Amid the prospect of a government shutdown, President Trump is doubling down on a number of immigration demands, including increased security and funding for a southern border wall. The president is also targeting a program rarely reflected in national conversations about immigration: the diversity visa lottery program.
Throughout immigration talks, Trump has repeatedly called for a merit-based immigration system, positing it as an alternative to “the lottery,” a system he has decried. Much of that rhetoric emerged following an extremist attack in Manhattan last year, when 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov drove a van into a crowd. Saipov, who came to the United States on a diversity visa from Uzbekistan, drew Trump’s ire immediately.
“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based,” Trump tweeted, leveling blame at the Senate minority leader. “We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter).”
That juxtaposition has since dominated much of Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, leaving immigration advocates baffled.
“It’s confusing because, well, the diversity visa program is actually a merit-based system,” Anu Joshi, Immigration Policy Director for the New York Immigration Coalition, told ThinkProgress. “On its face what he’s saying just isn’t correct.”
Some of the confusion might come down to language. Congress created the Diversity Immigrant Visa program in 1990, largely in response to lobbying by Irish and Italian Americans who felt their families were facing struggles in immigrating. The program has largely enjoyed bipartisan support and makes up a relatively small sliver of U.S. immigration more broadly. Functioning as a green card lottery, the program allows citizens from various underrepresented countries to live and work in the United States as permanent residents. Those recipients in turn “diversify” the U.S. population. They also have to meet a number of merit-based factors, including a certain level of education or comparable work experience.
Many diversity visa applicants are eliminated because their home countries have simply used up the slots allotted them over a span of five years. That factor alone means that the lottery excludes countries like India, China, and Mexico. Eastern European and African nations are among those most likely to benefit from the program, along with a number of smaller Asian countries.
The diversity visa program exists largely to give many people without family ties the chance to immigrate to the United States, but even then, the odds are slim. Only around 100,000 people are even chosen for the program (despite the fact that more than 10 million usually apply). Of those, only half will ultimately immigrate, following the same vetting measures as any other group — background checks, interviews, health examinations, and a number of additional measures.
The program itself is hardly a “lottery,” Joshi said.
“Lottery is a misnomer. This phrase came into effect because there is no backlog,” she explained. “It’s not really a lottery at all. It’s a very intensive program; very few people actually make it through.”
Trump’s comments have only fueled confusion over the program. Bipartisan immigration efforts — including attempts to protect recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — have increasingly come up against aggressive White House demands, including the usual requests for increased border security, a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as major alterations (or an end) to diversity visas.
While some have suggested that Trump might force Congress to eliminate diversity visas before he’ll give them a deal on DACA, it isn’t a popular move.
“It’s nothing new from this administration and the reality is that immigrant communities won’t fall for it,” said Joshi. “Anything that tries to pit DREAMers [DACA recipients] against their parents, diversity visa holders…is a non-starter.”
The president’s focus on on diversity visas has worried advocates. For many low-income immigrants, the visa is their only chance to immigrate. Without the program, many won’t be able to come to the United States.
“The diversity visa program has been a life changer for many Nepali families,” said Pabitra Khati Benjamin, executive director of Adhikaar, a non-profit human rights group that serves Nepali speakers. “[It’s] opened the door to many who in the past could have never dreamed of coming to the United States. This includes people from countries that Trump considers ‘shithole’ countries, but are where our families live, [as well as] countries that have historically had lower rates of migration to the United States as a result of foreign policies that have left small countries with struggling economies.”
Benjamin told ThinkProgress that, between 2005 and 2013, approximately 20,912 people immigrated from Nepal through the diversity visa program. Many, she said, serve as the sole providers for their families back home in Nepal, all while making contributions to the U.S. economy.
“The Trump administration is adamant about eliminating this program for its lottery nature,” Benjamin said. “However, the system already has educational requirements, fees for the application, and a rigorous interview process. It is not as simple to acquire a diversity visa as the Trump administration states. I have a number of family members in Nepal that have applied for [the visa] five times, each time having to pay hundreds of dollars, going through a cumbersome and often humiliating interview process and then having their application thrown out right in front of them.”
That’s not how the administration spins the program. Trump has repeatedly pointed to the visa as a method through which the “worst people” are drawn from a “bin” at random. Instead, he has argued for a system that benefits highly-skilled, English-speaking immigrants. That rhetoric, of course, is at odds with the White House’s crackdown on both H-1B visas, which are afforded exclusively to highly-skilled immigrants, and the diversity visa program, with its stringent education and work requirements.
Advocates for diversity visas have noted that ending the program would have a huge impact on both U.S. culture and global stability.
“The immediate impact would be that we would, just from the start, have a less diverse community in this country,” Joshi said.
The ramifications would hit certain countries especially hard.
“Nepal has gone through a tumultuous decade of civil war and now an unstable government,” Benjamin explained. “If this system is revoked, and we rely only upon bringing over highly educated individuals from countries with already-high rates of immigration, we risk creating an imbalance [that would allow] the rich to get richer and the poor to be stuck in the cycle of poverty.”
The administration’s fixation on diversity visas isn’t likely to end any time soon. Joshi believes that’s a risky gamble.
“For many immigrants, it’s their only opportunity [to come here]. These are people who are willing to take risks in order to immigrate,” she said. “Just the idea of this program serves as a model for the American dream for so many people. To attack this program is to attack the American dream.”