Want a US green card? Bring cash.

A surge of foreign entrepreneurs are getting visas in exchange for investing in US companies.

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    Want to give the Sugarbush ski resort in Warren, Vt., a hand? Give it a $500,000 investment and you could have a green card as well.
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Want to become a US citizen? Bring some business savvy – and cash. Lots of cash.

That, in essence, is the pitch of many cash-strapped regions across the United States as they look for immigrants with capital to invest. Under the two-decade-old EB-5 “Alien Investor” visa program, foreigners with at least $1 million to invest in a US business could get a green card from the US government. Because that threshold drops to $500,000 in areas deemed as especially needing development, more communities are applying to qualify and are bumping up their overseas marketing of the program.

Any geographical area is eligible to become such a "regional center." California military bases count. The entire state of Vermont is one. The effort seems to be paying off. The number of centers has almost tripled – from 23 a year ago to 60 in July – and the immigrants have followed. In the first two-thirds of this fiscal year, the number of foreign entrepreneurs approved for the program's first visa had reached 912, nearly double the total for all of fiscal 2007, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

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The EB-5 program works this way: Foreign entrepreneurs who invest at least $500,000 in a business in a regional center ($1 million elsewhere) can get a green card in a matter of months, a process that would otherwise often drag on for years. If their venture creates 10 jobs in two years, the investor gets to stay. Five years after becoming a permanent resident, they can become a naturalized citizen.

“For certain countries like China and India, we have long green card backlogs in most categories – but not in the EB-5 category,” says Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The majority of the 10,000 allotted visas go unused each year.

Citizens from any country can apply, he adds, but the largest numbers come from China, South Korea, Canada, and Western Europe.

“There are business people who are very happy in China, but they would like to see their children get an international education,” says Vaughan de Kirby, an attorney in San Francisco who helps Chinese financiers negotiate the process and author of a new book, “The Investor’s Path to a Green Card.” Many of his clients are looking to just not lose money on the deal, he says, while getting their families into the US.

These investors have brought in more than $1 billion in foreign money since October 2006 and created 20,250 jobs for US workers, according to Robert Kruszka, deputy chief of service center operations for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who testified before the Senate July 22.

Mr. Kruszka and many lawmakers want the deal for regional centers – currently a pilot program enacted in 1992 and regularly reenacted since – to be made permanent in Homeland Security’s fiscal 2010 appropriations come September.

Fast-track US citizenship for the wealthy? It might strike some as un-American. But Mr. Yale-Loehr says the program is popular across the board and almost a given that it will be made permanent.

“I’m not aware of any vocal critics,” says Mr. de Kirby, the immigration attorney. “This is the one area of immigration that people seem to be able to agree on.”

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