The EB-5 processing statistics from the last two years reveal an obvious sharp drop in the volume of I-526 petitions processed from FY2018 to FY2019. In FY2018, the Immigrant Investor Program Office (IPO) processed an unusually high number of I-526 petitions. Just one year later, in FY2019, the IPO documented abnormally low I-526 petitions processing volumes. While there are likely numerous reasons for this drop, the most significant contributing factor may have been the change in leadership at the IPO. In FY2019, Sarah Kendall replaced Julia Harrison as the IPO chief.
Increased Processing Volumes in FY2018
During her tenure in FY2018, Harrison focused on standardizing processes at the IPO and making the adjudication process more efficient. The IPO hired economists and adjudicators and organized them into multidisciplinary teams to process I-526 petitions. The more efficient processes and the increase in the number of employees focusing on I-526 petitions likely contributed to the high processing volumes in FY2018.
Decreased Processing Volumes in FY2019
When Kendall took over as IPO chief in FY2019, she shifted the focus of the IPO to security, quality assurance, control, and integrity. There was an increase in the intensity and rigor of fraud investigations, both within the United States and abroad. The IPO worked extensively with law enforcement, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and overseas state department officials, which generally consumed significant amounts of time.
Another factor that may have contributed to the decreased I-526 processing volumes was the temporary reassignment of IPO staff to other duties, such as the processing of I-829 petitions. This resulted in fewer agents and resources available for the adjudication of I-526 petitions and an increase in the number of hours spent on each I-526 petition.
What to Expect for FY2020
Several factors, both expected and unexpected, will likely affect the IPO’s FY2020I-526 processing volumes. Two of these factors are related to USCIS: the hiring freeze for non-asylum officers instituted by the Trump administration and the switch to a visa availability processing approach for I-526 petitions. Both will likely impact processing times for EB-5 investors, though the latter depends on the investor’s country of origin. Investors from China may see longer wait times, while those from underrepresented countries may have their I-526 petitions processed faster as a result of this new approach, which went into effect on March 31, 2020.
Then, of course, there is the COVID-19 factor. The extent of the virus’s impact on the EB-5 program remains unclear. As countries around the globe go into lockdown in an attempt to contain COVID-19, there is the possibility that demand for EB-5 visas will temporarily decrease because prospective EB-5 investors will not be able to consult with immigration attorneys, assess potential EB-5 projects, or gather the required documentation. The effects of consulate closures on EB-5 investors can already be seen in China, where the closure of the U.S. consulate has led to plans by the IPO to issue leftover visas originally intended for Chinese investors to Vietnamese investors. This move could result in EB-5 visa retrogression for Chinese nationals.