On New York's waterfront, the rebirth of the old Brooklyn Navy Yard has a novel financing scheme: green cards. Credit crunch be damned, trucks and Caterpillars zigzag across a once-thriving industrial park that fell to neglect in the last century. The revitalisation is in full swing, as witnessed by the solar- and wind-powered lampposts and the modern roads that end at the rusty bones of former shipbuilding warehouses. George Olsen looks on like a proud papa. He and his business partners are lending US$60 million at low interest to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation. 'That's EB-5 dollars at work,' says Olsen, nodding to workers who are digging a ditch outside Building 128, an aged steel hulk to be re-invented as a light manufacturing plant. EB-5 is the United States visa programme that provided the incentive for the mostly Chinese investors to wire the money. At its heart, it's a simple concept: pay US$500,000 and get permanent residency for the whole family. It's layered with contingencies, though. The investment must create at least 10 jobs in two years for the green card to become permanent. It must also be made in a rural or underemployed area, or else the cost of entry is doubled. Most investors choose to go through a government-approved 'regional centre', like the one Olsen helps run in New York City, to navigate the legal and financial nuances. Across the country these regional centres are a growing conduit for Chinese money. The amounts coming in through the visa programme are small. But regional centres are increasingly pooling the kind of cash that can fund big-budget projects like this one in New York, presenting both potential benefits and risks all round. 'If they do well with the investment, it's a good programme,' says Demetrios Papademetriou, head of the Washington think tank Migration Policy Institute, which has studied EB-5. 'If they do poorly with the investment, it's a bad programme.' The scheme dates back to 1990, modelled after similar arrangements in Australia and Canada. But it was brought to its knees after government allegations of widespread fraud in the late 1990s. Some of the resulting lawsuits still churn on. The programme was then overhauled in an attempt to streamline it and make it more respectable. And the recession has given it new life. In fiscal year 2009, immigration authorities issued 3,688 visas the Department of Homeland Security says, compared with 1,360 the year before. This year has already seen an even higher rate of applications, Citizenship and Immigration Services says. Numbers still fall far short of the 10,000 EB-5 visas available by law, and critics say more could be done to promote access to the scheme. For the long-time real estate developers who launched the New York City Regional Centre last autumn, the equation was simple. 'Something that's of significant size, like a US$90 million project - you can't just go to the market and ask for US$90 million,' said Gregg Hayden, who manages the centre's operations in China. The centre was surprised by the response from the mainland, he said. Within months of starting to sign up investors, it had the 120 investors it needed for its first project. About 85 per cent came from the mainland, many of them families that wanted to send their children to US colleges and universities. Mainland investors took about 47 per cent of the EB-5 visas in fiscal year 2009, according to the State Department, making them by far the biggest national group. Investors were reassured knowing that the city government was also pouring money into the Navy Yard, said Hayden, who spends much of his year hotel-hopping from Dalian to Shenzhen and most cities in between. He is now promoting the next project: an expansion of Steiner Studios, site of Spiderman 3 and another tenant of the Navy Yard. Even farther-flung regional centres are looking in the same direction. Ken Szymusiak, who manages a regional centre run by the Lansing Economic Development Corporation in Michigan, said he saw China as a primary market. Christina Lau, who directs the California Vineyards and Wineries regional centre, has had more inquiries from China than any other place. Still, not a single mainland investor has signed on for a project to revive Napa vineyards. A group from Beijing twice failed to show up for a planned tour of the wine country, causing Lau to skip her visit home to Hong Kong for the Lunar New Year. 'Some people see China as a golden egg,' Lau said. 'I see China as problems.' In particular, she worries about the requirement to show that investors earned their money legitimately, a tough thing to prove from several thousand kilometres away. 'What if it's Sichuan earthquake funds?' she said. 'You don't know.' She also believes her insistence that the investors risk their investment, a central requirement of the programme, sets her apart from other regional centres willing to make false promises of a return on their payment. So far, Papademetriou said, the current incarnation of the programme has avoided the whiff of scandal that accompanied it in earlier years, when some investments were egregiously mishandled. The growth of regional centres - almost 100 of them, up from a couple of dozen three years ago - has helped. Many have some affiliation with city or state development projects, as the New York one does, giving them an imprimatur of legitimacy. Still, some have less than spotless records. The regional centre for Alabama, called America's Centre for Foreign Investment, has raised a few eyebrows for its ties to Benjamin Yeung, a Chinese carmaker who fled the mainland after being accused of economic crimes. 'There are accusations, and that's all it's been at this point,' responded James DeBates, a former immigration official who accepted Yeung's offer to direct the centre last year. 'I'm not even sure if they're relevant any more.' Last year, Yeung settled a legal dispute with a business associate in a venture related to the regional centre. A Mississippi judge's order in the case was unflattering: 'It seems clear that Yeung has a predilection for operating behind a bewildering maze of corporate entities of uncertain ownership and purpose.' But the centre got a stamp of official confidence on June 1 when the government approved its proposal to fund Yeung's company, HK Motors, which plans to build a hybrid car factory in Alabama, DeBates said. 'The number of investors we can accept is virtually unlimited,' he added. Strikingly, EB-5 has so far failed to attract the political rancour that often characterises the debate over immigration in the US. 'The lack of bad news, and prospectively all the potential for good,' said Papademetriou, 'makes it one of the few programmes that doesn't seem to have any enemies.' That could change, he said, if a well-intentioned investment goes wrong, or worse. But he added: 'In today's economic climate, I'd find it very hard to anticipate that a government agency would look too terribly closely at a programme that's bringing both investor money and jobs to the United States.'