TAMPA - As American cities face crumbling infrastructure and budget deficits, finding new funding sources has become a necessity to get projects completed. The city of Tampa is considering foreign investors for help, but not without a price.
Tampa's city council agreed to form a task force to review EB-5, a federal immigration program that rewards foreign nationals with a path to citizenship if they contribute significant amounts of money to a local community. The requirement is a minimum contribution of $1 million or $500,000, depending on the type of community.
After that, the foreign investor must show the creation of at least ten jobs. EB-5 visas have been offered for the last 20 years, but the program's popularity is growing as cities and counties find themselves with budget deficits in the sluggish economy.
During Tampa's city council meeting, an EB-5 consultant to the city of Miami argued for the program's advantages. Mikki Canton told the council that during a recent trip to Taiwan the number of intrigued investors was substantial.
"You cannot believe the number of interested people and groups," Canton said. "They wanted to know: How can we get involved? Where are the projects?" she said.
One obvious project that could use foreign investment is a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. New York City has already tapped EB-5 money for its new basketball arena in Brooklyn, and the city of Oakland, California is also interested in EB-5 as a means to build a new facility for the Athletics.
Tampa is not the first city in Florida to make an effort to pursue EB-5 investors. Miami's mayor has established a department dedicated to that goal, while Orlando was approved as an EB-5 regional center, meaning it has a more organized means of applying for funds through the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services.
Tampa city councilor Yvonne Capin was especially annoyed to see that Orlando's EB-5 website included Tampa as part of its regional effort. That was one of her motivations for getting Tampa to pursue EB-5 opportunities on its own.
"We should be proactive rather than hope to be discovered," Capin said. "If we stand here, we're going to be standing at the station watching the train leave," she said.
Tampa's city council chairman was not as convinced. Charlie Miranda said he was concerned that EB-5 could be a cash-for-citizenship scheme.
"Is the real purpose of this about investment, or is the real purpose about getting someone to get a green card?" Miranda said.
Miranda was skeptical about the process, suggesting that while wealthy Chinese investors could obtain a path to citizenship, impoverished immigrants from Mexico, Venezuela, Haiti, and other countries could not.
"If they want to give straight money to a city to buy their way in, is America really for sale?" Miranda asked.
Advocates for EB-5 assured the city council that the visas set aside for that program were independent of those for immigrants without investment money.
Bill Flynn, an immigration attorney who has experience with EB-5, said there was a serious vetting process by the federal government before any foreign applicants can become eligible.
Flynn said where the investment money comes from also goes under intense scrutiny.
"They vet very carefully the source of funds. We want no drug money. We want no black money," Flynn said.
The Tampa city council agreed to establish an EB-5 taskforce, but it has yet to decide whether to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a full EB-5 campaign.
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