New York Times: “Diversity Visa Lottery: Inside the Program That Admitted a Terror Suspect”

by Joseph McKeown


Following the terror attack in New York City last week when a man drove a rented truck down a bike path killing eight, President Trump is calling for the elimination of the Diversity Visa (DV) Program, which allowed the suspected terrorist, Sayfullo Saipov, to gain legal permanent resident status. Claiming he wants “merit based” immigration, President Trump says he is asking Congress to “immediately initiate work to get rid of this program.” Throughout the years, lawmakers have made multiple attempts to end the diversity visa program, citing reasons of fraud, increased numbers of low-skilled (and thus supposedly less desirable) immigrant workers, and claims that diversity recipients are not properly vetted and threats to national security. 

The DV lottery program is one of the quickest paths to legal permanent resident status, granting eligible winners Green Cards even if they do not have a close relative living in the US or a special skill. Each year, the US makes 50,000 diversity immigrant visas available to those eligible. The diversity visas are distributed “among six geographic regions, and no single country may receive more than seven percent of the available DVs in any one year.” There are two eligibility requirements: the applicant must be a native of a qualifying country with historically low immigration rates, and the applicant must have completed high school or  have “two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience to perform.”  

Applicants must first submit an application during the entry period, which coincidentally is currently ongoing now and ends November 22, 2017. DV applicants are then selected at random through a computer-generated lottery. If chosen in the lottery, the applicant must submit a visa application before the vetting process begins. Applicants are required to go through background checks and a screening process similar to other immigrant visa applicants, including document presentation, in-person interviews, and medical examinations. “The bottom line is: Of course they’re vetted,” David Leopold, former president of American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), tells the Washington Post. After an application has been submitted, Leopold says, “at that point they go through vetting. Background and biometrics and everything else that immigrants go through when they are vetted for the green card.”   

While the diversity program was created under the Immigration Act of 1990, its history begins with the Immigration Act of 1965. This act eliminated country quotas that had previously favored Western Europeans and replaced them with an immigration system designed to reunite families and attract skilled laborers. Consequently, the number of immigrants from Latin America and Asia significantly increased while the number of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and other European countries substantially decreased.

During the mid-1980s, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants fled the economic crisis in Ireland. Very few Irish immigrants had family ties or qualifying job experience that would enable them to obtain a Green Card. As a result, many Irish immigrants entered the US as tourists and overstayed their status, and many were undocumented. To address this problem, in 1986, Brian J. Donnelly, an Irish-American congressman from Boston, proposed an amendment to the law that provided 10,000 visas on a first-come, first-serve basis. With a total of 1.5 million pieces of mail received in the first lottery, 200,000 of the earliest applications came from Irish citizens who ultimately won 4,161 of the allotted 10,000 visas. Donnelly and other members of Congress, including Senator Chuck Schumer, fought for a more permanent version of this Green Card lottery, which was put into effect in the Immigration Act of 1990. 

In the beginning of the program, most lottery winners were European. Now, approximately half come from Africa. In 2016, the State Department reported that most recipients came from Nepal, Egypt, and Iran. Uzbekistan, where the suspected terrorist Saipov immigrated from in 2010, ranked fifth last year with 2,378 recipients. Since the attack, many have wondered why Saipov was not barred entry into the US. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo tells CNN that Saipov was “radicalized domestically.” 

Others have spoken out against the DV lottery, even before the recent terror attack in New York City. When Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue earlier this year re-introduced their RAISE Act, a bill that would slash legal US immigration by half over the next ten years, they claimed: "The Diversity Lottery is plagued with fraud, advances no economic or humanitarian interest, and does not even promote diversity.” But others see benefit to the program. Carly Goodman, a historian who authored a book about the diversity lottery, tells the Washington Post: “This program is pretty powerful public diplomacy for the U.S. that signals its openness and generosity. Its elimination would be very shortsighted.”