USCIS urged to approve foreign investment in Aemetis project

By Erin Voegele | September 03, 2019

A federal lawmaker from California is slamming the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service for its mishandling of an application submitted by Aemetis Inc. regarding foreign investment for its proposed Riverbank cellulosic ethanol project.

Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., issued a statement Aug. 29 criticizing the USCIS for its incompetence in handling Aemetis’s application for its Riverside project, which is expected to bring 2,000 jobs to its local community. According to Harder, Aemetis is planning to open the Riverbank biorefinery but is reliant on foreign investments to afford initial construction. USCIS is required to approve such applications, but the agency appears to have lost paperwork and ultimately denied approval of the application without explanation. Harder has met with White House staff regarding the request and sought several updates from the agency, according to his office.

Aemetis requested a formal National Interest Expedite for its project in December 2018. In January, the company received a rejection notice which indicated the project would undergo a standard extended review. In April, Aemetis received a request for the original application, implying the paperwork had been lost by USCIS and no review had been conducted over the past five months. Aemetis filed another NIE request, but was denied a second time in June without explanation. In addition to apparently losing paperwork, Harder’s office said USCIS has failed to notify Aemetis of updates in a timely manner.

 “I don’t know what the heck is going on over at USCIS, but they need to get their act together—we’re talking about nearly 2,000 jobs in a place where we have an unemployment rate higher than the national average,” Harder said. “It’s unbelievable the runaround this company has gotten when they just want to create jobs that could only exist in the Central Valley. We should make it easier—not harder—for companies to create jobs here. This whole process is an example of the worst kind of red tape in government. ”

“The Aemetis project at the Riverbank Industrial Park converts a former Army ammunition production facility into a renewable energy plant to process waste orchard and forest wood into low carbon biofuels,” said Eric McAfee, chairman and CEO, Aemetis in a statement issued by Harder’s office. “The Aemetis project will bring more than 2,000 jobs to the Central Valley and $200 million of new capital investment.  By avoiding burning of waste wood, the Aemetis plant will reduce air pollution in one of the worst air quality regions in the US, while providing high octane, high oxygen renewable fuels for the California market.”

Aemetis is financing the Riverbank project, in part, through the EB-5 program. Congress created the program in 1990 as a way to create new jobs by attracting investment from qualified foreign investors who were granted a path to U.S. citizenship through the investment of $500,000 in a qualified project. In January, Aemetis announced that the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service issued an I-924 exemplar approval for its $50 million EB-5 Phase II funding for the Riverbank project. With the I-924 exemplar approval of the Riverbank project by the USCIS, EB-5 investors receive faster processing of their EB-5 investor documents.

McAfee explains that an exemplar is an approval of the project’s job creation calculations and targeted employment area location. He said this exemplar approval was gained from the USCIS in 2018. In December 2018, he said Aemetis applied for a NIE and obtained a support letter from the USDA that described the importance of advanced, low-carbon biofuels to national energy independence and security under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act and certain executive orders issued by President Trump.

“An NIE approval allows foreign investors’ applications to be processed for approval in less than three months instead of up to three years,” McAfee said. Basically, the USCIS allocates staff to process the investor documents instead of putting investors into a pile along with all of the other Manhattan and Miami hotels that are not ‘strategic’ to the U.S.”

McAfee offered the example of a NIE that was issued by the USCIS for the Tryon Equestrian facility in North Carolina to allow $50 million of EB-5 funding to occur prior to an international horse competition last year. The competition was deemed to be in the national interest, McAfee said, because it was a prestigious event, justifying accelerated processing of investor applications.

“Aemetis has filed for NIE approval three times,” McAfee said. The first application was lost by USCIS, he said. Then the USCIS denied the first application but stated that the application was under extended review. A second revised application was denied at the discretion of USCIS management with no explanation, McAfee said. “A third application has been filed and is pending,” he continued. “Congressman Harder’s staff has been inquiring about any reason why the Aemetis NIE has not been approved, since the request fully complies with law. So far the USCIS had not provided a single reason for rejection other than the ‘discretion of management.’”

If that third application is denied, McAfee said Aemetis will continue to submit NIE requests along with updated information and support letters from federal agencies.

Without the USCIS’s NIE approval, McAfee said Aemetis will be required to obtain expensive short-term capital to develop the Riverbank facility instead of inexpensive and low-risk EB-5 capital. “After more than three years of work to raise the EB-5 funding, Aemetis must now negotiate and close expensive and restrictive funding—and we largely wasted three years of financing work due to USCIS arbitrarily deciding not to enforce federal standards regarding the requirements for NIE approval,” he said. “Considering the Tryon Equestrian approval, a failure by the USCIS to approve Aemetis for an NIE seems intentional and a targeted rejection of a biofuels industry project.” McAfee noted the USDA signed and issued a $125 million conditional loan guarantee in early 2019 for the project, so the quality of the Riverbank project is not in question.