NativeAmericans Hope to Revitalize Reservation with EB5 Immigrant Investor Funds

Throughout the immigrant community, achieving the so-called American dream remains the ultimate goal of many immigrants who long to live and work in the United States. From its very inception, our nation has been molded by countless generations of talented immigrants who came here to build a better life and achieve success and prosperity through hard work and perseverance. The current generation of immigrants continues to aspire to this ideal as they help to propel the United States into the global economy of the 21st century. However, the American dream has eluded one major demographic in the United States – NativeAmericans.

This calls to mind a scene from Smoke Signals, the award-winning 1998 film, from director Chris Eyre and writer Sherman Alexie. In this NativeAmerican coming-of-age story, Velma and Lucy are driving Thomas Builds-a-Fire and Victor Joseph to the bus station.

“You guys got your passports?” Velma asks.

“Passports?” asks Thomas Builds-the-Fire.

“Yeah, you’re leavin’ the rez [reservation] and goin’ into a whole different country, cousin.”

“But… but, it’s the United States,” laughs Thomas.

“Damn right it is!” responds Lucy. “That’s as foreign as it gets. Hope you two have your vaccinations.”

Despite this humorous treatment of the subject, NativeAmericans are clearly not immigrants to the U.S., yet they certainly have been treated as outsiders since they first encountered European settlers. Beginning in the 1400’s and continuing on for centuries, indigenous North American tribes clashed with arriving Europeans, and as a result suffered greatly due to violence and disease, followed by broken promises from the American government. Tensions from that era linger today, as current generations of NativeAmericans frequently live in semi-autonomous territories, or reservations, that are considered separate from the U.S. government and often struggle economically.

One NativeAmerican community is trying to change its economic plight with funds that will simultaneously help bring foreign national investors to the United States. The Navajo Nation, a NativeAmerican owned territory covering more than 27,000 miles over three states in the southeast, is seeking foreign investments via the employment-based, fifth preference (EB5) immigrant investor program to help revitalize its community. The EB5 program allows a foreign national to obtain permanent residency (commonly known as a “green card”) by investing at least $1 million in a U.S. business (or $500,000, if the business is located in a rural area or area with high unemployment) that leads to the creation of at least ten fulltime jobs for U.S. workers. While this program has been operating for decades, it was not until President Obama’s first term in office that NativeAmerican territories were made eligible to participate. The Navajo Nation is the first, and currently the only, reservation to begin utilizing the program. [See Navajo Nation Officials Hope To Lure Foreign Investments, by James Fenton, The Daily Times, 8.Mar.2015.]

In a press release, Navajo Nation president Ben Shelley sounded hopeful about the possibility of an economic upswing due to foreign investors. “It is time we use the EB5 designation to create jobs and accelerate our tribal economy from outside investors,” Shelley said. “We need to find new pathways like this EB5 initiative to grow business on the Nation.” Shelley’s enthusiasm is well founded, considering the traditionally high poverty rate of NativeAmerican reservations. A recent study by the Pew Research Center estimated that one in four NativeAmericans is living in poverty, and unemployment rates on some reservations has been as high as 85 percent. Economists cite a lack of investment opportunities as a major factor in the economic blight of Native American reservations, as outsiders are often reluctant to start and grow businesses in these reservations that have their own laws and court systems. But Navajo Nation officials are convinced that foreign investors will now be eager to build their businesses in NativeAmerican territories with the promise of a green card for their efforts. And not a moment too soon. Albert Damon, executive director for the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development, put it bluntly in a recent interview with The Daily Times. “Without (the EB5 program,) our $120 million credit rating wouldn’t make it. We’ve had to look into other areas to leverage money. We want to make it easier for non-Navajos to grow business on tribal land.” [See One in Four Native Americans and Alaska Natives are Living in Poverty, by Jens Manuel Krogstad, Pew Research Center, 13.Jun.2014.]

So far, the program has garnered promising results. Damon points out that in the last year, a water bottling company and a resort hotel chain took steps toward developing new facilities on Navajo Nation land through foreign investment. He is hoping that this year will result in even more opportunities and says, the “Navajo Nation is open for business. We play by the rules just like everybody else.” Damon’s sentiments echo the optimism of a community that, for generations, has been resigned to hardship and poverty. Now, with the help of talented immigrant investors who can invigorate their local economy and in turn earn permanent residency in the United States, NativeAmericans living on tribal reservations may finally achieve economic stability. Together, immigrants and NativeAmericans can work to achieve success and prosperity – a shining testament to the American dream and how it lives on.


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