The EB-5 processing statistics of the past several years make one observation painfully clear: I-526 petition processing volumes were remarkably low in FY2019. The Immigrant Investor Program Office (IPO) is a complicated entity, and there is a lot going on behind the scenes that may not be clear on the surface. FY2019’s low processing rates were not without reason.
Contrary to FY2019, FY2018 recorded abnormally high I-526 petition processing volumes. The sharp drop may seem sudden and unexpected, but one important factor differentiates the two fiscal years: the IPO chief. In FY2018, Julia Harrison was the acting chief, and in FY2019, Sarah Kendall took over.
FY2018’s High Processing Volume
The high volume of I-526 petitions processed under Harrison’s oversight in FY2018 is attributable to numerous factors. At the end of 2017, the IPO recruited cross-trained economists and adjudicators to form multidisciplinary teams to process I-526 petitions. Harrison focused on standardizing operations at the IPO to better manage the assignment of EB-5 applications, streamlining and expediting the adjudication process. A steady increase of employees at the IPO was a further factor that likely contributed to the growth in productivity in FY2018.
FY2019’s Low Processing Volume
Conversely, in FY2019, it’s clear that Kendall has taken a different approach to managing the IPO than her predecessor. Under Kendall’s leadership, the IPO has made structural adjustments to devote more attention to integrity, quality assurance, and control. The IPO stepped up its rigor and fraud investigation, working with law enforcement and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in some cases, which cost significant amounts of time. Additionally, in FY2019, the IPO worked extensively with USCIS and Department of State officials abroad to conduct overseas checks, including issues related to EB-5 investors’ source of funds.
In addition to matters related to security, the IPO also shifted its focus from I-526 petitions to other priorities. According to Kendall, training conducted in May 2019 resulted in reduced time for adjudication, and throughout the year, some staff were temporarily assigned to other priorities, leaving fewer agents available to make adjudications. The sunset of the regional center program was an additional contributing factor, even though the program was extended. Finally, Kendall allocated additional resources to I-829 processing in FY2019, inevitably taking resources away from I-526 processing. All in all, IPO staff were estimated to have spent an additional 8.65 hours on each I-526 petition compared to FY2016, an increase of 33%.
What Will Happen in FY2020?
No one can say how EB-5 processing volumes will fare in FY2020. Though the fiscal year is already half over, calendar year 2020 has presented both foreseen and unforeseen challenges that are likely to affect processing volumes at the IPO. The Trump administration’s hiring freeze for non-asylum officers at USCIS is one factor that could affect processing volumes and that the IPO has little control over. USCIS’s switch from a first-in-first-out processing method to a visa availability approach is also likely to impact processing times for EB-5 investors, depending on their country of origin. Chinese EB-5 investors may be subjected to longer waiting times, while investors from underrepresented countries may enjoy expedited processing times. The new processing approach took effect March 31, 2020.
The impact of the rampant and unpredictable spread of COVID-19 on USCIS’s processing of EB-5 petitions is also unknown. With the closure of the U.S. consulate in China, leftover visas are currently poised to be issued to Vietnamese EB-5 investors, and the situation could result in EB-5 visa retrogression for Chinese nationals. The closure of further consulates is unpredictable and not out of the question. Lockdowns in countries around the world could also impact EB-5 investors’ ability to assess potential EB-5 projects, gather necessary documentation, and consult with immigration attorneys, which could potentially result in diminished EB-5 demand for the duration of the pandemic.