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Svetlana Anikeeva was 15 in the early '90s when she visited America as an exchange student.
"And it was completely different place in every imaginable aspect," she recalls.
Anikeeva grew up in Vladivostok on the eastern edge of Russia, and studied abroad in Savannah, Ga., where the experience, she says, changed her life.
"The people were different. The culture was different. The weather, the food, the school. Everything was fascinating," she says. "I knew that I wanted to come here."
Today, Anikeeva is in the U.S. on a temporary visa and runs a successful luxury car exporting business with her husband.
To receive permanent U.S. green cards for herself and the entire family, she applied to the EB-5 visa program — a federal initiative targeted to foreigners who can invest at least $500,000 in an American-based business. If their money creates at least 10 jobs, then the person seeking entry receives a permanent green card.
While analysts expect President Obama to push ahead with plans to overhaul the U.S. immigration system this year, the administration has already demonstrated support for the EB-5 program. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will be opening a new office by summer to oversee the program and address the booming interest.
Anikeeva was one of 1,021 people who applied back in 2009, compared with the 6,106 who applied in 2012.
"It's a pretty rigorous selection process," she says.
The program drew Anikeeva to Seattle, where American Life Inc. built a hotel in the Pioneer Square neighborhood with EB-5 money. The company is pooling Anikeeva's $500,000 with other investments to develop the neighborhood and generate new jobs.
EB-5 money is a source of funding that more and more real estate development companies are relying on, says Henry Liebman, the president of American Life.
"Since 2008, the bust, it's even a more important source of capital, because at least in real estate there's some lending, but not near what it was," Liebman says. "So this is more important than it used to be."
Since it began in 1990, the EB-5 program is credited with creating nearly 50,000 jobs, and has poured more than $6 billion into the U.S. economy.
But its reputation isn't so grand within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as Jim Ziglar noticed when he served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George W. Bush.
"There's a general aversion to the idea that people can buy their way into legal status in the United States, particularly when INS is dealing with so many people that have other reasons for being here — family and refugees and asylum seekers," Ziglar says.
Fraud has also been an issue with the EB-5 program, as some companies promise to create jobs, but instead run off with the money.
Svetlana Anikeeva says she hopes to find out within the next six months if her permanent visa is approved. But for now, she's enjoying watching her 13-year-old daughter, Nina, soak up U.S. life.
"She's a sports person. She's in synchronized swimming," Anikeeva says.
Nina is about the same age as her mother was when she came here to study all those years ago.
"She's actually just been accepted to the gifted student program for summer in Princeton University," Anikeeva adds. "Which would be unbelievable for me, at the age of 13. I'm very proud of her."
For Anikeeva — and other "globally well-to-do" from China to India — an American education alone is worth the $500,000 price tag.
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