On October 31, an individual drove a pickup truck on a bike path in New York City, killing eight in an act of terrorism. The driver of the truck, Sayfullo Saipov, was a U.S. legal permanent resident originally from Uzbekistan. Mr. Saipov came to the U.S. after winning a visa through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery program.
A terrorist attack pretty much guarantees a chorus of political opportunists putting forth their ideas to cut immigration. This incident was no exception. Immigration hardliners in Congress wasted no time in calling for an end to the diversity visa lottery. And, no surprise, the President called for the elimination of the diversity visa.
Diversity Visa Origins and Purpose
The American immigration system favors immigrants with close family ties to the U.S., and most immigrants enter through the sponsorship of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident immigrant. Over time, our immigration stream became dominated by a relatively few countries. In 2015, for example, out of the 1,051,000 persons obtaining lawful permanent residence (“green cards”), 46 percent came from seven countries (Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam).
Except through employer sponsorship, there were few opportunities for nationals of most countries to come to the U.S. For example, although millions of Americans claim some Irish ancestry, the family linkages to Ireland are too remote to qualify for U.S. immigration. If you are Irish and have a grandparent who is a citizen of the U.S., you are out of luck—U.S. citizens may only sponsor spouses, parents, children (including adult children), and brothers and sisters. Because American ties to Ireland are generally more remote than the immediate family, very few Irish had an opportunity to immigrate. The same was true of other nationalities that gave us our immigrant heritage—including the countries from which individuals were brought involuntarily as slaves.
To provide an opportunity for nationals from countries that send relatively few immigrants, and to diversify our immigration stream, the Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery, was included in the Immigration Act of 1990, providing 55,000 visas annually (now 50,000 visas) for nationals from these countries.
Does the Visa Lottery Pose a Security Risk?
Let’s look at the process. Not everyone is eligible to apply. First, an individual must be from one of the countries that are not “high admission” countries. There are educational and work requirements. An applicant must have, at minimum, an equivalent of a U.S. high school education, or a minimum of two years of training in a job that requires at least two years of training or experience.
Visas are awarded by lottery. As with any lottery, an individual’s chances of winning are small. In 2015, there were a total of 14,418,000 applicants for 50,000 visas. So, an applicant had one-third of 1 percent chance of winning a visa. If someone wanted to come to the U.S. to create havoc, hoping for a diversity visa, with less than a 1 percent chance of winning, seems poor strategy.
Individuals who actually win a visa must submit to the same background and security checks that are performed on anyone seeking to immigrate to the U.S.
Scrapping Diversity Visas Will Not Make Us Safer
In the case of this incident, Mr. Saipov appears to have been radicalized after he came to the U.S. He was not planning an attack when he applied for a visa. It is unlikely he would have been flagged by the “extreme vetting” the president likes to talk about, as he had no record with police in Uzbekistan. The president and immigration hardliners in Congress have used this incident to demand an end to the visa lottery and to replace our immigration system with a “merit-based” system. But Saipov was college educated and had begun a career in accounting in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, before winning the visa lottery. If he had been planning to attack us prior to coming to the U.S., he would likely have a better chance of gaining entry in a future “merit based” immigration system rewarding education and work skills, rather than applying through a process giving him a 1 in 300 chance of getting a visa.
More than 1.25 million people have come to the U.S. on the diversity visa since its inception. It is just not believable to say that this one incident requires the elimination of the entire program. It’s fair to have a debate about the Diversity Visa program—about whether it has served its purpose in diversifying our immigration stream or whether it continues to serve foreign policy or other objectives to merit keeping it as part of our immigration system. But to imply that we would be safer without the diversity visa program is just pure cynicism.