Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was never a darling of President Donald Trump’s nationalist-populist base. But revelations that emerged over the weekend about his family business and his sister’s attempt to court foreign investors through a fraud-plagued visa program—could move that reputation from bad to worse.
On May 6, The New York Times reported that Kushner’s sister, Nicole Meyer, encouraged Chinese investors to invest in a family business endeavor—through a government program that would get them U.S. visas as a perk. The visas she discussed are available through the EB-5 visa program, where wealthy foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in the U.S. and create at least 10 full-time jobs for American workers, can get visas to live in the United States. These visas can put them on the path to getting lawful permanent residence here and ultimately U.S. citizenship, if they choose.
At the White House press briefing on May 8, press secretary Sean Spicer said Kushner didn’t have anything to do with the EB-5 pitch. But the immigration restrictionists who helped launch Trump’s campaign aren’t buying it, and told The Daily Beast they hope the embarrassment will galvanize forces in the White House pushing for tougher visa laws.
Critics of the EB-5 program—and they’re in both parties—say it essentially puts American citizenship up for sale. Chuck Grassley, who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, has long criticized the program, which is rife with high-profile fraud and scandal, as CNBC has detailed. He and his Democratic counterpart there, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, introduced a bill earlier this year to end it. But American businesses courting foreign investment love EB-5 visas—including the Kushner family business.
“It shows a lack of self respect as a nation that we’re willing to sell visas like this,” said Dan Stein, who heads the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group which pushes for restrictions on legal immigration.
“The fact that Kushner’s firm uses EB-5 as an inducement potentially creates a cloud over the administration if it doesn’t aggressively move to repair or scrap EB-5 over the next four years,” he told The Daily Beast.
Stein added that he isn’t concerned Kushner will push Trump to change his stance on immigration.
“Trump wants to get reelected,” Stein said. “Jared Kushner didn’t run the campaign, and Jared Kushner’s not likely to have a really strong, sensitive ear to the component of Trump’s base that elected him. Trump obviously takes that into account.”
Trump signed a government funding bill on May 5 that keeps the EB-5 program up and running. But the immigration hawks who comprise his base say they hope he will eventually roll it back or eliminate it.
And Mark Krikorian, who heads the influential Center for Immigration Studies—also a restrictionist group—said the news only heightens immigration hawks’ distaste for Kushner.
“It hardens the existing perception of Kushner as a New York liberal Democrat with the immigration views of a New York liberal Democrat,” said Krikorian, who doesn’t hesitate to criticize Trump when he believes he’s tacking to the center on immigration. “I don’t think this told us anything new about Jared Kushner, but it reinforces the concerns a lot of people already have.”
And Krikorian noted that the Kushner family’s fondness for EB-5 visas predates Jared’s move to the White House.
“The family business, which he was head of until recently, has made extensive use of the visas-for-sale program,” he said. “This isn’t some new initiative that started only after Kushner handed the reins over. They’ve been using the EB-5 monies for a while now.”
Krikorian added that he hopes the news will give energy to efforts to end the EB-5 program.
“It’s going to make it harder to defend against efforts at reform,” he said. “Schumer is going to be in the position of defending a Trump family pet project.”
Breitbart has covered the EB-5 program extensively, calling it a “Citizenship-for-investment program”—which isn’t wrong. And the program has been a problem for powerful Democrats, including Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton confidante Terry McAuliffe. A 2015 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general criticized an official there for appearing to be acting from political motives when he helped one of McAuliffe’s Chinese investors navigate the program. And former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid drew criticism when ABC broke the news that his office pushed DHS to speed up the processing of EB-5 visas for foreigners looking to invest in a Vegas hotel.
In February, the Justice Department announced that a Chicago hotel developer was sentenced to three years in prison for trying to swindle investors out of millions of dollars in exchange for helping them get EB-5 visas.
So Kushner’s family ties to the program won’t do anything to bolster his conservative bona fides—bona fides that are marginal at best.
“EB-5 is for the cognoscenti,” said Stein. “This isn’t Main Street public policy.”