The State Center project has been more controversial. While it has won the support of City Hall and the surrounding neighborhoods, it is opposed by downtown business leaders, including Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who see it as government-sponsored competition with buildings they own. Opponents filed suit last year seeking to block the Baltimore project.

A business plan prepared for possible State Center investors spells out an intention to raise $10 million to $65 million through the EB-5 program toward the $230 million needed to build two office buildings in the first phase of the project. The state would provide $28 million to build a parking garage, and the balance is expected to come from other private investors.

George Tyler, chief financial officer of Ekistics, agreed with Morris that the deal does not depend on the success of the EB-5 offering. Neither, he said, does the developer need state approval for what he called a "purely private" financing decision.

"The state doesn't get into this mix. They are aware but not involved," he said.

Morris said EB-5 financing is not guaranteed to have a part in the Seagirt project. He said he approached Ports America with an offer to raise money for the project and received authorization to launch a bid to raise $40 million in EB-5 investments. A Ports America spokesman agreed that it is not certain EB-5 money will have a role in the project. He did not return phone calls seeking further comment.

Patrick Turner, whose Turner Development Group hopes to transform the once-blighted Westport waterfront with the help of EB-5 financing, is enthusiastic about the program.

"It makes great sense," he said. "It obviously helps generate economic development in poorer census tracts." Because of its location in a high-unemployment zone, the Westport project — like the others in Baltimore — qualifies for the EB-5 program's $500,000 investment threshold rather than the $1 million that applies in healthier job markets.

But Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which describes itself as "low-immigration, pro-immigrant," said he'd like to see Congress get rid of the program — for philosophical and economic reasons.

"It's almost laughably cheap," he said, noting that an immigrant who invests $500,000 can bring immediate family members to the United States as well. "We're practically giving citizenship away, not selling it."

Congress has been ambivalent about EB-5s since their inception, keeping the program going as a pilot but declining to make it permanent. Unless Congress acts, it would expire in 2012, but it has influential backers.

Muzaffar Christhi, director of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law, said the EB-5 program attracted limited interest in its early years. In 2000, a series of articles in The Baltimore Sun outlined how the program had been tainted by allegations of insider dealing by former immigration officials.

"It has had a checkered career for sure and extraordinary growth in the last two years," Christhi said.

But Christhi said he has reconsidered his former opposition to the program. "My change was driven by the argument that the good thing about immigration is diversity." Immigrants bring diversity not just in ethnicity, but in skills, he said.

Christhi said the program poked along at a rate of 500 to 700 visas a year until it started taking off in 2008 as lending from conventional U.S. sources started to dry up. In the past four years, he said, the number of regional centers across the country promoting such deals has grown from about two dozen to 189.

Over the past three federal budget years, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, an average of about 2,500 visas have been issued under the program. The program is on track to set a record of about 5,000 — about half its statutory limit of 10,000 — in fiscal 2011.

Christhi said the program needs stepped-up oversight to guard against the possibility of fraud and to make sure job-creation goals are met.

"Whenever you have a program that has a growth of this rate, it deserves scrutiny even though the program is fundamentally a good one," he said. "Even a good idea can turn into a bad one very quickly."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com