Rich Russians offered a Caribbean shortcut to US visas by paying their way to a Grenadian passport

Anna Kim/Insider

  • Insider investigated how rich Russians could move to the US by investing in Grenada’s economy.

  • A visa firm is offering the shortcut after Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization.

  • It’s legal, but an illicit-finance expert said it could let oligarchs “skirt the rules.”

Five days after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization, a Russian visa company rushed to offer citizens a way out.

“Grenada is called ‘little Switzerland,'” United Passport wrote in a Telegram message on September 25. “It’s an affordable program for the whole family.”

For as little as $150,000, Russians can become citizens of Grenada, the visa company said.

But an American flag in the background of the advertisement hints at the real prize: a US visa.

Screenshot of United Passport's ad to apply for US visas.

The advertisement shared in a Telegram message.Screenshot of United Passport Telegram.

In a Telegram channel with more than 300,000 subscribers and dedicated to helping Russians find ways out of their country, United Passport appeared to take advantage of the geopolitical situation.

After Putin’s address to the nation on his partial military mobilization, thousands of Russians booked flights to countries offering visa-free entry, such as Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Serbia.

But the founding attorney for the Batrakova Law Office, Irina Batrakova, told Insider that her Oregon firm had primarily been dealing with inquiries from Russians seeking to move to the US.

In the Telegram channel, United Passport advertised the possibility of getting to the US on an E-2 visa. Russians can apply for an E-2 visa only by first obtaining citizenship in a treaty country, a category that includes Grenada but excludes Russia.

The InterContinental Grenada Resort option

Insider contacted United Passport and posed as a customer who wanted to enter the US with his family via Grenada, insisting that Grenada be merely a stepping stone to a new life in America.

Grenada stopped Russians from applying for citizenship through an investment after their country invaded Ukraine in February. The restriction was lifted in July and replaced by “enhanced scrutiny” of Russian applicants, Karline Purcell, the CEO of Grenada’s Citizenship By Investment Programme, told Investment Migration Insider, adding that only nonsanctioned Russians could apply.

In multiple exchanges on WhatsApp, United Passport told Insider Wednesday that one business opportunity would get us a Grenadian passport and, in turn, a US visa.

“There are only 300 shares left at the InterContinental Hotel,” the company said.

It was referring to part ownership of the new InterContinental Grenada Resort, an IHG Hotels & Resorts development. The stake would cost $316,000. It would lead to Grenada “giving you and your family passports for it,” the visa company said, which would entitle you to apply for an E-2, a nonimmigrant visa that typically lasts for five years but can be renewed an unlimited number of times.

A spokesperson for IHG Hotels & Resorts said the company “adheres to the highest ethical standards and holds the same requirements for the parties it engages with.”

Landscape of the Carenage harbor, boats, and colorful buildings on hillside, St George's, Grenada.

St. George’s, Grenada.Getty Images

Grenada is the smallest Caribbean state, with a population of about 112,000 — a smaller population than that of any one of the US’s 270 biggest cities. It was a French and British colony before gaining independence from the UK in February 1974.

Grenada has proved a hot spot for those who wish to relax at its opulent resorts and on the many superyachts sailing around its islands.

Russians wealthy enough to try to flee conscription into their military and enter the US have various options. Some are long processes; the Grenada strategy is the shortcut.

Using Grenadian citizenship as a shortcut

Getting an E-2 visa via Grenadian citizenship is cheaper, quicker, and easier than the alternatives — many of which require a long-standing tie to the US.

The EB-5, an immigrant-investor, or “golden,” visa, has been among the most popular pathways to the US. More recently, it’s become complicated by the US Embassy in Moscow suspending nondiplomatic visa services.

“The challenging part would be to be able to get to the appropriate consulate in order to actually have an actual interview for the visa,” Fadi Minawi, the lead immigration attorney and managing director of VisaPlace, told Insider.

The US State Department has designated the US Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, as the site for Russian visa appointments, but Poland closed its borders to Russians in mid-September. According to the embassy’s website, Russian nationals traveling for a visa appointment need a Schengen visa to enter Poland, but the Polish government reserves the right to refuse them entry.

Even before the war in Ukraine, the EB-5 route was by no means a quick way to immigrate to the US and usually takes at least two years to process.

“It may take years for that application to actually get through the process,” Minawi said.

According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, 20% of cases are still unresolved after 52 months.

But the Grenada shortcut can take as little as four months and is about 80% cheaper.

‘Work-around’ strategy

Once a Grenadian passport is obtained, there’s technically no minimum investment for an E-2 application. Immigration lawyers told Insider an investment in the US of at least $50,000 would be necessary for an application to be considered seriously. The total cost, therefore, realistically starts at $200,000 for Russians when the $150,000 United Passport fee is factored in.

The costly EB-5, however, requires a minimum capital investment of $1.05 million, or a reduced investment of $800,000 in a targeted employment area.

The E-2 route, using Grenada as a stepping stone, is a “sort of a work-around” for wealthy Russians seeking to save both money and time in getting to the US to avoid being drafted, Minawi said.

Employees of international companies or those with family members in the US can apply for other visas, including the L-1 visa. But these aren’t always viable for those without ties to the US and looking for a quick fix. And Minawi said either option was available only to those with significant wealth.

‘Skirt the rules’

Gary Kalman, the executive director of Transparency International, an organization focused on illicit finance, told Insider that being able to buy your way into the US was an “enormous” problem.

The issue isn’t that nonsanctioned Russians seeking to escape the draft can get into the US; it’s that very rich Russians are playing the immigration system, Kalman said.

“We shouldn’t be saying, ‘Sure, the moral imperative is we want to help these people flee Russia, but we’re only going to do it if you can invest,'” he said. “That’s not a humanitarian policy. That’s a policy that’s inviting in some of the wealthiest in Russia, many of whom may have gotten their money through ill-gotten gains.”

Kalman said that he had concerns about the speed of the E-2 visa process, which seems to give little time to vet an applicant’s source of income, and that he worried having an intermediary — Grenada — in the process could complicate the due diligence necessary to determine whether the money is dirty or clean.

He added that Russians with the level of wealth necessary to partake in such a strategy were likely to include oligarchs who had acquired money via “sweetheart deals.” It is “highly problematic” to have an immigration system that allows wealthy people to “skirt the rules,” he said.

It’s unclear how many people have applied for E-2 visas since the partial-mobilization announcement because the US State Department has not provided updated numbers since August.

But immigration attorneys told Insider that demand was rocketing. “There have been more calls coming in from Russian nationals,” Minawi said.

Batrakova added: “I would say at least a 30% to 40% increase in inquiries, but I’m just being very conservative here. We have received some phone calls, and everybody’s trying to strategize on how to get out.”

The Government of Grenada did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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