President Joe Biden’s nominee for immigration enforcement chief took a paid trip in 2015 to China funded by an advocacy group for a visa program that allows wealthy foreigners to obtain U.S. visas in exchange for million-dollar investments in domestic projects, according to Texas state ethics records reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon.
Ed Gonzalez, who has served as the sheriff of Harris County, Texas, since 2017, was nominated for director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement last month. But his financial ties to advocates for the EB-5 visa program are drawing concerns from critics who call it a magnet for pay-to-play, fraud, and even terrorist activity.
"This is a great example of why EB-5 is hopelessly flawed. The program attracts lobbyists, big corporations, and high-dollar donations to politicians who support it," said Dale L. Wilcox, executive director and general counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a group that advocates for increased border security and restrictions on illegal immigration. "It is everything ordinary Americans hate about the Washington swamp. Congress should probe this matter in great detail at [Gonzalez’s] confirmation hearing."
The ties could complicate Gonzalez's confirmation hearing at a time when Biden is facing scrutiny over the border crisis and allegations that Department of Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas mishandled the EB-5 program while serving in the Obama administration. Republicans have raised additional concerns about Gonzalez's positions on immigration and law enforcement, including his decision to end a partnership between his sheriff's office and ICE, and his court request to release over 1,000 inmates, many of them violent felons, from his county jail earlier this year.
In 2015, Gonzalez participated in a "business development mission to China to encourage investment in" Houston, where he served as a city councilman and mayor pro tempore at the time. The $4,575 trip was paid for by an organization called "Houston EB5," according to Gonzalez’s 2016 financial disclosure filing to the Texas Ethics Commission.
According to its website, Houston EB5 is a subsidiary of the Houston-based real estate investment firm DC Partners. The group "was founded in 2010 to help international investors gain permanent United States residency in return for making a qualified real estate investment."
"Throughout the course of EB-5 application process, the Houston EB5 team of professionals will work diligently to provide assistance to investors at various stages," said the Houston EB5 website.
Houston EB5 has partnerships with Chinese investors, including Tianqing Real Estate Development—the U.S. arm of a China-based development firm—to build residential and mixed-use high-rises in Houston, according to news reports.
According to China Daily, the projects were set to "change the city's skyline" and were partially financed through the EB-5 program.
Gonzalez's office said it was unable to comment on the trip because it was not related to county sheriff matters. "The event you’re asking about happened in 2015, two years before Sheriff Gonzalez took office," said a spokesman. Houston EB5 did not respond to a request for comment.
Several of Gonzalez’s top donors were also advocates for the EB-5 program, according to his 2016 campaign finance records. One of his largest individual contributors, who gave $19,000 to his sheriff bid, is the CEO of St. Christopher Holdings, a company that is a major investor in both Houston EB5 and its parent company DC Partners. Gonzalez also received $1,000 from a DC Partners executive and $1,500 from an executive at Tianqing Real Estate Development.
Under the EB-5 program, foreign investors can receive expedited green cards in exchange for investing at least $900,000 in certain U.S. businesses, often real estate projects. But critics in both parties have called for an overhaul of the program, which they say allows wealthy foreigners to buy green cards and attracts fraud.
In 2013, ICE’s investigative arm reportedly found indicators that Iranian operatives were using the program to "facilitate terrorism" as part of "an illicit procurement network that exports items to Iran." The program is also at the center of a $250 million fraud case in Vermont and a $110 million scam in California.
Mayorkas, who oversaw EB-5 visas under the Obama administration, faced questions about the program during his confirmation hearings earlier this year.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Iowa Republican senator Chuck Grassley—a longtime critic of the EB-5—grilled Mayorkas over a 2015 inspector general report that accused him of using the program inappropriately to grant favors and special access to Democratic donors.
Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was approached by over a dozen whistleblowers who alleged Mayorkas intervened in the visa process "at the request of well-connected Democratic politicians and other politically connected stakeholders."
Gonzalez’s hearing is expected to take place in front of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. He could also face written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Department of Homeland Security.