White House releases misleading document attacking diversity visa lottery

The White House's fact sheet doesn't take into account the full picture.

Immigrants take the oath of citizenship to the United States at a naturalization service on January 22, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)
Immigrants take the oath of citizenship to the United States at a naturalization service on January 22, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)

The White House on Thursday released an extensive fact sheet calling on the elimination of the diversity visa lottery program, out of concerns of fraudulent applications and in order to “reduce waitlists in nuclear family-based and high-skilled employment immigration.”

But the claims made by the Trump administration misrepresent the program.

Created through the Immigration Act of 1990, the diversity visa lottery originally helped Irish immigrants enter the country, in part in response to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which only prioritized immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. The program now extends a welcoming mat to countries that generally send low numbers of people to the United States.

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The White House made valid claims in the fact sheet that the program could be subject to fraud, citing a 2007 Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) report that explained that consular offices found challenges in verifying the identities of applicants and dependents. The report goes on to say that some people from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism could apply for diversity visas. Yet in the very same paragraph, report authors indicated, “we found no documented evidence that DV immigrants from these, or other, countries posed a terrorist or other threat.”

As the State Department’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program website states, “Being randomly chosen as a selectee does not guarantee that you will receive a visa. Selection merely means that you are eligible to apply for a Diversity Visa. If your rank number becomes eligible for final processing, you potentially may be issued a Diversity Visa.” There is no guaranteed admission into the United States.

Winners of the lottery, the Immigration Policy Council explained, have to “undergo extensive screening before a visa will be issued, including multiple identity confirmations using biometrics, criminal and security background checks, cross-checks with various watch-lists, and in-person interviews.” Those security measures also apply for family members, like spouses and children, who the lottery winner can petition to bring into the United States as “derivatives.”

The White House also framed its bias against the visa lottery system as an issue of “merit and skill.” But as it stands, diversity visa lottery program applicants must have a high school education or two years of work experience in the past five years that requires at least two years of training or experience.

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“As a result of these low qualifying standards, there is no guarantee that those admitted to the U.S. through the visa lottery system can contribute positively to the United States or assimilate successfully,” the White House fact sheet said.

Some immigration experts would disagree that a high school graduate from another country makes them unable to “contribute positively” or “assimilate successfully” in the United States. As a point of clarification, merit does not necessarily equate skill, and having a skill does not necessarily require a formal education.

In a post last yearEthan Lewis, an Associate Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College argued that accepting immigrants with diverse backgrounds with diverse skills “tend to produce greater economic benefits” in part because the “more homogeneous and similar immigrants are to natives, the greater the odds they’ll in fact have a negative effect.” Lewis argued that people with diverse backgrounds and a lower grasp of English aren’t competing for the same jobs as native Americans, since they tend to “specialize in jobs that are less ‘communication-intensive,’ such as manual labor.” Deborah Weissman, professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, similarly argued that the emphasis on “merit” is hard to understand given that “there aren’t mechanisms by which” skills like like construction work can be measured.