In the midst of a growing security crisis in Mexico, the McAllen-based USA Now Regional Center offered Mexican families with money an escape: Invest $500,000 in South Texas and get a legal permanent resident card in the United States. But the offer may have been too good to be true.
In mid-July, agents with the FBI raided USA Now and confiscated luxury cars it says were purchased with investors’ cash. A warrant filed in federal court alleges that Marco Ramirez and his wife, Bebe Ramirez, the owners of USA Now, were running a Ponzi scheme, defrauding foreign investors of millions of dollars.
USA Now opened for business in McAllen in April 2011 and was designated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as an EB-5 investor program. Congress created the EB-5 program in 1990, providing U.S. residency visas as an incentive to foreign entrepreneurs willing to invest $1 million in a business that created 10 or more jobs, or $500,000 for an economically distressed or rural area.
For years the program has been underutilized because of onerous paperwork and confusion about changing immigration requirements. But in 2007, with the economic crisis expanding and credit drying up, U.S. companies began to take a second look at the program and its pool of foreign investors. The security crisis in Mexico provided the willing participants. By 2011, there were more than 300 regional centers like USA Now nationwide, according to the Associated Press, up from 11 in 2007.
In a 2011 interview with the Observer, Marco Ramirez said the company had more than 200 investors and another 100 waiting to invest. “Because of the insecurity crisis in Mexico, they’re no longer coming to visit, they’re coming to migrate,” he said. “And they’re also seeing an economic opportunity because of the economic crisis in our country.”
At the time, Ramirez was heavily advertising a program in Mexico called “Texas for Sale,” emphasizing to wealthy Mexican investors the benefits of buying foreclosed homes in Texas at cut-rate prices. In an FBI affidavit filed in federal court, a McAllen-based lawyer (and U.S. citizen) alleges that Marco Ramirez offered to help him buy back his foreclosed properties. The lawyer gave Ramirez $470,000, but $50,000 was allegedly used to buy Ramirez a 2011 Dodge Ram pickup instead of the foreclosed properties, according to court records.
No charges have been filed in the case, but the FBI investigation is ongoing. The company’s lawyer, Tony Canales, told the local newspaper the Monitor that the investigation is “wrong on the law and wrong on the facts. There’s a lot of things to explain,” he said. “They’re going to want explanations, and we’re going to give them explanations.”