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The diversity visa Donald Trump hates, explained

The diversity visa is the only chance much of the world has to try to immigrate to the US. Trump wants to ditch it.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Less than 24 hours after eight people were killed and 11 injured when a truck plowed through a bike lane in Manhattan, President Donald Trump shifted from making anodyne comments about “thoughts and prayers” to proposing a policy fix: eliminating the federal government’s little-known diversity visa program.

In an early morning tweetstorm Wednesday, Trump said the sole suspect in the attack, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, “came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty.” The Department of Homeland Security confirmed Wednesday afternoon that Saipov had come into the US in 2010 as part of the program, which awards green cards to 50,000 people each year from countries that don’t send many other immigrants to the US.

Trump was wrong to blame Schumer for the program’s existence, and it goes without saying that it’s impossible to prevent terrorist attacks caused by people who have already immigrated to the US by preventing new people from coming in. Still, the New York attack gives the Trump administration an opportunity to eliminate the program, which it derides as antithetical to its goal of “merit-based” immigration — selecting immigrants based on what they can do for the economy of the United States.

Because the diversity visa isn’t well understood — and because, by definition, a program to help people from countries that don’t send a lot of immigrants to the US doesn’t have a political constituency among American voters — it’s more vulnerable to political attacks than most other forms of legal immigration.

Ironically, though, it’s also the last remaining vestige of the immigration system under which a lot of white Americans’ ancestors came to the US — a system in which immigration restrictions were based on the individuals trying to come, not what skills they’d bring with them.

The diversity visa is the only chance much of the world has to try to immigrate to the US

Most people around the world have no way of immigrating to the US. They don’t have close family members who are US citizens (or immediate family members who are green card holders). They don’t have the money or skills required to get a (rare) employment-based green card. They’re not trapped in the sort of humanitarian crisis that could allow them to try to apply to come as refugees. And they don’t have a current job offer from a US employer that would allow them to get a temporary work visa (which might someday become a green card, if the immigrant is lucky and his employer is generous).

That means millions of people have only one way to immigrate to the US. As long as they have the equivalent of a high school diploma (or experience in a skilled profession), they could be eligible to apply for a slot in the “diversity visa lottery.”

A significant number of people apply to enter the lottery every year. In FY 2015, for example, more than 9 million people applied for the lottery program. But only a fraction of that number will actually receive a green card; the US sets aside just 50,000 slots each year for people to come to the US through the lottery. If a lottery entrant is picked, he (and his family, if they’re immigrating with him) has to go through all the regular steps that it takes to come to the US: a background check, an interview at a consulate, a biometrics exam. If they make it through the process in time, they get to come to the US as legal permanent residents — green card holders — with the possibility of naturalizing as US citizens in as little as five years.

But there’s a catch. You’re not allowed to enter the diversity visa lottery if you come from a country that’s sent more than 50,000 people to the US in the past five years. And the formula for how many lottery slots are available for each country depends partly on the population of its region of the world, and partly on how few immigrants each country has sent to the US recently — with the countries that send the fewest immigrants favored more.

In 2012, for instance, Nigeria had the largest number of lottery winners, at 6,024, compared to just 100 from Argentina. A disproportionately large number of people from Uzbekistan, Saipov’s birthplace, have also been able to get diversity visas. In 2012, 4,800 Uzbeks were lottery winners, putting the country in fourth place out of nearly 200 eligible nations. In 2016, the country had 2,378 entrants fully complete the process and receive green cards, putting it in fifth place out of roughly 100 eligible nations. Other highly successful countries that year included Nepal, Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So while in theory the diversity visa is open to most of the world, in practice it tends to favor Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe — regions where there are plenty of people with some level of education but no US ties.

That wasn’t always the case.

Trump wants to eliminate a visa that once brought more Irish and Italians to the US

The diversity visa hasn’t been around long; its current form was set by the Immigration Act of 1990. Which makes it even more remarkable that since its inception, there’s been a transformative shift in who actually comes to the US under the program.

Congressional Research Service, 2011

Despite the connotations of the word “diversity,” the visa lottery originally catered to European immigrants — and, in particular, those from Western Europe. That was, in fact, the entire point.

As professor Anna O. Law and historian Carly Goodman have written, the diversity visa lottery became a politically popular idea in the late 1980s because of a weird mismatch between who had political power in the US and who was immigrating there.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 — which is still the template for the broader US system — said that immigrants should be selected based on work qualifications or family ties rather than national origins, clearing the way for large numbers of Asians (and modest numbers of Africans) to make their way to the US for the first time in decades.

But getting rid of national quotas made it harder for Europeans to immigrate to the US if they didn’t already have job offers. Ethnic groups that had been in the US for a long time (like Irish and Italian Americans) didn’t necessarily have a lot of close relatives in their home countries whom they could bring as family-based immigrants, but they still had ethnic pride — and political power.

As Goodman wrote for the Washington Post in July:

Undocumented Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, through groups like the Irish Immigration Reform Movement, lobbied Congress to “legalize the Irish” already in the U.S. and to make sure future visas would be reserved for the Irish. Policymakers were moved by their plight, not least because the image of the Irish immigrant contrasted starkly with who they imagined were “illegal aliens.”

But the Irish and their allies in Congress needed to deflect criticism that they were proposing a special gift just for the Irish. They framed the program as an issue of diversity, borrowing the word from a 1981 report by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy that identified cultural diversity as an important goal.

In other words, the “diversity visa lottery” was originally intended to bring about the opposite of diversity — it was intended to keep bringing in people from more established immigrant groups. Law calls it “pork-barrel legislation”; Goodman points out that “the visa program, in creating space for more Irish and European immigrants, aimed to diversify immigration by making it whiter.”

But once the program had been put in place, no one was able to control exactly how it evolved. After the early 1990s, fewer Western Europeans found themselves in need of a “diversity” lifeline (as the economy in Western Europe improved), while more Africans and Asians started to meet the educational requirements and apply.

After 1990, Congress shifted away from making small tweaks to the immigration system. Instead, when momentum built to change legal immigration — in the mid-2000s and the early 2010s — legislators focused on “comprehensive” reforms that ultimately fell apart. That turned out to be the saving grace for the diversity visa — which otherwise was in a vulnerable position.

Some African-American and Caribbean-American legislators have defended the diversity visa as a boon to African immigrants, but it’s not their biggest priority. As the diversity visa lottery has actually become about diversity, it’s lost its natural political defenders.

That means that when the government royally messes up the visa lottery — as it did in 2011 (when it told tens of thousands of people that they had been selected, only to later void the results after a discovering that a computer glitch had failed to randomize the winners), and last month, when it lost an untold number of lottery submissions — there isn’t a big push to find out what went wrong, fix it, and fund the program well enough that it won’t happen again.

And because the diversity visa is a political orphan, it’s an appealing target for people who want to either shift legal immigration flows or reduce legal immigration across the board.

People, in other words, like Donald Trump.

The diversity visa lottery seems like an insult to “merit-based” immigration

By blaming the New York attack on the diversity visa (and those who supported it), Trump is teeing up a line of attack that critics of the program have floated occasionally over the past several years: that the program is uniquely vulnerable to fraud and abuse, which (among other things) could let terrorists enter the US.

Nothing in the way diversity visas are allocated makes the program uniquely vulnerable to use by would-be terrorists: People still have to go through all the typical “vetting” to immigrate to the US, and diversity visas can still be denied if State Department officials worry that someone might pose a national security threat.

The program has had problems with fraud more broadly — both by individuals seeking visas and especially by unscrupulous businesspeople trying to make a profit off uninformed immigrant applicants — but the federal government has worked to tamp those down. In particular, the State Department says that improvements in technology over the past decade — especially electronic registration for the lottery — have made it easier to prove that applicants are who they say they are.

At the end of the day, though, there’s nothing that makes the diversity visa any easier for a terrorist (or anyone else) to exploit than other visas. The reason the diversity visa is an appealing target for Trump and his backers in Congress is that it doesn’t have a ready political constituency to defend it — which is to say, the diversity visa isn’t designed to benefit anyone or anything currently in the United States.

In recent years, most Republicans (and many Democrats) have called on the US to shift away from its 20th-century legal immigration model, in which immigrants can come to the US by several different routes, toward a unified system of “merit-based” immigration.

Their ideas of “merit” may vary: A particularly extreme version of such a proposal — the RAISE Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton and endorsed by Trump — would award extra merit points to immigrants who had master’s or doctorate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, but an immigrant with a PhD in a non-STEM field would get the same number of points as an immigrant with only a bachelor’s degree. But the idea is fundamentally the same: An immigrant’s merit is assessed mainly in terms of his or her potential contributions to the US economy.

“Merit-based immigration” proposals’ real target is family-based immigration, which accounts for the majority of permanent immigration into the US, and which doesn’t require immigrants to have any particular level of education whatsoever.

The diversity visa is much less substantial — it accounts for only 4 percent of the green cards issued in any given year. And diversity visa recipients are actually more professionally successful than the average immigrant: In 2009, according to a 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service, 24 percent of green card holders who’d come on diversity visas were employed in professional or managerial jobs (compared to 10 percent of all green card holders) and only 3 percent were unemployed (while the unemployment rate among all green card holders was 8 percent).

But family-based immigration has champions: the US citizens who are the ones bringing over their family members, and their communities. The diversity visa does not. And so it’s been one of the things that Democrats have been willing to give up as part of comprehensive immigration overhauls — while Republicans seek to eliminate it immediately.

This is what makes Trump’s blaming of Schumer for the attack particularly off-base, in addition to being unseemly. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) noted on Twitter Wednesday, Schumer, then part of a bipartisan group of immigration-reform minded senators known as the “Gang of Eight,” actually proposed ending the diversity visa program in 2013 as the senators attempted to push a comprehensive immigration reform measure through Congress.

The Trump administration’s racial politics could galvanize support for the diversity visa

But if Trump and his White House are assuming that Democrats, who were willing to eliminate the diversity visa in the past, are going to play ball again, they could be very wrong.

For one thing, Democrats aren’t generally willing to compromise on immigration unless they can get something big (like legalization of unauthorized immigrants) in return. And they certainly aren’t willing to compromise with Donald Trump — even things that have been easy bipartisan deals in the past, like more funding for border security, have been polarized under this president.

Trump’s attack on Schumer was instructive. For one thing, the Trump administration is unlikely to inspire bipartisan cooperation in ending the diversity visa program by blaming Schumer for a terrorist attack in his own state. But arguably more importantly, the contrast between Trump’s response to the New York attack and his response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas last month seemed to confirm Democrats’ suspicions that the president lets white perpetrators of violence off too easily.

And because Trump’s brand of racial grievance is so overt, he has inadvertently given diversity a political constituency — one that can then be mobilized in support of the visa the president blames for the New York attack.

“I have always believed, and continue to believe, that immigration is good for America,” Schumer wrote in a statement in response to Trump — before trying to change the subject to Trump’s proposed budget cuts to some counterterrorism grants.

It was hardly a full-throated defense of the diversity visa. But it was an indication that if Trump continues to use the New York attack to push for his preexisting immigration agenda, Democrats will continue to use immigration as another way to prove they’re resisting Donald Trump.

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