A curious category of immigrant visas has come under national scrutiny after President Donald Trump revealed that the perpetrator of Tuesday’s terror attack in New York City used it to settle in the U.S. in 2010.
“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty,” Trump tweeted. “I want merit based.”
Trump’s desire for a merit-based immigration system — not to mention his disdain for Schumer’s immigration policy preferences — is widely known. But the tweet did draw attention to a poorly understood visa program that has long been a lighting rod for controversy.
‘The Irish Program’
The Diversity Visa program was a provision of the Immigration Act of 1990, a bipartisan bill spearheaded by the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. Sponsoring lawmakers, including now-Sen. Chuck Schumer, sold it as a way issue more visas to people from countries that had limited opportunities to immigrate through family reunification.
Kennedy’s original motivation was more specific: giving legal status to thousands of illegal Irish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. too late to qualify for a massive amnesty in 1986. The legendary Massachusetts senator and other Irish-American lawmakers devised the first green card lottery that year, making 10,000 visas available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Thanks to coordination with the Irish government, which submitted thousands of applications, the illegal immigrants from Ireland dominated the drawing, winning 4,161 of the 10,000 visas.
Kennedy and others successfully fought for the visa lottery to be included in the 1990 immigration bill, touting the program as a way to boost diversity in immigration. The formal diversity visa program took effect in 1995, with 55,000 visas set aside for applicants from countries that had sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five-year period.
Throughout the 1990s and 200os, the program did in fact become more diverse, primarily benefiting immigrants from Africa and post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe.
How it works today
Administered by the State Department, the Diversity Visa program allots 50,000 visas annually to individuals from from countries with low rates of immigration. Winners are selected via a random lottery system that takes no account of the applicant’s economic potential or familial connections to people already living in the U.S.
The requirements to apply for a Diversity Visa are relatively basic. Applicants can acquire eligibility by attaining a high school diploma or its equivalent, or at least two years of “work experience,” according to State Department regulations. As long as they are from a so-called “low admission” country, applicants don’t have to meet any other criteria.
The State Department divides Diversity Visa applicants by six geographical regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, North America (other than Mexico), Oceania and South America, and Central America and the Caribbean. In 2016, people from African countries accounted for 44 percent of the 46,000 visas issued, according to department data. Immigrants from Eastern Europe received 33 percent and those from Asia received 19 percent.
Diversity Visa applicants are subject to the same security vetting process as other immigrant visa applicants, including a federal background check and interviews with U.S. consular officers in their home countries.
Old doubts and fresh questions
Sayfullo Saipov’s attack has precipitated a torrent of questions about the Diversity Visa lottery, but this is not the first time critics have expressed doubts about the program.
Immigration hawks have long claimed the program is unnecessary and provides little, if any, benefit to the the national interest. The Center for Immigration Studies, a leading critic of the Diversity Visa, says it invites fraud, poses security risks, and does little to actually diversify the immigrant population.
In recent years, lawmakers have debated whether or not the Diversity Visa should be scuttled. The so-called Gang of Eight immigration reform bill of 2013 would have eliminated the program in exchange for increases in immigration through other channels. That bill passed the Senate, but later died in the House after lawmakers declined to vote on it.
This summer, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue introduced a bill known as the RAISE Act that would do away with the Diversity Visa and transition to a merit-based immigration system. The White House has backed the bill, but several leading Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have balked at supporting a law that ratchets down legal immigration levels.
After Tuesday’s attack, GOP lawmakers rushed to highlight their own efforts to get rid of Diversity Visa. Sen. Jeff Flake reminded his followers that the Gang of Eight bill, which he co-authored, would have killed the program.
“Actually, the Gang of 8, including @SenSchumer, did away with the Diversity Visa Program as part of broader reforms. I know, I was there,” Flake tweeted in response to Trump’s swipe at the New York Democrat.
Perdue called for eliminating the “outdated” program by incorporating provisions of the RAISE Act into an immigration deal.
“President Trump is right, the Diversity Visa Lottery Program is a problem and is plagued by fraud,” he said in a statement.
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