TIANJIN, China—— Amid the skyscrapers and coal power plants in this fast-growing manufacturing city of nearly 13 million people, eager investors filed into a convention center that thumped with dance music from a Florida beach party video.
On sale was the dream of life in America, packaged for wealthy Chinese willing to bet a half-million dollars on the opportunity offered by a U.S. visa program called EB-5.
Want to hunt for gold in California? For $500,000, investors were told they could stake a claim in a long-dormant mine north of Sacramento, and at the same time get a jump-start on the path to U.S. citizenship. Nearby, a miniature model of a Louisiana oil field held out the same promise. And a few steps away, a poster showed a girl enjoying ice cream and asking in Chinese: "Mama, shall we invest in one of the Twistee stores and stay forever in America?"
The business ventures are among hundreds in the United States — including restaurants, senior homes and hotels in the Chicago area — that compete in a rapidly growing market for conditional residency visas offered to foreigners who invest in developments that promise to create American jobs. If 10 jobs are created, an investor and his family can qualify for legal permanent residency and leap ahead on a path to eventual citizenship.
The EB-5 program is credited with kick-starting such varied ventures as ski resorts in Vermont, dairy farms in South Dakota and the future home of the Brooklyn Nets NBA team. But it also has been dogged by allegations of fraud against both U.S. developers and foreign parties.
Officially, most of EB-5 remains a pilot program, competing for wealthy foreign investors against similar programs in Canada, Australia and other parts of the world. But since it began in 1990, 12,000 visas have been granted to foreign investors and their families from more than 100 countries.
Those investors have poured $2.2 billion into projects in the United States — from a convention center that turned around a rundown area near Philadelphia's downtown to a boutique hotel in Dallas inside what used to be the home of a coffin manufacturer.
Overall, 46,000 jobs have been created through the program, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that administers the program.
The program has grown fastest in China, where many of the country's estimated 960,000 millionaires have found new wealth at about the same time the 2008 economic collapse in the U.S. led banks to clamp down on loans, leaving developers scrambling for new sources of capital.
This year alone, the EB-5 program is expected to generate 6,000 visas for foreigners, most of them from China. The Obama administration and some members of Congress are pushing for permanent authorization when the program expires in September.
"There seems to be a real hunger for these projects to work because of the promise that they give," said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who researches EB-5-financed developments. But "things can go horribly wrong," Singer added, citing several ongoing federal lawsuits alleging Ponzi schemes and other deceptive practices.
The program's enticement, for both the investors and those pitching the projects, is obvious.
"You can actually own your own McDonald's restaurant in the United States," developer Brian Hall told a mother and daughter, his Alabama accent rising above the hum of the Tianjin conference crowd. Hall was trying to persuade the women to invest in a fast-food franchise — or how about a new ferry boat service between Florida and Havana?
The daughter, Guo Wen, 30, smiled, introducing herself as "Peggy."
"I have an aunt named Peggy!" Hall replied, stepping closer. "Do you want to emigrate to the U.S.?"
Much of the program's growth is driven by privately run limited liability companies in the U.S. that — through a pilot portion of the program launched in 1993 — are authorized by the federal government to broker EB-5 transactions. There are 224 of those companies, known as regional centers, compared to just 25 in 2008, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Three such companies operate in Chicago, with a fourth in Peoria and a fifth in LaSalle County, all of them vying for investors across the globe.
One local regional center is seeking as much as $250 million through the EB-5 program to build a five-hotel Chicago convention center near O'Hare International Airport. Another is financing the development of elder-care homes in suburban Aurora, Elgin and Wood Dale, among other locations.
Bryan Zises, 44, was at the Tianjin conference to meet people who might help him find EB-5 financing for projects in Chicago that include a $50 million renovation of the landmark Chicago Athletic Association buildings near Grant Park.