The Employment Based Visa program, known as EB-5 for short, has existed for more than 30 years and remains the quickest and surest way to get a green card, provided applicants' source of funds is well documented and invested in legitimate projects.
For the past decade, China has consumed more than 7,500 of the 10,000 visas allotted under EB-5 annually, according to official data.
Each country is allowed to consume seven percent of the 10,000 visas, but when other countries do not use their allotted amount, they are given to other applicants waiting in line. That is usually China. India has never used the 700 visas reserved each year for Indian immigrants.
Jumping in line
But now things are changing. Rich Indians are willing to pay the price if they can jump the long queue to an American Green card.
"Five years ago, there were less than 50 applications out of India. Now there are more then 500 a year, because the traditional route to a green card can take 10 to 12 years," said Vivek Tandon, CEO of EB5 BRICS an advisory firm, who has 150 clients out of India.
One of his clients, a real estate developer from the western Indian city of Pune, "met Tandon on the internet" and after visiting his office in Los Angeles, decided to opt for the EB-5 program.
"My daughter's dream is to study in Stanford University, and my son wants to pursue his master's in computer science. And they would want to work in the U.S. after that. I don't want them to get frustrated if they don't get an H-1B," said Gajanan Uttamrao Mante, who got his college degree from an Indian university and struggled to establish his real estate business. "Children should have a better quality of life," he told CNBC over the phone.
"It was a real hard sell about five years ago to get Indians to buy into this program, but now I see full page advertisements in Indian newspapers inviting people to EB-5 seminars."
Education consultants in India recommend getting the EB-5 visa while children are still in high school, as U.S. residents have a better acceptance rate into American colleges, and tuition is cheaper.
Another possible advantage of an EB-5 visa is that its holders are investing in the country and not just purchasing a green card. A wise investment can earn their money back.
Businessman Sandeep Singh of a small town called Mohali has applied for an EB-5 visa for his daughter and hopes to get his money back after five years. "If not,' he said, "it would be a very high price to pay."
According to Sangeeta Kaul, who worked for an EB-5 consultant in the United States, "It was a real hard sell about five years ago to get Indians to buy into this program, but now I see full page advertisements in Indian newspapers inviting people to EB-5 seminars."
'Why are we the cheapest?'
The reason for that focus on the Indian market now is two-fold: First, the Chinese market is saturated, Second, the price of the EB-5 visa is most likely to go up in September.
"At the moment, the EB-5 price is the same as it was 30 years ago. There are not many things you can buy today at 30-year-old prices," said Aaron Schock, a former GOP Congressman from Illinois who sponsored the EB-5 Regional Center Extension Act in 2014. He resigned from office in the midst of a spending scandal the following year.
Schock, who is now art of Kumar's team and was at the Delhi presentation, said the EB-5 program is cheaper than programs available from Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia: "President Trump says, 'We are the best country in the world — why are we the cheapest?'"
Congress in September is expected to raise the $500,000 investment mandate for an EB-5 visa to more than $1 million.
"You don't know what the Congress will do until they do it," Schock said. "But Trump has renegotiated every trade agreement where the U.S. didn't have an upper hand. The price [of the EB-5] is headed upwards."
"EB-5 is on sale and everybody loves a deal. In China last year, more than 7,000 people got these visas, there are as many households in India too who can afford it," Schock said. "This [surge in demand] is no flash in the pan."