America’s Strangest Immigration Program

Each year, 50,000 lucky lottery winners get green cards — with little regard to their skills

If the United States were a college football team, it would be the equivalent of a legacy powerhouse — with first pick of all the most talented, skilled players coming out of high school.

Tens of millions of people around the world want to immigrate to America. With so many people wanting to come to the country, the United States could use education, job skills, personal wealth, or any number of criteria to pick the cream of the crop.

“It’s hard to believe that any country in the world would run a program like this.”

Every year, though, a little-known immigration program awards 50,000 green cards based on something else — blind luck.

Created in 1990 — originally out of a desire to make it easier for Irish immigrants — the Diversity Visa lottery program is designed to increase immigration from parts of the world that traditionally have not sent many immigrants to America. A computer randomly selects from among millions of people who apply each year.

It would be the equivalent of a Division I college football team giving away a starting position each year to a randomly selected applicant to the program.

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Although it accounts for less than 5 percent of the legal immigrants admitted to the country each year, critics contend the program is based on no recognizable interest — not to import people with needed skills or even to reunite recent immigrants with their families.

“It’s hard to believe that any country in the world would run a program like this,” said Roy Beck, president of the advocacy group NumbersUSA. “It’s a crazy way to run a railroad.”

Robert Rector, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation who has studied the economic impact of immigration, said he knows of no other nation that approaches immigration in a similar way.

“Only the United States would do something like that,” he said.

Originally, the diversity lottery cap was set at 55,000. Since 1999, Congress has diverted 5,000 visas for certain Nicaraguans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and people from former Soviet bloc countries and their dependents who had arrived as asylum seekers.

Millions of Lottery Players
Demand is high. In 2015, according to the State Department, more than 9.38 million people applied for a spot; including their family members, the number was almost 14.4 million people.

According to State Department statistics, more than 1.1 million foreigners have immigrated through the program, including 472,646 in the last decade. In fiscal year 2016, Nepal (3,247 immigrants), Egypt (2,855), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2,778), Iran (2,778), and Uzbekistan (2,378) were the countries whose citizens won the most diversity visas. The system is designed to spread out the winners among all parts of the world, with no single country getting more than 7 percent of the green cards in any given year.

Ashley Garrigus, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said it is free to apply. A computer then randomly picks a small percentage — in 2015, it was 125,514 people — to apply for visas at a cost of $330. She said the federal government ultimately awards 55,000 green cards, including those covered by the 1999 change, but the actual number of arrivals often is less than 55,000 because not everyone follows through.

The program has some requirements. For instance, recipients must have a high school education or its equivalent, or show two years of work experience in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience.

“The point of this program is to bring people to the United States who will not become a public burden,” Garrigus said.

Critics contend, however, that a large percentage of people who come on those visas lack the prerequisite skills to succeed in a modern economy.

[lz_table title=”Diversity Visa Immigrants” source=”State Department”]Immigrants by year from lottery
|Fiscal Year,Green Cards
2007,40 076
2008,46 633
2009,48 036
2010,51 312
2011,51 118
2012,34 463
2013,52 571
2014,52 342
2015,49 377
2016,46 718

“It seems like a very inefficient way to pick the best and the brightest,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.

Various attempts have been made in recent years to kill the program. In 2012, the House of Representatives voted 245-139 to eliminate the program and give the visas to high-tech foreigners who earn advanced degrees from American universities. But the bill died in the Senate. “Comprehensive immigration reform” legislation offered in various forms over the past decade also included provisions to eliminate the program.

Last week, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) proposed ending the Diversity Visa program as part of broader legislation to cut legal immigration in half within 10 years. Cotton said on “The Laura Ingraham Show” that it is not even accomplishing its supposed purpose, to ensure ethnically balanced immigration.

“Right now, the way it’s working in practice is those green cards go to African nations and — surprisingly — European nations,” he said. “So, we have a diversity lottery that is going to a bunch of Europeans … It makes no sense. It serves no purpose for the American people. And I think it should be eliminated.”

Lagging Economic Performance
An immigration commission headed by then-Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) in 1996 found that immigrants who entered through the lottery spoke English less well than those who came via employer- or family-sponsored visas. A 2011 Tufts University honors thesis gathered data indicating that lottery winners, despite being better-educated than other legal permanent residents, were less likely to be employed.

[lz_table title=”Diversity Visas By Region” source=”State Department”]Allocations by region in FY 2016
|Region,Green Cards
Africa,20 706
Asia,8 898
Europe,15 207
North America,5
South & Central America,1 370
|Top countries
|Country,Green Cards
Nepal,3 247
Egypt,2 855
Dem. Republic of Congo,2 778
Iran,2 778
Uzbekistan,2 378

The paper also indicated that less than 10 percent of diversity visa holders had any experience in the United States, whereas roughly half of all green card holders had previously spent time in the U.S. Beck, of NumbersUSA, said winners have less support once they arrive because the system excludes the countries that are the biggest sources of immigrants to America.

“What it really means is the lottery today picks people least likely to assimilate because they have the least connection to the culture,” he said.

Critics point to another troubling side effect of the program — fraud.

A 2013 report by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General details efforts by organized crime rings to flood the system with fraudulent applications. In some cases, gangs use names of people without their knowledge. If the someone “wins” the lottery, gang members sometimes coerce him to move to America and do their bidding, according to the report.

The report indicated that gangs also extort payments of as much as $15,000 from people who win the lottery. The State Department warns foreigners of common scams in which people or groups charge money, claiming they can improve odds of winning. It is free to apply, the government stresses, and there is no way to improve odds of winning.

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Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies and a former U.S. consular officer, said it is difficult for American embassy officials to detect and stamp out fraud in the program. She said it also creates new demand for immigration. Once the new arrivals come, they can sponsor their extended relatives to immigrate through family-based visa programs. And then those immigrants can sponsor new people.

“What’s the national interest in having this program?” Vaughan asked.

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