Immigration advocates working to protect a visa program threatened by President Donald Trump are growing increasingly worried that the White House and congressional Republicans will use the program as leverage in exchange for a deal to protect young, undocumented immigrants.
In the wake of an extremist attack in New York City on Tuesday, the Trump administration has sought to end the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which allowed Uzbek national Sayfullo Saipov, the suspected 29-year-old attacker, to come to the United States in 2010. Intended to allow for immigrant communities not usually well-represented in the United States to immigrate without employment or family sponsorship, diversity visas have historically enjoyed bipartisan support since the program was created in 1990.
But that’s set to change. Trump, a hardline immigration opponent, has made the diversity visa program a target in the days since the attack. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted a promise to end the program, a threat he reiterated later that same day.
“We need to get rid of the lottery program as soon as possible,“ he told reporters.
By Thursday, many had begun to speculate that the White House might demand a swap of sorts — the program’s end in exchange for a deal on saving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in September that DACA will end in March with no new applications accepted. That delay is supposedly intended to prompt Congress to act on immigration reform, something that has yet to materialize, leaving hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients in a precarious position. Lawmakers who have sought to protect those recipients may now face an ultimatum — but many immigration advocates say that’s a choice they aren’t willing to make.
During a call with reporters on Thursday morning, officials from various advocacy organizations expressed concern that the Trump administration might pit the diversity visa program against a potential DACA solution.
“Immigration is not a zero-sum game, although President Trump likes to speak about it that way,” said New York Immigration Coalition policy director Anu Joshi.
“We will not allow the two to be conflated,” Joshi continued, referring to both the program and protections for DACA recipients. “This is not in the realm of negotiation.”
Other advocates expressed similar sentiments.
“We think the diversity visa program is totally separate from the DREAM Act, one should not be traded for the other,” said Patrice Lawrence, referencing the never-passed act that was previously floated as a policy solution meant to protect young, undocumented immigrants. Lawrence, who serves as national policy and advocacy coordinator for the UndocuBlack Network, underscored that organizations like hers will stand against any effort to pit immigration efforts against each other.
Irish and Italian Americans initially pushed for the diversity visa program’s creation, arguing that their families were unable to immigrate easily to the United States. The program is only open to countries that have sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants in the past five years (excluding refugees and similar cases.) Eastern Europeans and immigrants from African and Asian nations currently make up the bulk of diversity visa recipients, while immigrants from countries like China and India, which already send a lot of immigrants to the United States, are barred. The visa does not cover undocumented immigrants.
Immigration advocates argue that protections and a pathway to citizenship are crucial for undocumented immigrants as well as for countries already sending many immigrants to the United States — but so are diversity visas, which make immigration possible for others.
Darakshan Raja, the co-director of the DC Justice for Muslims Coalitions (DCJMC), shared during Thursday’s call that her own family had benefited from the diversity visa program before her home country, Pakistan, was barred.
“The program was vital to providing better opportunities,” Raja said, noting its importance for women fleeing gender-based violence and other marginalized groups trying to find a better life for themselves. Raja, who came to the United States as a young child, went on to detail the numerous steps entailed throughout the process, which for her family included providing thorough proof of medical, educational, and employment history, in addition to recommendations from government agencies.
“[It’s] a very lengthy process,” she said. “Someone doesn’t just literally hand you a visa.”
Immigration attorney Neena Dutta, who lives in New York City, also pointed to the heroic role some diversity visa recipients have historically played. Dutta recalled the case of Abdel Rahman Mosabbah, an Egyptian Muslim who arrived in the United States in 1997 on a diversity visa. Mosabbah, who learned of an extremist attack his roommate had been planning, quickly shared the information with authorities, who were able to prevent what could easily have been a devastating tragedy.
While no immigrant should be required to match Mosabbah’s heroics in order to obtain or keep a visa, Dutta said, his story is a clear indicator that the diversity visa program, like many other immigration venues, opens up channels through which extraordinary people might come to the United States.
The diversity visa program is important for a host of other reasons. Pabitra Benjamin, the executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Adhikaar, which focuses on human rights within the Nepali-speaking community, argued that low-income immigrants are rarely afforded the opportunity to immigrate to the United States; the visa program gives them that chance. In Nepal, Benjamin said, some families save for months to pay the $330 visa fee — a cost which in no way guarantees they will be among those to receive the visa. But for many, the cost is worth it, allowing them an opportunity they might never have had otherwise.
That the actions of one diversity visa recipient in the program’s 27-year run should affect everyone else seeking to immigrate to the United States is unfair to those families, Benjamin said. “[Trump is] using the tragedy to divide communities,” she argued.
Raja added, “Millions of individuals, hundreds of thousands of folks, come to these programs [so we can] focus on education and take care of our families, gain economic stability. It’s time for politicians to stop playing politics over our livelihood. We’re just trying to live.”
Ultimately, immigration advocates may need to concern themselves over both DACA and diversity visas simultaneously. On Thursday, a number of senators backed Trump’s plan to end diversity visas, indicating the program isn’t a high priority. Senate Republicans simultaneously said that the White House had failed to include protections for DACA recipients in an omnibus government spending bill — increasing the likelihood of a government shutdown if Democrats refuse to back the bill next month.