Innkeepers run into problems with visa program

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(Host) The dream of owning and running a country inn has turned sour for some British innkeepers in Vermont and New Hampshire.

The source of their disillusionment is a special visa program, designed to encourage foreign investment, but not permanent residency.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

Door opens, bell. ( Pierce) Hello?

(Keese) Julie Pierce beams with pride as she shows off the Inn Victoria in Chester, and the improvements she and her husband have made.

She points out a plaque from Yankee Magazine. The inn was named Vermont’s most romantic bed and Breakfast in this year’s travel issue.

(Pierce) So we’re very proud of that…

(Keese)The couple — ex-corporate professionals from the U.K — bought the deteriorating bed and breakfast in 2005.

Getting authorization to work in the U.S. wasn’t easy, but a visa called the E2 Treaty Investor visa seemed to be the answer.

The visa allows residents of countries with treaties with the U.S. to invest in a business here and run that business, if they meet certain conditions.

(Pierce)You have to invest a substantial sum, although there is actually no specific definition given of substantial.

(Keese) Businesses with E2 must also make more than a marginal living for the owners, and contribute to the U.S. economy.

The Pierces invested almost half a million in the inn, and were issued a 2-year visa by the U.S. Consulate in London. Their lawyer said a 5-year renewal would be almost a rubber stamp if their business met its goals.

When they flew back to London 18 months ago they were ahead of the seven year plan they’d  initially submitted – though they’d sunk most of their profits back into improvements.

(Pierce) We’d doubled the sales and doubled the occupancy. The business was profitable and we had employed a lot of contractors and we felt fairly confident that we would get a five -year extension.

(Keese) Instead the officer behind the counter told them  that the inn was ‘too marginal’ and didn’t have enough employees.

(Pierce) But he said I can see that you’ve tried, and so I’ll give you two years to turn your business around, and I was just horrified.

(Keese) Since then the Pierces have heard similar stories. There’s a British inn owner in East Dover who’s been told he needs more employees. And There’s the Birchwood Inn in Temple, NH owned by Nick Finnis and Andrew Cook, also of the U.K. They restored a historic and established a popular eatery.

Finnis and Cook returned to London to renew their E-2 status this spring, with three months left on their visas.

They were not only told they weren’t making enough; they had their visas revoked. Nick Finnis:

(Finnis) So we were stuck in England. We asked them how we would get back to America to sort out our home, our clothes, our pets, and they told us someone else would have to do it for us.

(Keese) Finnis and Cook were advised to apply for a vacation visa to the U.S. and they returned that way. But if they leave the country now they say they won’t be allowed back.

Finnis says the E2 guidelines are too vague. And he says the officers at the consulate have too much power to ‘move the goal post" on applicants whose lives and finances are at stake

Burlington Immigration lawyer Susan Pilcher says her firm warns clients that E2 visas are risky in a fluctuating economy because the standards are relative and subject to interpretation.

(Pilcher) And it relies in many cases on the gut-level judgments of consular officers whose discretions in applying the law and evaluating the facts and making legal determinations is not  reviewable .

The Pierces say they can’t live with that kind of uncertainty.

(Pierce)The inn is now for sale. It has been for about three or four months. There has been some interest but the economy is obviously not the greatest to sell a business in…

(Keese) Pierce says she feels it isn’t fair. But she also says the inn has been a good thing for its clients and for Chester, Vermont.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               And that’s something she’ll take home with her to England.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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