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EB-5 Filing Strategies: Continued Immigrant Visa Availability Under the RIA’s Set-Aside Categories

The passage of the EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act (RIA) in 2022 resulted in the most significant changes to the EB-5 investor immigrant visa program since its establishment in 1990. Among the most notable changes implemented through the RIA was the creation of new “set aside” visa categories for EB-5 investors. These set-aside categories allocate a certain amount of the 10,000 EB-5 immigrant visas available each year to investments in certain areas or projects, which include:

  • 20% reserved for qualified immigrants who invest in a rural area;
  • 10% reserved for qualified immigrants who invest in a ‘targeted employment area’ (TEA), which meets the requirements that apply to areas of high unemployment (unemployment rate of at least 150% of the U.S. national average); and
  • 2% reserved for qualified immigrants who invest in infrastructure projects.[1]

Additionally, the RIA allows for the concurrent filing of the investor immigrant visa petition on Form I-526E and adjustment of status (AOS) filing on Form I-485 for those present in the U.S.[2] While certain types of EB-5 investments filed prior to the passage of the RIA remain subject to visa bulletin backlogs, which particularly impact petitioners and dependent family members born in countries with the highest demand for immigrant visas (e.g., mainland China and India), the Visa Bulletin has not yet announced a visa backlog for any of the set aside categories established by the RIA.

With the establishment of the set-aside categories, the availability of EB-5 immigrant visas is now subject to multiple factors, in addition to country of birth, under the Department of State’s Visa Bulletin, which dictates an applicant’s ability to apply for an immigrant visa or concurrent AOS (if in the U.S.) based on per-country limitations released monthly by the Department of State (DOS).[3] As the visa bulletin is based on visas approved visa petitions and the petitioners’ countries of birth (as opposed to petitions filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and currently in process), investors understandably are faced with a level of uncertainty when strategizing the timing of their investments and associated petition filings. This is due to the uncertain nature of the continued availability of immigrant visas, which can retrogress with little notice based on the DOS’ contemporaneous issuance of immigrant visas under the EB-5 program. This post will outline data and strategies available to investors to clarify questions related to potential changes to the visa bulletin that may impact EB-5 immigrant visa availability in the coming months. As the progression of the Visa Bulletin is subject to internal data shared between USCIS and the DOS, as well as the DOS’ internal visa issuance metrics, some level of obscurity and uncertainty should be accounted for when planning for immigrant visa petition filing, but the below is meant to help address and account for these inherent uncertainties.

Background on the Visa Bulletin

In connection with the U.S. government’s policy imperative to encourage a diverse pool of immigrants to the U.S., family- and employment-based immigrant visas are subject to a specific allocation of available visas every federal fiscal year. A total of approximately 140,000 immigrant visas are available every fiscal year for employment-based immigrant visas, including the EB-1, EB-2, EB-3, EB-4, and EB-5 immigrant visa categories. Of the total of 140,000 immigrant visas available annually, approximately 10,000 are allocated to the EB-5 investor visa program, which are also subject to the below per-country visa quotas.

To that end, no one country (based on the applicant’s country of birth) can be allocated more than approximately 7.1% of all available immigrant visas.[4] Importantly, the DOS recently revised its interpretation of the statutory language on the 7.1% per country limit to clarify that it applies in any preference only if a country’s use of visas exceeds 7.1% of all employment-based preferences together.[5] For example, the 7.1% per country limit for Vietnam will only start in the EB-5 category if Vietnam were to reach the 7.1% limit for the overall 140,000 employment-based visas available. In the past, investors born in Vietnam and Taiwan also have been high users of EB-5 visas; however, with this new interpretation by DOS, they will likely never be subject to a per-country limitation for EB-5 again given that these countries generally have never reached 7.1% of the overall 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas.

The above only tells part of the story on immigrant visa allocation. This is because in addition to the total of 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas allocated yearly to all countries, unused visa numbers from prior fiscal years (i.e. immigrant visas that are available to those born in under-subscribed countries, but not utilized) roll over for use by applicants of over-subscribed countries according to priority date and availability within the immigrant visa preference category.[6] Moreover, unused family-based immigrant visas may also be utilized to address excess demand in employment-based categories.[7] While the specific number of unused immigrant visas varies considerably year to year, there tends be some available unused family-based visa numbers from under-subscribed categories each federal fiscal year based on the most recent data made available by USCIS and DOS.[8] Additionally, unused EB-5 numbers from the unreserved ‘general pool’ of EB-5 immigrant visas available yearly (based on worldwide applicant demand), are reallocated to over-subscribed EB-5 categories, including the above-referenced EB-5 set-aside categories created post-RIA implementation.[9]

EB-5 Investor Immigrant Program Data

With the dynamic nature of the immigrant visa allocation process in mind, there is no simple, readily available formula that can help predict the numbers of EB-5 immigrant visas that may be available in a given fiscal year, nor one that can precisely predict how soon retrogression may impact the EB-5 program, particularly in connection with I-526E petitions filed by investors born in traditionally high-demand countries, like China and India. This process is made difficult because USCIS and the Immigrant Investor Program Office (IPO) have not released important statistics to the public that would allow investors to accurately predict how long of a backlog may form in the various set-aside categories. However, we do have some data.

To solve for the lack of government-released data, stakeholders have filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that provide more nuanced data on the government’s current processing volumes. Notably, recent data disclosures made available through FOIA requests found a significant increase in demand for the rural set-aside category, but demand remains “below the needed level to absorb the near-term annual visa supply.” The data released also showed that demand for high unemployment TEA set-aside continued to increase through the end of 2023, which may result in a backlog for that specific set-aside category.[10] As expected, demand remains particularly high for immigrant applicants born in mainland China; the below chart published in connection with the data disclosed pursuant to FOIA provides further insight on the processing volumes:

TOTAL NUMBER OF I-526/I-526E FILED FROM APRIL 1, 2022,TO NOVEMBER 2023, BY TEA CATEGORY AND COUNTRY OF CHARGEABILITY (LATEST STATS AS PER AIIA FOIA DATA)[11]

China India Taiwan Rest of World Total Total %
Rural 767 174 18 134 1,093 32%
High unemployment 976 375 209 625 2,185 63%
Infrastructure 0%
Multiple TEA categories 7 3 5 16 0.5%
Not TEA 26 21 6 97 150 4%
Total 1,776 573 233 861 3,444 100%
Total % 52% 17% 7% 25% 100%

While the data above is subject to change and specifically reflects government filings through November 2023, and spanning multiple federal fiscal years (2022-23), it shows that about two times as many high unemployment set-aside I-526E Petitions were filed as compared to rural area set-aside I-526E Petitions. However, in June 2024, USCIS also released their January to March 2024 form data, which revealed that an additional 1,810 I-526E Petitions had been filed with USCIS over that three-month period, leaving 3,672 I-526E Petitions pending as of March 31, 2024.[12]

Importantly, the quarterly USCIS data shows a huge number of new I-526E Petitions were filed during Q2 2024. Half of all I-526E Petitions pending as of the date of this blog were filed just in Q2 of 2024. USCIS has not released any statistics to show the breakdown of I-526E Petitions filed in the high unemployment or rural area set aside categories. Anecdotal evidence from stakeholders and projects seems to show a strong uptick in the demand for rural area projects, and it is possible that many of these new I-526E Petitions were for rural area set-aside visa numbers. More data from USCIS will be required on this point to give investors a more accurate picture on visa wait times in both rural area and high unemployment set-aside projects.

Moreover, the USCIS Q2 2024 data shows that the agency only completed review of 356 I-526E Petitions this fiscal year. The statistics do not break down completions by approvals or denials. Given the small number of case completions during this fiscal year, no visa retrogression has been announced in the Visa Bulletin because an insufficient number of I-526E Petitions have been approved to necessitate announcement of retrogression for any country.

In fact, at a recent conference, the DOS indicated that there is a record amount of EB-5 visas available for this year and predicted again for next year. Specifically, DOS is predicting that there are more than 14,000 unreserved EB-5 visas and more than 8,000 set-aside visas available in FY 2024and that there will be more than 11,000 unreserved EB-5 visas and more than 6,800 set-aside visas available in FY 2025. Together, that is more than 14,800 set-aside visas over this fiscal year and next, split between rural and high unemployment according to their percentages. This would mean approximately 9,800 rural visas and 4,900 high unemployment EB-5 visas are available over this fiscal year and next, with additional high numbers remaining available in the unreserved EB-5 category. Even assuming that each petitioner also brought two dependent applicants with them to the U.S., the sheer number of EB-5 visas available in these categories over this year and next would provide many immigrant visa numbers for applicants and their dependents in both set-aside categories, and drastic retrogression wait times are not yet predicted.

Additionally, note that the data provided reflects raw numbers of petition filings and does not take into account potential roll overs of additional unused immigrant visas, as noted above. In addition, applicants born in under-subscribed countries, like Vietnam and Taiwan, with robust demand for EB-5 immigrant visas that may qualify for the set-aside category, still have the option to choose to process under the general pool of unreserved EB-5 visa numbers, thereby freeing up additional availability under the reserved high-unemployment and rural TEA set-aside categories for individuals born in mainland China. This selection is typically made at the time that the National Visa Center (NVC) processes the immigrant visa application for applicants based outside of the U.S.

Key Takeaways

  1. There are a record number of EB-5 visas available to applicants in both the high unemployment and rural area set-aside categories in FY 2024 and FY 2025. While stakeholders need more data from USCIS on the breakdowns of pending I-526E Petitions between the high unemployment and rural set-aside categories, there is a record number of visas available and extensive backlogs are not expected to occur like those experienced by pre-RIA I-526 Petitions.
  2. File the I-526E Petition and associated AOS applications concurrently if possible. Although visa numbers remain available in the set-aside categories even for traditionally high-demand countries, the dynamics associated with the DOS Visa bulletin may result in retrogression with little notice. Filing concurrently where eligible can provide multiple benefits in the event of retrogression, including:a. Locking in dependent child’s age under chart A or chart B of the DOS Visa Bulletin, which under the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA) allows for a tolling of age progression while the petition is in process and based on the unavailability of a visa number; and

    b. Obtaining short-term U.S. immigration benefits that allow for work (employment authorization document (EAD)) and travel (advance parole (AP)) while the USICS processes the AOS filing.

  3. Individuals born in under-subscribed countries with qualifying investments in rural or high-unemployment TEAs should consider opting for processing under the general unreserved pool where possible. This would allow for use of additional reserved immigrant visas in the set-aside categories by those born in countries with higher demand for EB-5 immigrant visas, such as China and, potentially, India.
  4. Monitor visa bulletin progression and available government data. It will remain important to continue monitoring Visa Bulletin releases and planning for potential retrogression. As noted above, while the set-aside categories created under the RIA remain broadly available for immigrant visas and concurrent AOS processing, conditions may change with little notice as the government processes its backlog of filed EB-5 petitions or if USCIS speeds up its processing of I-526E Petitions.

[1] INA § 203(b)(5)(B)(i)(I).

[2] See INA § 245(n); 203(b)(5).

[3] See U.S. Dept. of State Visa Bulletin.

[4] See INA § 203(b).

[5] See 88 Fed. Reg. 50, 18252 (March 28, 2023).

[6] See, e.g. “Practice Pointer: Strategic Planning in an Era of EB-5 Visa Waiting Lines,” AILA EB-5 Committee, AILA Doc. No. 18060537, June 5, 2018.

[7] See, e.g., “The CIS Ombudsman’s Webinar Series: USCIS’ Backlog Reduction Efforts,” June 22, 2022 (“DOS currently estimates that approximately 57,000 unused family sponsored visa numbers from FY 2022 have been added to the employment-based limit for FY 2023.”).

[8] See, e.g., “Employment-Based Adjustment of Status FAQs,” USCIS, May 20, 2024 (“DOS determined that the FY 2023 employment-based annual limit was 197,091, due to unused family-based visa numbers from FY 2022 being added to the employment-based limit for FY 2023. In addition, 6,396 EB-5 visas carried over from FY 2022 to FY 2023 in the reserved subcategories.”)

[9] See id.

[10] See “AIIA FOIA Series: Updated I-526E Inventory Statistics for 2023,” American Immigrant Investor Alliance, Feb. 29, 2024.

[11] Id.

[12] See USCIS Quarterly Statistics “All USCIS Application and Petition Form Types (Fiscal Year 2024, Quarter 2).

©2024 Greenberg Traurig, LLP. All rights reserved.

by: Jennifer Hermansky, Jack Jrada of Greenberg Traurig, LLP

For more on EB-5 Filing, visit the NLR Immigration section

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