President Trump responded to an attack in New York City on Tuesday by calling for hardline immigration measures to combat extremism.
“In NYC, looks like another attack by a very sick and deranged person. Law enforcement is following this closely. NOT IN THE U.S.A.!” Trump began in a series of tweets on Wednesday. “We must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!”
The president went on to single out the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, through which the alleged attacker, Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant, was able to enter the United States.
“I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this! The terrorist came into our country through what is called the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program,” a [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based,” said Trump, singling out Schumer, a New York Democrat, and referring to a merit-based immigration system.
“We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter),” he wrote again, tagging Fox News’ Fox and Friends.
Trump reiterated his calls to end the the visas Wednesday afternoon. “We need to get rid of the lottery program as soon as possible,“ he told reporters during a press conference, calling on Congress to do away with the program. Later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down.
“One of the best things that we have in this country is the fact that everybody wants to be here. And to give that away randomly to have no vetting system, to have no way to determine who comes, why they are here, and if they want to contribute to the society is a problem,” said Sanders. “And the president strongly supports making sure that the people that come here want to be here for the right reasons. And not to bring harm to our country. And I don’t think that’s something that any American shouldn’t want to support. ”
It’s unclear what policy results Wednesday’s comments will cue — but they’ve raised a number of questions, both about vetting measures and diversity visas.
Let’s clear up the confusion:
The diversity visa program isn’t what the White House thinks it is.
Congress established the Diversity Immigrant Visa program through the Immigration Act of 1990 and the program serves as a green card lottery of sorts. The program received bipartisan support and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. (Schumer, who backed the policy, later joined the Senate “Gang of Eight” efforts to overhaul immigration in 2013, pushing to do away with diversity visas along the way.) Those who make it through receive a U.S. permanent resident card, allowing recipients to live and work in the country.
The diversity visa program was initially created with the backing of Irish and Italian Americans who felt underrepresented. The visa’s main goal is to “diversify” the United States, offering residency to underrepresented countries whose nationals are less likely to make up a significant part of the U.S. population. Irish immigrants did initially receive priority; now, the program’s main recipients stem from African and Eastern European countries. Uzbek immigrants, like Saipov, are less common, but the Central Asian nation is sending an increasing number of people to the United States on diversity visas — precisely because there weren’t a large number of Uzbeks in the United States to begin with.
Diversity visa recipients have to meet a number of eligibility requirements. Many countries are barred from consideration, including places like China, India, Mexico, and Pakistan, which already send a large number of immigrants to the United States every year. Any nation that has sent more than 50,000 immigrants in the past five years won’t be considered. That number notably does not include refugees, asylum seekers, or those in a similar category (so, neither Iraq nor Guatemala were barred in 2017, despite sending more than the allotted number since 2012). Exemptions also exist — while the United Kingdom is barred, Northern Irish citizens are permitted. No country may receive more than 7 percent of all allotted visas.
Nation of birth is only one hurdle. Good health is another requirement, as is verifiable means of support. Recipients must also have completed either a high school education or two years work experience in a field requiring additional training. A thorough criminal background check is also required.
Only 50,000 diversity visas are given out per year — just four percent of all annual legal resident visas.
Vetting measures for immigrants are already intensive and don’t focus on the underlying issue.
Regardless of which longer-term visa immigrants use to enter and reside in the United States, the vetting procedure is intensive. Immigration requires a significant amount of paperwork, background checks, and scrutiny. It’s unclear how those procedures could be made even more thorough — or if they would catch anything they’re currently missing.
Ramping up vetting also misses a key component of Tuesday’s attack. According to officials, Saipov developed an interest in ISIS after arriving in the country. That’s not something any kind of screening or extra precautions can prevent. Homegrown extremism tends to go unchecked in the United States, something driven home by extremist attacks in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist murdered a woman with a car in August. Trump tends to focus on “radical Islamic terrorism” imported from abroad, but that’s actually not a major issue in the United States.
Neither is Muslim-driven domestic extremism. According to study from the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, only 63 cases of “Islamist domestic terrorism” occurred on U.S. soil between January 2008 and December 2016. Of those, 76 percent were foiled and never took place. Thirty-six percent of perpetrators were foreign-born, accounting for only 13 percent of the total number.
By contrast, the study found that over the same time period right-wing extremists were responsible for 115 incidents. Only 35 percent of those were foiled. The majority of those attacks “involved deaths, injuries or damaged property”; almost a third caused fatalities.
Trump’s rhetoric has largely focused on immigrants of color and Muslims, but available data like the study above largely indicate that white U.S. citizens (overwhelmingly men) are far more of a domestic extremist threat. No amount of extreme vetting of immigrants — Muslim or otherwise — will address that problem.
There probably wasn’t a way to prevent what happened in New York City. Immigrants will suffer anyway.
Not much is known at present about Saipov and his time both abroad and in the United States. Still, there’s little evidence that more extreme vetting would have prevented him from carrying out Tuesday’s attack. There’s even less to suggest that doing away with diversity visas will in any way shift the nature of extremism in the United States.
None of that is likely to matter to the Trump administration. The president has repeatedly targeted immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, after incidents of violence, while ignoring or downplaying atrocities carried out by white U.S. citizens. Three different versions of Trump’s travel ban have faced stiff opposition in court in no small part because they disproportionately target citizens from Muslim-majority countries, but that hasn’t stopped the White House from pushing for more vetting and harsher crackdowns.
Those hits are likely to keep coming. Trump has backed the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act re-introduced by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (AR) and David Perdue (GA) in August. Under RAISE, the United States would work to cut immigration in half, bringing numbers down from around a million to 500,000. It would also focus on “merit-based” immigration, favoring employment visas and eliminating many family-sponsored visas, while also doing away with the diversity visa program.
“This competitive application process will favor applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy,” Trump said in August during a speech backing the RAISE act.
A study tied to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (Trump’s alma mater) projected that the RAISE act would slow GDP growth in addition to reducing the size of the U.S. labor market, ultimately hurting the U.S. economy.