It was an extensive plan to take advantage of a controversial immigration program, and federal authorities say that by the time they intervened, the scheme had ensnared hundreds of wealthy overseas clients seeking green cards and netted a South Bay attorney and her ex-husband millions of dollars in illegal fees and commissions.
Attorney Danhong “Jean” Chen and her firm’s office manager, Jianyun “Tony” Ye, face civil and criminal charges for allegedly seeking to profit from the immigration program, which allows foreigners to obtain visas in exchange for investing at least $500,000 in the United States, effectively sidestepping many of the obstacles that confront other, less well-heeled applicants for American visas.
Launched nearly three decades ago as a little-used economic incentive, the program, known as EB-5, was seized on by developers and state governments after the 2008 recession as a way to raise funds from overseas investors, particularly those in China. The U.S. government now issues thousands of EB-5 visas each year. Recipients of the visas and their families then can apply for permanent legal status.
As the popularity of the program has grown, however, it also has stirred controversy. A desire to overhaul EB-5 visas has emerged as a rare point of bipartisan agreement in the heated national debate over immigration, with Congressional Democrats and Republicans claiming that the program allows the wealthy to buy their way into the United States.
“A lot of people aren’t really interested in being investors — they are interested in a green card,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute, referring to those seeking the visas.
On its website, Chen’s firm advertises its expertise in the EB-5 program, which it calls “investment-based immigration.” Hundreds of investors seeking the visas were clients of Chen’s law firm, which had offices in San Jose, San Francisco and Beijing, according to federal prosecutors.
Exactly how much money Chen and Ye extracted in profit from the program is unclear. The Securities and Exchange Commission says that between 2008 and 2016, the pair made $12.7 million from illegal commissions they received for referring more than 400 clients to groups that bundle investments from foreigners seeking EB-5 visas. Federal authorities also allege that Chen and Ye illegally ran their own investment group, which funded housing developments in Fremont and Santa Rosa and collected millions of dollars in fees charged to overseas investors.
By Nico Savidge for THE MERCURY NEWS
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