UPDATED, May 3, 02:24 p.m.: The new ombudsman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services was a longtime top executive at a group that actively lobbies for the elimination of the EB-5 program.
The appointee, Julie Kirchner, was for more than a decade the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a lobbying group that advocates for the end of EB-5, which has become a key fundraising vehicle for real estate developers.
As FAIR’s executive director from 2005 to 2015, Kirchner was a registered lobbyist. A 2012 lobbying disclosure lists Kirchner and three colleagues as having lobbied on EB-5 legislation and other immigration issues. FAIR released multiple reports during Kirchner’s tenure recommending the closure of the EB-5 program. In January, FAIR’s Matt O’Brien penned a blogpost entitled “Drain the EB-5 Swamp.”
“…if our new President is serious about securing our borders and making sure Washington doesn’t revert to business as usual,” the post reads, “he will formally ask Congress to stop selling visas to wealthy foreigners. The risks outweigh the rewards. It’s time to drain the EB-5 swamp.”
The role of the USCIS ombudsman, who is appointed by the Department of Homeland Security, is to identify problems individuals and employers are having with immigration and visa applications and help them navigate the immigration bureaucracy. That includes problems EB-5 regional centers and EB-5 visa holders are having getting through the process. Based on an analysis of these problems, the ombudsman then makes recommendations to Congress for changes that would benefit immigration applicants. The ombudsman can make those recommendations independent of executive branch oversight.
“The ombudsman has a truly independent report to Congress that is not seen by the executive before it’s published, that’s where the power of the ombudsman comes in,” said Prakash Khatri, the first person to hold the USCIS ombudsman position and who served more than four years in the position under President George W. Bush.
FAIR was founded in in 1979 by John Tanton, an opthamologist by training who has openly flirted with eugenics and other fringe ideas about race over the years. Tanton said in 1993 that he had “come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” The nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center classifies FAIR as a hate group and has described Tanton as having “white nationalist beliefs.” It’s well known that EB-5 investment in the U.S. is dominated by Chinese nationals.
A representative for USCIS did not respond to a request for comment.
Ronnie Fieldstone, an EB-5 attorney at Arnstein & Lehr in Miami, said ombudsmen function as key intermediaries between applicants and USCIS, investigating problems for EB-5 applicants that can sometimes lead to immigrant petitions getting addressed more quickly. Although an anti-EB-5 background may on its face be a concern, Fieldstone said the job description of the ombudsman is pretty clear: helping immigrants through the process under the current laws.
“We hope the new ombudsman will be given more authority as a representative of the public to make the system more effective in situations where petitions aren’t getting heard on a timely basis,” he said.
Bob Dane, FAIR’s current executive director, compared the ombudsman’s office to “the Complaint Window at Macy’s” for “anxious foreign EB-5 investors concerned they are not able to buy their green cards fast enough.”
“To the extent that Julie Kirchner adheres to the idea that her new role is to improve citizenship and immigration services,” Dane wrote in an email, “then a possible outcome is that she will (and should) make a recommendation to slow down or shut down EB-5.”
Before getting the call up to ombudsman, Kirchner was already serving in President Trump’s administration as temporary chief of staff at Customs and Border Protection, a political appointment.
A White House spokesperson previously told The Real Deal that senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has made use of EB-5 funds at his father-in-law-licensed Trump Bay Street development in New Jersey, will recuse himself from particular policy matters pertaining to the investor visa program. The program was temporarily extended by Congress last week through May 5, along with a resolution to continue funding the federal government through September.
The White House issued a statement to The Washington Post this week saying that the Trump administration is weighing changes to EB-5.
“There are serious concerns held by the administration regarding the EB-5 visa program, in part because it is not being used as it was primarily intended,” White House spokesperson Michael Short told the Post. “The administration is continuing to evaluate reforms to the program, which we believe is in need of substantial repair.”