MAINLAND nouveaux riches are becoming the unlikely source of a new influx of private investment into the United States. Hundreds of mainland businessmen and women have begun taking advantage of a little-known provision of US immigration law that grants green cards to investors bringing in at least US$500,000. Asian applicants - largely from the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea - make up more than 80 per cent of those applying for US residency under the investor visa programme. Congress introduced the scheme in 1990 to attract foreign investment into the country, even though opponents criticised it as selling off US visas cheaply. About 10,000 places were made available annually, but response has proved sluggish, with only about 10 per cent of the visas being taken up. Hong Kong businessmen, who were seen as a potential market for the visas due to July's handover fears, have in fact proved ambivalent, preferring to invest in the more traditional Hong Kong stamping grounds of Canada and Britain. As a result, only 82 of the investor visas went to Hong Kong applicants in 1995 and again in 1996. Immigration consultancies, seeing the problem as one of marketing, have begun aggressively targeting the mainland and Taiwan with ingenious programmes to attract the new money springing up in those economies. One firm, AIS - headquartered near Washington DC and boasting a Who's Who of high-profile directors - is offering not only to manage the green card application, but match the investors to US businesses and arrange loans to help them come up with the investment. They will also offer financial planning and tax advice. The US immigration authorities make issuance of the green card dependent on the creation of a certain amount of local jobs from the investors' cash - usually between five and 10. The process is easiest if the investor's cash is directed at one of the 20 or so specified low-income areas of the US. AIS is targeting the New Orleans area for a new batch of businesses it is setting up as vehicles for the Chinese investment. Previous joint venture businesses AIS has helped to match up with Chinese investors include restaurants, hotels, retirement homes and apparel manufacturing. The investors have to come up with an initial $135,000, and must have a net worth of at least $500,000. Under the scheme, the investors do not have to live in the US to obtain their green card, giving it an advantage over Canada for example, which requires investors to live half the year there to qualify for residency. 'It is surprising just how many people in China now qualify for the programme quite easily,' AIS vice-president, Andrew Palmer, said. 'They are the new wealthy entrepreneurs, and they are usually young. They are businessmen, doctors who own their own clinics, or maybe have just invested in the stock market and real estate. 'The US has always been the number one choice for emigrants from the PRC, but previously they were not aware of it [the investor visa].' The amount of mainland nationals gaining the visas is expected to have more than doubled last year and to rise about 50 per cent this year, from the 1996 figure of 96. In 1995, it stood at just 64. The company, which has helped more than 1,000 applicants get investor visas since 1991, is about to open an office in Guangzhou to boost its operations in the mainland. Another AIS executive, Gene McNary - previously the US Government's top immigration official - defended the programme against claims that it was wrong to sell visas. 'They are investing in our economy and serving the national interest,' he said. 'These are good people who blend into American culture.' The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington group that fights for tighter immigration controls, called the programme 'indefensible'. FAIR deputy director K. C. McAlpin said: 'People should not, by virtue of their wealth, be able to purchase entry into the US. It goes against the ideals that America stands for.'