Visa program touted by Kushners has fraught political history

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  • The program was once again renewed last month in the government funding bill
  • The Department of Homeland Security is working through new rules on the program

Washington (CNN)The visa program touted in China by the family of White House senior adviser Jared Kushner has long been targeted for reform in Washington, accused by its critics of being a way for wealthy foreigners to essentially buy US green cards.

The visas, called the EB-5 immigrant investor program, were thrust into the spotlight over the weekend when reports surfaced from an investment conference in China that Kushner's family business was pitching the program to wealthy Chinese investors -- and mentioned President Donald Trump's son-in-law's name and new title.
Though the program is not often in the spotlight, it has long been targeted on Capitol Hill for reform -- and the Department of Homeland Security is considering some changes to the program to set a higher bar for would-be investors.
    After the attention over the weekend, the Kushners' company apologized Monday, saying it did to intend to mention Jared to appeal to would-be investors. Nicole Kushner Meyer, Jared's sister, mentioned her brother's new role in the administration during a pitch for her family's property in New Jersey.
    "In 2008, my brother Jared Kushner joined the family company as CEO and recently moved to Washington to join the administration," she said at the conference.
    Kushner Companies said in a statement that Meyer was trying to make clear that her brother had separated himself from the company and the project.
    And Kushner's attorney said he has divested his interests in the project and will recuse himself from matters concerning EB-5.
    "Mr. Kushner has no involvement in the operation of Kushner Companies and divested his interests in the One Journal Square project by selling them to a family trust that he, his wife, and his children are not beneficiaries of, a mechanism suggested by the Office of Government Ethics," said Blake Roberts, an attorney at WilmerHale law firm, in a statement. "As previously stated, he will recuse from particular matters concerning the EB-5 visa program."
    The EB-5 program, which lawmakers have targeted for reform, is authorized through government spending bills and has been renewed continuously for years as Congress has opted to renew short-term continuing resolutions.
    The system allows for foreign investors who give enough money to a qualifying US project to apply for green cards for themselves and immediate family members, which can pave the way to becoming US citizens.
    Despite threats this year from the leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees that work on the issue, the program was once again renewed last month in the government funding bill that keeps the government open until September.
    Sources familiar with the negotiations behind the scenes say that while lawmakers would have liked to make good on their threat to let the program fall away -- rather than renew it without reform -- the reality is that little progress was actually made on a reform deal that could have been agreed on before government funding ran out.
    Skeptics of sharply changing the program have a powerful ally in Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, where EB-5 investment is a major driver in real estate development. Allies for reforming the program include Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-California; Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin; Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia; and Jim Conyers, D-Michigan — all leaders on the House Judiciary Committee — and Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont — both of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
    Some of the slowdown in Congress may also be due to the Department of Homeland Security pursuing rule-making to change the program. If the Trump administration sees it through, lawmakers would have an opportunity to see the effects before taking any further legislative action.
    Some of the changes include raising the threshold of money required to benefit from the program, from $500,000 to $1.35 million for the minimum level, and to tighten the requirements to qualify as a "Targeted Employment Area" -- to ensure that such designations are reserved for areas that actually would benefit high unemployment areas.
    The proposed changes garnered 290 comments from the public before the response period ended April 11.
    Kushner Companies has already used EB-5 money for a project called Trump Bay Street in Jersey City, New Jersey, which raised $50 million, or one-quarter of its funding, from EB-5 investments, a company representative confirmed to CNN. The company had not made prior use of EB-5, it said, but would not confirm to CNN whether any other projects under development would as the project pitched in China is doing.
    US Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of DHS, said it is reviewing comments before finalizing the rulemaking process. A White House spokesman said it continues to assess its options.
    "The administration, in conjunction with members of Congress, is evaluating wholesale reform of the EB-5 program to ensure that the program is used as intended and that investment is being spread to all areas of the country," the spokesman said. "We are also exploring the possibility of raising the price of the visa to further bring the program in line with its intent."