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Most South Africans with an eye to working in the United States will be aware of the Green Card lottery – a process to obtain a highly-prized document that grants the holder immigration benefits in the US, including permission to live and work there. The problem is that last year a record 15 million people around the world entered the green card lottery, looking for the quick entry path to permanent residence in the US, and there are only 50,000 cards available. It’s all done on the luck of the draw – qualifications and work experience mean nothing. If your name comes out of the hat, you’re in (subject of course to security background checks). The odds are stacked against you. But there is another way of getting a green card. The US government encourages private foreign investors to put up $500,000 in businesses or real estate projects, and rewards them and their immediate families with green cards for doing so. It’s called the EB-5 visa programme and it’s an initiative administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services that is becoming more and more popular among high net worth earners in South Africa. But where to invest the required half a million dollars? A private equity firm, LCR Capital, has the answers. David O’Sullivan spoke to co-founder Rogelio Caceres.
It’s a very interesting offer here, it’s the launch of the new Surf Club Four Seasons Hotel Fund, and it’s really tailored towards high net worth earners in South Africa seeking to acquire Green Cards. Draw the link for me between acquiring a Green card for the ability to work in the United States and investing in a fund attached to a hotel.
Fantastic, well, it’s all related to the programme called the EB-5 Investment Visa Programme. It’s a federal immigration investment programme that’s been around since 1990. Since then hundreds of thousands of investors from all over the world have obtained US Green Cards and residency by deploying their capital into new American businesses that create American jobs. LCR Capital Partners Firm that I cofounded helps international investors, including South Africans with key residency by selecting proven brands like the Four Seasons brand and structuring investments that allow them to obtain Green Cards within about 18 months of their investment by deploying in new projects like the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences here in Miami Beach.
So this is for wealthy South Africans, how much is the minimum investment required to qualify?
The investment amount is a 500 000 US Dollar investment. That investment is placed into the fund, we manage the fund as general partner, and as this capital is raised, we use it to replace the existing capital that was used to build and construct the Four Seasons Hotel. The Four Seasons Hotel, in fact, was started in 2014 under construction and is now about to open later in March for the public. As soon as the hotel opens, the job creation requirements for all of our investors will happen next. It’s quite an attractive investment opportunity to obtain a Green Card and get the capital back at the end of the five-year loan period, so it’s not a fund cost, it’s rather an investment that has a high likelihood of returning that capital in full within five years.
I do want to talk a little bit more about the hotel itself, but let’s just explore, for people who might not be familiar with this idea of an American Green Card, what does that qualify a South African to do in the United States, should they get one?
The programme is one of the best, most transparent programmes out there. Fortune Magazine, last May, called it “The quickest way to get a Green Card” and Forbes Magazine has called it, “The most popular residency programme in the world”. It has pull rate of north of 90 percent and the reason why is that investors know, going in, what those five key requirements are, pretty different than the Green Card Lottery, which is not based on skill or anything else, but pure chance. It now has less than a one percent likelihood of success. So those five requirements are $500 000 upfront investment, we perform a standard background check on the investor to make sure that they don’t have a criminal background, the source of funds must be of legal origin.
In South Africa, as you know to repatriate any capital overseas, there are some strict requirements that are very similar the ones that the USCIS government has and it must be a new American business that has a likelihood of creating at least ten or more American jobs per investor and it can’t be in government bond. This is not a purchasing a Green Card programme, but there are other countries where you can simply exchange capital for a passport. Here there’s a public policy attachment, a goal very much attached the programme and that is that it must create American jobs and so LCR capital partners is very stringent on only allowing South Africans that meet those requirements, but the thing is, that those requirements are very transparent and clear.
Once we review those, accept the capital, that capital is then held in Escrow, while the government reviews the application. Once they issue a form that allows us to verify that that form has been reviewed, then we put the capital to work to help new American businesses create those jobs and within 18 months or so, of the application, South Africans and any other country residents get their conditional Green Cards, allowing them to move to the United States, work anywhere in the country for any employer, start their own businesses and importantly, for students that are here pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees, allows them very significant benefits as related to acceptance rate to community universities, ability to access to scholarships.
Most importantly, when they graduate, they’re able to work for whomever they’d like and not be limited to other more restricted visas like the H-1B. So all in all it’s a very popular programme here in the United States, Republicans and Democrats support it.
Has it been popular amongst South Africans?
You know, that’s one of the great opportunities that we see at our firm and others, is to help create some awareness and educate the public around this proven programme. Right now the only real country that’s taken advantage of it are the Chinese and so our latest figures show from the US State Department, that over 8000 of these visas were issued to Chinese citizens last year compared to just 30 out of South Africa and that clearly is only due to the fact that’s it’s very poorly understood, so we have taken the leadership in starting our own presence in the country, we have an office in Cape Town.
We’ve been to the country and we’ll be going back in early March, hosting a series of seminars, both in Johannesburg on March the 7th and in Cape Town on March 9th, so we’d be happy to meet with the qualified investors and let them know more about the programme and answer their questions. We’ll be doing so in conjunction with Grant Thornton at their local offices here in each city as well as Fragomen, the world’s largest business immigration firm. We’re quite committed to the market and there is no reason why South Africans shouldn’t take advantage of this potential residency programme, either as a residency safety valve, or as a pathway to the opportunity to work and create businesses here in the United States, so we’re quite enthusiastic about the opportunity to South Africa.
I do see the benefit for the United States, I see the job creation, what is the return on investment for a South African? Obviously the Green Card is a great attraction, are there financial returns on investment as well?
There are, these are true investments. We tend to take a much more conservative path in most. Our clients have told us repeatedly that their three objectives are to always focus on high job generating projects, so we only focus on the hospitality industry as well as the restaurant franchise industry. To protect their capital as safe as possible into proven brands, not new projects that might not have a track record of success. We focus on those investments and structure them only as loans with five-year terms and the interest in, number three, in getting their capital back. The minimum holding period is around five years, so we’ve structured all of our investments to have a high likelihood of success in delivering that capital back after five years through both the structure and the way that these investments are elaborated.
The return on investment is, as you mentioned, David, the Green Card for the investor, his spouse, her spouse and any children up to the age of 21, all obtain Green Cards through this programme at no additional cost beyond the $500 000. So if you can stomach to have your capital in the United States in a low return environment (typically less than one percent per year) and get those Green Cards within 18 months and all the benefits that are associated with that and get your money back in full after five years, most investors see that as a great trade between their capital and all the benefits that the Green Card provides in itself to the family.
Let’s talk about the Surf Club Four Seasons Hotel. You said it has been refurbished. It seems to have quite a history, quite a legacy. It was, in its heyday frequented by the likes of Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, even Winston Churchill, so it sounds like a bit of a grand old lady in Miami.
It has. It has this tremendous historic value to the city and the region. We started back in the late 1920’s in response to prohibition as a watering hole for America’s elites and members and guests have included folks like Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and Winston Churchill. It now has been refurbished, the Four Seasons Hotel and Condos have been incorporated around the property and it has been designed by one of the world’s most famous architects Richard Meier, prize-winning architect, who not only designed the refurbishment, but also purchased a condominium there, so we’re quite excited for the opening. It’s 80 percent sold out from the residents side and shortly will be opened to the public so for ultimate joy.
The developers are seeking to raise $100m. How many foreign investors are they looking at targeting here?
The first primary raise is for up to $100m, that’s up to 200 investors. We’ve allocated a 15 country slot for South Africa. This is quite a popular project, we’re distributing budgets in South Africa, in Brazil, in India, in China, and elsewhere, but we’ve been shooting for 15 South Africans. I think that is a very achievable goal and we aim to conclude the offering by the end of this year. Importantly, the EB-5 Programme itself is up for renewal by the end of April and there have been significant discussions in Washington about potentially raising the minimum investment amount.
We’ve spent $500,000 since the beginning of the programme back in 1990 and when American Politicians compare that invested amount to that of the United Kingdom, for example, their tier one investor programme is at £2m, so a significant amount. In fact, other countries like Malta, Cyprus, Portugal, that have invested in us, are higher than the US’s, so by all likelihood, that investment will move to $800,000 or so after April of this year. So most South Africans who are interested in learning more about it, are getting comfortable with the project they select (hopefully that’s ours) and aiming to make their investments by the end of April, which is perfectly manageable given the time processing requirements that we typically have to have which are around 30 days.
I can see why Donald Trump would be interested in pursuing this kind of programme. It’s property development, it’s job creation. However, with his recent executive orders suspending travel from certain countries, is there any grey area regarding the validity of the Green Cards?
Yes, well certainly you have a varied view on immigration, some that we support, some that we have some issues with, but universally, the EB-5 Programme is the “Right type of immigration” that his administration supports. As you’ve noted, it brings forward direct investment into the United States. Last year over 40 000 investors, David, from all over the world, again mainly from China, with $7bn of capital, came into the country through this programme to promote job creation. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are being built and at no cost to the taxpayer. The taxpayer is not inconvenienced whatsoever, it’s just income, for and direct that comes into the country to create American jobs. So, there has been no discussion whatsoever on any limitations to the programme.
In fact, we’re hoping that it’s strengthened under the new administration, and it’s expanded, including more visas, it’s the “Right type of immigration” for this country, it creates American jobs, it brings forward direct investment and talented entrepreneurs and students from South Africa, from India, and from many other countries in the world that are looking for a piece of the American Dream. Most importantly, David, as other avenues of immigration are potentially curtailed, whether it’s family-sponsored immigration, or whether it’s employer-sponsored immigration through the H-1B Programme, EB-5 now remains the surest and fastest path to a Green Card we fully support the strengthening and the extension of the programme over and beyond April.
Let’s confirm, Rogelio, are you and the team from LCR Capital, are going to be in South Africa, you’re hosting two EB-5 seminars. Give us those details again.
Yes, they’ll be held at the offices of Grant Thornton, coming up on Tuesday March 7th in Joburg, starting around 09:00am. We’ll be holding a series of one-on-one consultations afterwards, so folks can make that time, we’re happy to accommodate them around those days, the 7th, the 8th, then in Joburg. The other seminar will be held at Grant Thornton’s offices on Thursday March 9th at 09:00am here in Cape Town and again we’ll have one-on-one sessions for those who can’t make it on the 9th and the 10th, so quite a busy agenda, lots of folks are already interested. We will have some existing investors also at these events to showcase why they chose the EB-5 route, why they chose LCR and to provide their fellow South Africans with additional facts on this decision which is quite an exciting one for many.
Is there a website people can go to get more information or if people want to find out more about LCR Capital? What about if people want to find out more about LCR Capital?
Yes, we’ve just updated our website, so our new address is www.lcrcapital.co.za, it’s quite comprehensive, it speaks to the programme requirements timewise, it speaks more about our two projects, our background as investors, it has dates on registration for the seminars, for our one-on-one events. Please look at our site and we’ll be delighted to meet with you before then through our local partners that are already there on the ground meeting with investors every week, or personally I’d love to meet folks when I’m not there next time here coming up in a couple of weeks, especially next week.