At events in China on Saturday and Sunday headlined by Nicole Kushner Meyer, the sister of senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, wealthy Chinese attendees were told they could obtain EB-5 investor visas to the U.S. if they invested at least $500,000 into one of the Kushner family’s development projects. Washington Post journalists attended the Saturday presentation at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Beijing, where they watched Meyer — who was promoted as Jared’s sister in advertising for the event — and other representatives of the family’s business, Kushner Companies, try to convince a ballroom full of Chinese investors to help finance the family’s luxury apartment-building project in New Jersey, including selling them on the idea that the investment would enable them to gain visas to immigrate to the U.S. The brochure for the event even included the tag line, “Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States,” and investors were urged to “invest early” so they could “invest under the old rules,” suggesting that changes to the visa program could be coming under the Trump administration.
The Kushner family’s status as a “star” real-estate family (or “celebrity developers”) in the U.S. was also cited in promotional materials for the event, which was hosted by a China-based immigration agency, Qiaowai, which helps U.S. companies hook up with wealthy Chinese investors. Such events are not uncommon in China, where the EB-5 visa is very popular among the country’s wealthy citizens.
Meyer, the headliner, told the potential investors that the project “means a lot to me and my entire family,” mentioning her brother’s time at the helm of the company, according to the New York Times. Jared Kushner, who is also President Trump’s son-in-law, ran Kushner Companies until January when he left to join the Trump administration. In his role at the White House, Kushner has, among other things, become a top adviser to the president on matters related to China.
The investment opportunity being promoted in China was the Kushner 1 project in Jersey City, also known as One Journal Square, a luxury apartment complex being developed by Kushner Companies and KABR Group. The companies are looking to attract $150 million in financing from 300 EB-5 investors for the project. Construction on the 1,476-apartment complex, which is slated to include a medical center for its residents’ pets, is set to begin next year.
Event organizers, likely realizing their mistake in allowing reporters to attend the Saturday event, ultimately tried to stop the Post journalists from reporting on the presentation, telling them that their presence threatened the “stability” of the event. They also tried to block reporters’ access to attendees and at one point even grabbed a reporter’s phone and backpack. A PR person at the event apparently flat-out said “this is not the story that we want” when asked to explain why they didn’t want reporters there, and journalists were subsequently banned from attending a similar (and similarly publicly advertised) event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Shanghai on Sunday, where Meyer was also the headliner, according to Reuters. Official requests by the Post, Times, and Associated Press for comments on the events from Kushner Companies, the White House, and Qiaowai went unanswered.
Anecdotally, in exchanges with reporters, attendees of both the Saturday and Sunday events seemed to say that the Kushner family’s connections to President Trump made the project more appealing to them.
EB-5 visas are a widely criticized class of U.S. visa in which a wealthy foreigner with no special skills can effectively buy expedited legal immigration to the U.S. in exchange for an investment of $500,000 or more in the U.S. Applicants still have to pass background checks, but do not face the same proof of education and work qualifications as other immigrants, and EB-5 visa holders are given conditional status to live and work in the U.S. for the first two years, after which they can apply for permanent residency. The EB-5 program has been particularly popular among wealthy Chinese investors looking to move their families and money out of the country. The EB-5 is popularly referred to as the “golden visa” in China, and an estimated 80 percent of the EB-5 visas issued over the past few years have gone to Chinese citizens.
The program began, in theory, as a way to encourage foreign investors to help create jobs and assist poor areas in the U.S. without incurring cost to American taxpayers, but it has become very controversial in recent years. A 2015 Government Accountability Office report on the program was pretty damning, noting the that the program came with “unique fraud risks” related to counterfeit documentation and “uncertainties in verifying that the funds invested were obtained lawfully and various investment-related schemes to defraud investors.” Furthermore, as the Post report notes, “in recent years, many real estate developers have used the program as a source of cheap financing by using foreign investors, especially from China, for flashy projects in Manhattan and other city centers.” The GAO report adds that USCIS officials “continually identify new fraud schemes” involving the program, and the Chinese government isn’t much of a fan, either, because investors apparently illegally move their money out of China using the program as well. The program has also faced additional recent criticism from members of Congress and the Department of Homeland Security.
There has been a surge of interest in the EB-5 program since President Trump’s election because many wealthy foreigners anticipate that the program will eventually be targeted as part of the Trump administration’s general crackdown on immigration to the U.S. — and again, that was also implied in promotional materials for the Kushner Companies’ investor-recruiting events in China.
Jared Kushner, in a financial disclosure form he was required to submit earlier this year as a member of the Trump administration, reported that he had divested himself from the Kushner 1 project being promoted at the events, but that he had already made between $1 million and $5 million in income from the project up to that point. However, the Times points out that the form “shows he was a manager or president at six entities associated with the Jersey City project until January” and while he did report divesting from K One Journal Square LLC, it’s still “unclear what happened with the other entities.” A lawyer advising Kushner told the Times and the AP that Kushner sold his interests in the project to a family trust that he is not a beneficiary of, per the Office of Government Ethics’ suggestion. However, Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, still remain the beneficiaries of a series of trusts with stakes in Kushner Companies and other investments likely worth $600 million or more, according to White House ethics filings reviewed by the Times.
Kushner is also no stranger to EB-5 visas, as he reportedly raised $50 million in loans using the program to help finance a Trump-branded 50-story apartment tower in Jersey City called Trump Bay Street. Kushner, who has done repeated business with Chinese firms, has become a primary adviser within the White House regarding matters related to the country. He has promised to recuse himself from any White House discussions on the future of the EB-5 program, but his family is clearly still looking to benefit from the program before any decisions are made by the Trump administration.
This is also not the first controversy involving Kushner Companies and China since Jared took on his multitasked role in the White House. The company’s recently abandoned effort to negotiate millions of dollars in equity for a Manhattan redevelopment project from China’s Anbang Insurance Group was widely criticized by American lawmakers and government ethics experts as a scenario in which China might be trying to gain favorable treatment from the Trump administration.
President Trump and his administration’s once-adversarial stances on China appear to have mellowed considerably in recent weeks.