McClellan Air Force Base lost 12,000 jobs when it closed in 2001 along with 29 other California military bases.
Today 15,000 people work at McClellan Business Park, a residential and industrial development in Sacramento County, thanks partly to $18 million invested by 36 immigrants looking for a quick path to U.S. residency. The investors -- from China, Mexico and an array of other countries -- have applied for EB5 visas, sometimes called "millionaire visas."
The EB5 program grants green cards of permanent residency to immigrants who invest $500,000 or more in enterprises that save or create at least 10 full-time jobs for at least two years.
As the national debate intensifies over immigration costs, officials tout the program as a success story through which wealthier immigrants give the U.S. economy a much-needed shot in the arm. Last year, the number of foreign investors who applied to the program nationwide nearly doubled from 1,022 to almost 2,000.
"This is something really lacking in our economy," said Frank Myers, McClellan senior vice president. "We're a net exporter, and getting investment back into our country and creating jobs is huge."
The U.S. government is high on EB5 as a way to jump-start depressed areas. In the last four years, about 4,000 immigrants have invested $2 billion in the United States, resulting in about 40,000 jobs.
More than 970 of those immigrants are now permanent residents, which means their investments produced sustainable jobs. Counting family members, more than 8,200 people have obtained green cards through the EB5 program since its 1991 launch, said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Any immigrants without a criminal record can apply, as long as they make a $1 million investment -- or $500,000 in areas where unemployment is 150 percent of the national average. McClellan, a community with its own ZIP code, is one of those areas.
Some foreign investors start small businesses, opening restaurants, motels or farms, to meet the EB5 requirements. Most go through regional centers: public or private agencies approved by the federal government to recruit investors and organize them into investment groups.
The number of regional centers has grown from 25 in 2008 to more than 130 today. That's generally the safest route to a green card, said Robert Gaffney, a San Francisco attorney who has helped immigrants qualify.
Many investors are politically motivated applicants from South Korea and other nations who feel safer in the United States. Some are Taiwanese who fear a war with China over Taiwanese independence. One Russian businessman fled mobsters trying to extort money, Gaffney said.
The majority of applicants come from China. They include entrepreneurs and professionals who want their children to have access to U.S. schools -- or to stay in the United States after their student visas run out. Chinese have invested in almond orchards and vineyards in Fresno County.
Stephen Weststyn, a third-generation Dutch dairy farmer from Linden, has been approved to open the Northern California Regional Center to generate foreign investment in nine counties in the north state, including Sacramento and Yolo.
Weststyn, 23, said he's talked with investors from China, Brazil, India, South Korea and Norway about opening a dairy that would create 681 jobs.
"I think it's a win-win program," he said.
California Military Bases, the regional center that recruited investors to McClellan Business Park, has signed up more than 400 foreigners who have invested more than $212 million and helped create more than 6,000 jobs, founder Pat Hogan said.
"We reach out to foreign investors because not many Americans want to take the risk of investing in high-unemployment areas," Hogan said.
Foreign cash has helped install sewers and repair roads and buildings at McClellan, opening the door to new business. It also helped develop space for Action Fire, a fire-prevention firm with 30 employees, and N Solar, a subsidiary of a South Korean firm that will open in the next two months with several hundred employees.
If the investments fail to generate the promised jobs, the immigrants either must find another investment or leave the country.
The Americans who have benefited from the program include Dennis Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, 51, had been out of work 14 months before he found a job at McClellan Business Park. He now earns $19 an hour as a welder for Polar Service Centers, a tanker-truck company that ships chemicals, cement and other products.
"We're a Cinderella story," Rodriguez said.
Contact Stephen Magagnini at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.