Senators back Trump's call to end visa lottery program

Senators back Trump's call to end visa lottery program
© Greg Nash

Senators signaled on Wednesday that they are open to ending an immigration program that President Trump wants to shut down in the wake of the New York City terrorist attack.

Trump on Wednesday called for ending the diversity visa lottery system and said he would start “the process of terminating” it.

The program was created by an immigration law in 1990, so ending it would require action from Congress. While there are early signs of divisions over how to scrap the program, senators stressed they were broadly supportive of the idea.

“We ought to be more focused and more merit-oriented when it comes to our immigration program. There’s always going to have to be a combination of family-based immigration, but we also ought to reward people who we want to see come to this country and help us grow our economy,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Air Force makes criminal reporting changes after Texas massacre We need a better pathway for allowing civilians to move guns across state lines MORE (R-Texas), who supports the president’s efforts, told reporters.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration We are running out of time to protect Dreamers US trade deficit rises on record imports from China MORE (R-S.C.) noted legislation would take time, but added, “count me in for wanting to eliminate the lottery system for merit-based immigration.”

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats turn on Al Franken Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign Democratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday MORE (D-Ill.), asked if Democrats would be open to getting rid of the lottery, said: “Of course we would. Let me just tell you something: that was part of the [comprehensive immigration] reform [bill].”

The 2013 bill would have ended the diversity visa lottery program, which uses a random selection to give green cards to roughly 50,000 individuals from countries with historically low immigration rates. The legislation cleared the Senate but died in the House, which passed a stand-alone bill to end the program in 2012.

The visa lottery has been a target of immigration hawks for decades, but it is back in the spotlight after Tuesday night's attack in New York City, where a vehicle was driven into a crowd of pedestrians, killing eight people. The suspect, Samfullo Saipov, came to the U.S. in 2010 as part of the visa lottery program, according to the Trump administration.

"President Trump is right, the Diversity Visa Lottery Program is a problem and plagued by fraud. ... I hope we can include this area of common ground as we work to fix our broken immigration system and strengthen our national security,” Sen. David Perdue (Ga.) said on Twitter, responding to Trump’s remarks.

Perdue and Tom CottonTom CottonGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Grassley offers DACA fix tied to tough enforcement measures Five things senators should ask Tom Cotton if he’s nominated to lead the CIA MORE (Ark.) introduced legislation, backed by Trump, that includes getting rid of the lottery. And though conservatives are seizing on the bill in the wake of the attack, it has limited support in the Senate Republican caucus.

Not every lawmaker was immediately on board with Trump’s demand. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAmerica isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ GOP should reject the left's pessimism and the deficit trigger MORE (D-N.Y.), asked if the program needed to be revisited, suggested lawmakers should wait until they know more information about the attack.

“Well, we don’t know the details of this person. The green card program has a long, serious vetting program; it takes a year. So, before we can comment we have to see what happened with this individual person,” he said during a press conference.

Schumer and Trump traded fire Wednesday after the president called the program “a Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAmerica isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ GOP should reject the left's pessimism and the deficit trigger MORE beauty.”  Schumer fired back that “[I] guess it's not too soon to politicize a tragedy.”

And top Democrats on the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus, quickly knocked the president, saying he is "politicizing a national tragedy to further his anti-immigrant agenda."

Senators also appear divided on whether or not to insert the lottery program into the negotiations over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, underscoring the likely fight ahead for the president and conservatives. 

The administration announced it would nix the Obama-era DACA program, which allows undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children to work and go to school without the fear of being deported.

Graham said he would support linking the two issues, and Perdue, separately, added that ending the lottery “must be part of any congressional solution to fix our country's immigration problems.”

But other key senators in both parties said the two issues should be resolved separately.

“I think we have a very sensitive path to walk here because we don’t want to get down into comprehensive immigration reform again. I’ve been here 15 years. It always fails,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn said Congress should “address the DACA population and deal with border security and some of those measures and then use that as a confidence-building measure to move on and do other immigration reform. There’s a lot of other things beyond just the diversity lottery, visa lottery.”

Durbin, who like Cornyn scoffed when asked about dropping the issue into the DACA talks, warned against turning the negotiations into an immigration catch-all.

“Please. Stop loading things on for these poor kids. Let’s get them taken care of. Everybody’s got every immigration idea in the world and they want to put it on the backs of these kids,” he said.

Graham and Durbin have been in negotiations with GOP senators about how to pass a bill protecting DACA recipients.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Thanks to the farm lobby, the US is stuck with a broken ethanol policy MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has also been in talks largely with GOP senators on his committee about pairing a DACA fix with border security and enforcement measures.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Grassley offers DACA fix tied to tough enforcement measures We are running out of time to protect Dreamers MORE (R-N.C.), a member of the Grassley group, said he was open to reviewing the visa program but warned against tying it to DACA.

“It’s a good idea. It’s a worthy subject to focus on, but that takes a step down the slippery slope of comprehensive [reform],” he said.

He added that the lottery program should be “folded into the discussion on the subsequent phases of immigration reform because, you know, we’ve got a lot of visa programs that we need to look at. ... But unless it’s coupled with something else I don’t know how we would get the 60 votes.”