Want to Become a US Citizen? Money Talks

If you want to immigrate to America, money talks.

Deborah Harrison | Getty Images

Grant Fraser has figured this out. Born on a dairy farm outside Toronto, Canada, he came to the US years ago on a visa. He helped build up and sell a software company.

Married with children, he settled down in Utah and wanted to stay, but it didn't look promising. "We had applied for immigration status under EB1 status, which is a person of extraordinary ability, but that was declined."

Then he found out about EB5.

This little known program allows foreigners to invest in U.S. businesses and create jobs in exchange for a green card. Think of it as "immigration through investment". Foreigners can apply for it by proving they'll pour $1 million into a U.S. company and create ten full-time American jobs.

For rural areas, or those regions with high unemployment, the investment only has to be $500,000. Once approved, the would-be immigrant gets a conditional green card. If the jobs and the company survive for two years, the green card becomes permanent, and the path to citizenship begins. The investment can go into creating a completely new company, or into a company deemed at risk of failing.

Most of the time, the investments go into qualifying "Regional Centers", partnerships often involved in real estate developments. In these regional investments, the ten full-time jobs can be created indirectly to qualify.

Seems like a win-win. How come the program isn't more well-known?

"It requires a lot of capital in one place," says attorney Martin Lawler, whose San Francisco law firm specializes in immigration issues. "The capital has to be at risk. One cannot just invest it in a stock market or a bank account, it has to be invested in a business."

There are 10,000 EB5 visas allotted by the government each year, but Lawler says last year, only about 4,000 people applied. "It's a big investment and ten jobs is a lot to create. Most people want to diversify their portfolio and not put it all in one investment."

States like Nevadaand Florida are reaching out to foreign investors, promoting EB5 as a way to get an infusion of money and the jobs that come with it.

C. Sherburne | Photodisc | Getty Images

Grant Fraser used the profits from the sale of his previous business to apply for EB5 five years ago. He started Navigator Business Solutions in Salt Lake City, beginning with six American employees. Five years later, he employs 48 Americans in offices around the country. Revenues grew double digits last year, and Fraser hopes to finally turn a profit this year.

But EB5 is not an easy process. "The application process generally takes a year," says Martin Lawler. Immigration officials spend a lot of time making sure a foreign investor's money is legitimate. Even if the green card is issued, the investments don't always succeed. "We've had some who've invested in the past with fly by night operators, and they lost their investment funds," Lawler says. Those foreigners had to go back home.

"It's been tough," Grant Fraser says. "It's not fun crossing the border because you still get questioned. It's been a lot of paperwork and a lot of hoops to jump through, but I'm certainly glad that we're through that process and glad to be here permanently now."

He's not sure he would have risked so much of his own money in America without the promise of a green card. However, he thinks it has given him an edge over many American-born entrepreneurs. "The very nature of an immigrant having left their home country and moved—in my case 2,000 miles away to start a new company—there's certainly a self-starting nature," he says.

Fraser adds, "I've been that much more driven to succeed, because if this company wasn't successful, then I would have to return to my country, and sell my house and relocate my family, so I was that much more motivated to have a company succeed."

Fraser and his wife hope to someday swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. "I'm not sure we'd renounce our Canadian citizenship, but this is my home now," Fraser says. "I look forward to becoming an American citizen."