Lee, Schumer Introduce Immigration Reform Bill

October 20, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC—With an excess of supply stalling a recovery in the U.S. housing market, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) announced today that they will offer a bipartisan proposal to boost demand for homes by luring foreign investors to purchase residences and live in the U.S. The concept is part of a broad immigration package aimed at boosting foreign travel and investment in the United States.

The Visa Improvements to Stimulate International Tourism to the United States of America Act (VISIT-USA Act) would remove bureaucratic red tape that stifles travel and investment in the U.S. For instance, the bill would reduce barriers for Canadian and Chinese visitors whose consumer spending provides a lift to the U.S. economy. The bill would also expedite priority visa applicants, introduce videoconferencing as a means to screening foreign nationals, and make major changes to visa procedures for U.S. allies in the fight against al Qaeda.

To confront the housing crisis, the legislation would provide, for the first time, a three-year residential visa for foreign nationals who invest at least $500,000 in residential real estate in the United States. At least $250,000 must be spent on a primary residence where the visa holder will reside for at least 180 days out of the year while paying taxes to the U.S.  Applicants would still be subject to standard criminal and national security background checks and, once approved, would not be able to receive government benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.  The program would not serve as a path to citizenship for foreign nationals. Real estate analysts have said this proposal could lift demand for U.S. homes and help ease the housing crisis. Famed investor Warren Buffett has also supported the concept of enticing foreign homebuyers previously.

Schumer said: “This concept has the potential to lift demand for the nation’s excess homes. Our housing market will never begin a true recovery as long as our housing stock so greatly exceeds demand. This is not a cure-all, but it could be part of the solution to the housing crisis and won’t cost the government a nickel."

Lee said: “This bill supports a free market method for increasing demand for housing at a time when so many working-class Americans are underwater on their homes, are desperate for prices to rise again, and big-government programs have failed to work. I am sponsoring this bill because I know that it makes economic sense while protecting American citizens.”

The Schumer-Lee bill has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Travel Association, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

A breakdown of the main provisions in the VISIT-USA Act, beyond the homebuyer visa provision, appears below:

·  Encourage Chinese Nationals to Travel to the U.S:  Currently, Chinese nationals must apply for a new U.S. visa every year while travelers from other countries can receive up to 10-year multiple entry visas. The bill would allow Chinese tourists access to 5-year multiple-entry visitor visas,  in order to eliminate this significant disincentive to travel to the United States. To ensure maximum security, stop terrorism, and address fraud concerns, Chinese tourists with 5-year visas will also be required to use the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). A recent report showed that the average Chinese visitor to the U.S. spends $6,000.

·  Expedite Priority Visitors: Currently, many people of means do not travel to the United States because of the waiting times for visas. The VISIT-USA Act will allow the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to charge an extra fee to expedite the processing of a nonimmigrant visa  just like the State Department to charges an extra fee to expedite the processing of a U.S. Passport.

·  Introduce Technology Into the U.S. Visa System: Applicants for a U.S. visa are often forced to make significant investments of time and money. The VISIT-USA Act authorizes the Secretary of State to conduct a videoconference pilot program as a method for conducting visa interviews of foreign national applicants. This would ensure that U.S. visitors spend their money inside the U.S. on our goods and not on going through red tape.

·  Encourage Canadian Tourism to the United States: Under current law, without a visa, Canadian citizens are not permitted to remain in the United States for longer than 180 days.  Many Canadians would remain in the United States for a longer period of time during periods where the weather is still cold if they had a legal ability to do so.  In addition, Canadians who currently return to Canada after 180 days are unable to take day-trips across the border to northern-border-states in America. The VISIT-USA Act creates a new “Canadian retiree visa” (non-immigrant visa) that allows Canadians who are: (1) over age 50 (with derivative benefits to a spouse and minor children); (2) who can show that they own a residence in the United States or have purchased rental or hotel accommodations in the United States for the duration of their stay; and (3) are not otherwise inadmissible – to have a visa that lasts 240 days, and is renewable every 3 years

·  Encourage U.S. Travel During Low Peak Season: One of the greatest contributing factors to high visa demand is the summer travel season. Given that visa interview wait times typically lengthen during the summer months, this bill permits the State Department to lower visa application fees during off-peak seasons to give travelers the incentive to apply for visas when demand is lower.

·  Expedite Visa for Countries Aiding the U.S. in Fight Against Al Qaeda: The Visa Waiver program gives citizens of selected countries the ability to travel to the US more easily, rather than go through the more lengthy and complicated US Tourist Visa application process, but it’s not available to all U.S. allies.  The VISIT-USA Act amends the Immigration and Nationality Act regarding the visa waiver program to: (1) authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS), in consultation with the Secretary of State, to designate program countries; (2) adjust the criteria for visa refusal rates to permit entry into the program if a country has a low visa overstay rate; (3) set a maximum 3% visa overstay rate for program countries; and (4) revise probationary status and program termination provisions

·  Expediting Entry for Priority Visitors:  The global entry program is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. At the moment, U.S. Customs and Border Protection lacks the ability to add specific foreign nationals to the global-entry prescreening system if they are not nationals of one of the “participating countries” that the United States has a reciprocal agreement with.   This creates problems for certain high-priority visitors with decision-making capacity to bring important international events—such as the Olympics, the World Cup, conventions, etc.—to the United States.  This section would permit Customs and Border Protection to add important foreign dignitaries to the global entry program on a “case-by-case” basis if they are employed by an organization that maintains a strong working relationship with the United States and do not pose security risks.

The VISIT-USA Act represents the most significant reform of the U.S. immigration system in a generation, all the while adding a significant boost to our economy through increased foreign investment and tourism. Although a budget analysis of the proposal is not yet available, the senators said it was highly likely the package would significantly reduce the deficit through the increased tax revenues collected from new visa holders living in the U.S.