How the U.S. Sells Citizenship

Immigration in Tacoma has two sides: wealth and the lack thereof. News outlets tell stories of middle or low income Mexican and South American immigrants with families and children being detained, but fail to tell the story of those, mostly Chinese, who buy their way into America through the federal EB-5 program.

The City of Tacoma recently announced a two-tower 38-story development deal with a Chinese firm funded by EB-5 investors. These investors will provide $1 million each in capitol as part of the EB-5 program and in return will receive citizenship, along with their spouses and children under 21.

There are no educational, criminal, financial, employment, or local residency standards, just the ability to invest a million dollars. The investment results in a profit for the investor, and if for any reason citizenship is denied, there is the opportunity for a refund.

According to the World Trade Center Tacoma website, in June they are hosting the “PNW-China Trade and Investment Summit.” With a focus on the EB-5 program, they “and their affiliates from the thriving hub of the Pearl River Delta region in China will be bringing trade and investment delegations to Tacoma for this seminar and matchmaking event.”

Billing it as “Your opportunity to make contacts and sign contracts with Chinese partners without having to travel to China!” The city of Tacoma is quietly promoting the Federal EB-5 immigration program.

While some buy their way into citizenship, however, others struggle.

The Northwest Detention Center, operated by the for-profit GEO Group, is located off Portland Avenue in Tacoma. It houses mostly Mexican and South American immigrants, many of whom have lived, worked, and supported families in the state for decades.

The conditions there are at the center of a hunger strike and a contentious federal court case over the treatment of detainees. The detention center uses detainees as low wage, cost saving essential labor; many consider this a denial of human rights.

A recent New York Times article profiled Pedro Guzman, who was forced by a detention center to work making $1 an hour in the kitchens. He said that he had to work “running a fever, that guards threatened him with solitary confinement if he was late.” Mr. Guzman was granted permanent residency after a clerical error was discovered to be the cause of his revoked visa.

In Tacoma, a federal lawsuit is the result of accusations that “immigration authorities… [put] detainees in solitary confinement after they staged a work stoppage and hunger strike.”

In an interview with the weekly publication The Stranger U.S. Representative Adam Smith, whose district includes the detention center, described conditions after a tour as “shocking” and “very very tough.” He goes on to agree with the strikers’ demands regarding the exorbitant telephone and commissary costs and the subpar food provided by the GEO Group: “I can imagine that the less they pay for the food, the more money they make.” Echoing the concerns of many, he says, “These people are being ripped apart from their families. Is that making our community a better place? I don’t think so.”

About half of detainees nationwide are granted permission to stay in the U.S., highlighting a system that damages families with long term unnecessary separations.

Some question the fairness of the EB-5 program.

In The News Tribune, John D. Keliher had this to say: “So, while exporting undocumented aliens – whose chief crime is that they sought a better life for their families but are too poor to build a facility of similar magnitude to that of foreign investors – we are awarding a path to citizenship to persons who are in search of a safe haven for their wealth.”

While the wealthy are courted in exchange for citizenship, roughly 80-90 percent of detainees navigate Immigration Court with no legal counsel because they cannot afford it.

Former governor Christine Gregoire endorses EB-5 saying, “Here in Washington, we are committed to nurturing new businesses and sustaining established ones through international investment…  through the EB-5 visa program… and the establishment of ‘Regional Centers’ across the state.”

However, another kind of “regional center,” the Detention Center, capitalizes on a flawed immigration program by exploiting detainees and arguably violating their human rights. The divided immigration policies are clearly reflected in treatment based on wealth.

Photo courtesy of Orlando Arenas/#NOT1MORE. Rosaly, 12, who fights for the release of her mother, wakes up every morning with the image of her mom being taken away in handcuffs. Bertha has been detained, far from her family and community, for six months in the same detention center where two people committed suicide less than a month ago.

Photo courtesy of Orlando Arenas/#NOT1MORE. Rosaly, 12, who fights for the release of her mother, wakes up every morning with the image of
her mom being taken away in handcuffs. Bertha has been detained, far from her family and community, for six months in the same detention center where two people committed suicide less than a month ago.

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