UBLY, Mich. — Sitting around the long, wooden kitchen table in their farmhouse on a Sunday afternoon, Rene and Judith Dekker were tired-eyed from rising before dawn to tend to their 1,200 dairy cows.
Their two older kids were packing up for the drive back to college: Bart wanted to know whether Mom had ironed his dress shirt, while Susanne gently scooped her live goldfish into a plastic bag. Mathias, 16, had algebra homework, and Benny the chocolate Lab bounced around outside.
They look like any other family here in rural Michigan, but they are Dutch citizens. And they are faces of a fast-growing U.S. visa program, in which foreigners can gain permanent residence by investing $500,000 in a U.S. project that creates at least 10 jobs.
Through the program, known as EB-5, the Dekkers have a half-million dollar stake in the Marriott Marquis Hotel rising in the District of Columbia next to the Washington Convention Center.
In return for their investment — and filing a foot-high stack of documents that includes bank and tax records, criminal background checks and even syphilis tests — they got five green cards in November.
The cards give them temporary residency that will become permanent in two years — so long as the Marriott project succeeds.
The Dekkers need it to keep their family together. Although they have lived on their farm off a country lane called Bad Axe Road since 2000, they had temporary visas that required their children to leave the country upon turning 21. Investing in the Marriott was their way to prevent that.
"We love our life here," said Judith Dekker, 48. "We have invested so much money because we want to live here in Michigan. And we don't want to split up our family."
The EB-5 program is booming in popularity, driven largely by a struggling U.S. economy in which developers are searching for new sources of capital. It is also fueled by rising demand from foreigners looking for access to U.S. schools, safe investment in U.S. projects and — in the case of China, where most of the investors are from — greater freedom.
The program has broad bipartisan support in Congress, and key senators who are negotiating an overhaul of the immigration system have said they are leaning toward expanding visa programs that provide an immediate boost to the economy.
But others argue that the EB-5 program amounts to buying citizenship, and that it unfairly allows wealthy foreigners to cut the visa line ahead of others who have waited for years.
Since the EB-5 program began in 1992, more than 29,000 people have received visas, foreigners have invested more than $6.8 billion and 50,000 American jobs have been created, U.S. officials said.
It also provides cheap financing for U.S. developers. EB-5 investors are offered very small returns on their investment - usually about 1 to 3 percent - rather than the much higher rates developers would have to pay for traditional financing.