An ABC News report accuses the leader of the Democrats in the Senate of pressing immigration officials to fast-track investor visas.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) makes an appearance in ABC News’ lengthy report Tuesday highlighting whistleblower charges that immigration officials ignored possible warnings signs in order to shepherd wealthy foreigners into the United States through the EB-5 visa program.
According to the report, Reid and his staff pressed officials to move more quickly on visas for investors on the SLS Hotel project in Las Vegas.
Whistleblowers, however, expressed concerns to ABC News that the political pressure “has led officials to grant visas to applicants who had significant red flags in their backgrounds.”
When the SLS Hotel chain sought to fund construction of a hotel on the Las Vegas strip using foreign investors, Reid and his aides urged immigration officials to speed up their review of the visa applicants, internal emails show. Each visa applicant approval meant another $500,000 could flow into the construction budget, and the developers were anticipating as much as $200 million from foreign investors.
The report further revealed that Reid personally requested that the then-chief of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Alejandro Mayorkas look into the matter, as there were concerns that if the investors did not receive visas the project’s top investor JP Morgan Chase, would abandon the project.
Shortly after the agency reversed course and sped up the processing of SLS Hotel investor applications, a career immigration official wrote in a Feb. 3, 2013 email that the decision had been “shoved down our throats” after Mayorkas and his senior advisor had “refused to listen to any operational concerns about expedites, including fraud and national security.”
ABC News obtained copies of background reports prepared by government fraud detection specialists about several of the SLS Hotel investors. The investigators raised questions about those applicants’ background –- most of them Chinese applicants who could not sufficiently document the source of their $500,000 investment. Applicants must present proof the money is not the product of illegal activity, or funneled to them by a government entity to help get a spy into the U.S.
In one case, a fraud investigator found bank documents “with eraser marks” and touched up with whiteout. In another, employer information the investor produced proved to be false. In a particularly glaring case, investigators found an applicant who had previously been refused entry into the U.S., and who submitted his application “with forged and fraudulent documents.”
“It is suspected that entry into the U.S. was to knowingly enter into a marriage fraud scheme,” the report states. The determination of this review: “Fraud found.”
Subsequent records from the applicant processing system, obtained by ABC News, show that an “intent to deny” notice was sent to the investor in February of 2014. But the decision was reversed in May. On May 27, the applicant’s visa was approved.
Other concerns, according to the report, included an applicant and potential SLS project investor suspected of money laundering and whose wife was believed to be receiving money from child pornography websites. While he had been denied visas twice before he was approved in January.
Ron Klasko, one of nation’s top EB-5/immigration lawyers, represents SLS Las Vegas and helped handle the visa applications for the hotel project. He said in an interview that no applicant can be rejected based on rumors or suspicions. There must be “either a conviction or a reason to believe that he’s engaged in criminal activity,” he said. He said that every SLS Hotel investor was subjected to layers of scrutiny before even being submitted for consideration by immigration officials.
“There were some investors where I reviewed it and we were not comfortable,” Klasko told ABC News. Even before the applications came to him, he said an agent working in the investor’s home country went through “a two to three month process to document how the investor gets his money… No one wants to be in the business of refunding the money.”
Klasko said that not all the applications were approved without questions. “In some there was a request for evidence. It came back to us. But as far as I know, [eventually] 100 percent of the investors were approved,” he said.
The SLS Hotel project opened to great fanfare last year, with an enormous fireworks display over the city meant to celebrate this sign of economic rebirth. Today, it is heralded as one of the EB-5 program’s most notable achievements, including by Senator Reid.
“Senator Reid is proud to have successfully fought for a project that creates 8,600 Nevada jobs,” Reid’s spokesman wrote in an email responding to questions from ABC News. Reid’s statement notes that his office advocated for the project to receive immediate attention, and nothing more. “It is worth noting that Senator Reid can’t affect the ultimate outcome of these petitions,” he said. “Expediting the review of petitions has no bearing on whether they are adjudicated favorably or not. It just moves petitions to the front of the line.”