Rethinking the Visa Lottery

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Following the harrowing October 31 attack on Lower Manhattan, Donald Trump vowed to dismantle the Diversity Visa Lottery after learning that Sayfullo Habibullaevich Saipov – an Uzbek émigré and the confirmed perpetrator – had benefitted from the scheme. In a series of tweets overflowing with his usual vitriol, President Trump blasted the program as a “Chuck Schumer beauty” and promised to “[fight] hard for merit based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems.”

Trump’s statements have gotten would-be immigrants worried, diversity advocates furious, and Americans the country over questioning. What is the Diversity Visa Lottery program anyway? The Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery, also known as the Green Card Lottery, refers to a congressionally-mandated program that allows natives of historically underrepresented countries to obtain permanent residency and ultimately apply for U.S. citizenship. Since being shepherded through the Senate by Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and signed into law by George H.W. Bush, the Immigration Act of 1990 has benefitted up to 50,000 people per fiscal year. Every fall, high school graduates (or, in some cases, professionals whose experience is considered equivalent to an American secondary school diploma) born in a country with low immigration rates to the U.S. – India, China, Mexico, Canada, the UK and a few other nations in Latin America are not eligible – have a chance to enter the State Department-chartered lottery. The lottery is indeed a one-of-a-kind selection process, and leaves one’s possibility of moving to the U.S. and becoming part of its political, cultural, and social fabric to chance.

The multi-million pool of people taking a shot at the American dream by entering the lottery is as unique and dynamic as the U.S.      immigration story itself.

When the program first started, it mainly benefitted persons of Irish and Italian ancestry. Then, as Eastern Europeans and Central Asians could finally start travelling internationally, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the program abounded with new entrants. Today, according to the Department of State, most submissions come from Eastern Europe, Africa, and South Asia.

Although Trump’s announcement about bidding adieu to the Diversity Visa Lottery might be nothing short of scoring political points, the President is right in that relegating 50,000 immigration decisions a year to a fiat of luck is neither prudent nor just. Becoming a U.S. permanent resident is a long and painstaking process, and allowing certain individuals to take a shortcut is antithetical to our efforts of sustaining a fair and meritocratic immigration system. Every year, thousands of international students, H1-B workers, and investors – people who are already in the U.S., speak English, and promise to benefit the country given their record of accomplishment at our universities and companies – are denied green cards on quota grounds. At the same time, the Diversity Visa Lottery confers permanent residency on individuals who may or may not be qualified to succeed in the U.S.. Consider this: given that the Diversity Visa Lottery is a lottery by definition, we might be inadvertently prioritizing high school dropouts over much-needed chemical engineers; people with limited English capabilities over those who are fluent; and individuals who have never been in America over ones who have called this country home for years. In light of recent discussion about DACA and the Dreamers’ Act, I cannot help but wonder: would not it make more sense to allocate the same 50,000 permanent resident visas to people brought to the U.S. as children, through no fault of their own?

John F. Kennedy once said: “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” Abolishing the Diversity Visa Lottery is a first step in the right direction.

Copyright (C) 2016 The Bates Student