Does the ‘diversity’ lottery live up to its name?

Every year, the U.S. allocates 50,000 “green cards,” or permanent resident visas, to its Diversity Visa Lottery program. The supposed goal of the program is to promote diversity among the immigrant population and to give people in all parts of the world a fair chance to settle in the U.S.

Towards this end, only individuals from “low-admission” countries are able to enter the lottery. A low-admission country is defined as one that has sent no more than 50,000 migrants to the U.S. over the past five years. Presently, this means that individuals from the following countries are ineligible to enter the lottery: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland/dependent territories), and Vietnam.

{mosads}What is noteworthy about this particular set of countries is that they are all fairly populous. And that’s exactly what you’d expect – it’s no surprise that countries with bigger populations are the ones sending more migrants to the U.S. Yet, for the purposes of determining whether a country counts as low-admission, the law considers only the total number of immigrants from that country. Hence, a fairly large country like Nigeria, Brazil, or China might count as “high-admission” even if it sends relatively few migrants on a per-capita basis.

In effect, this means that U.S. immigration law rewards countries for being small. But why should this count as promoting diversity? Countries have the borders they do for various contingent geopolitical and historical reasons. Nigeria, for example, could have ended up as several different countries – would this have made the population of present day Nigeria more diverse?

Furthermore, it’s just not true that all countries possess the same amount of “diversity” – no matter how the notion of diversity is to be understood. Along any dimension of diversity – be it ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic – a country like Nigeria or Brazil is more diverse than a small, fairly homogenous country like Iceland.

Moreover, suppose that Amazonas, a state in northwestern Brazil of around 4 million people, manages to secede from the rest of the country. Suddenly, its inhabitants would be eligible to enter the U.S. Diversity Lottery. But in what sense would this secession have added to those inhabitants’ ability to promote diversity in the U.S.? It seems quite implausible to think that one’s ability to contribute to America’s diversity depends on arbitrary geopolitical events in this way.

A second problematic feature of the lottery system is that it defines a person’s “country of origin” as being her country of birth. So, for example, consider a Nigerian-born individual who has spent most of her life in Botswana and is a citizen of that country. Let’s also suppose that she identifies quite strongly as someone from Botswana. Even so, she will not be able to enter the diversity lottery. But suppose she has a younger brother who was born in Botswana – he, on the other hand, will be able to apply. Yet, for all practical purposes this distinction seems arbitrary, especially with regards to promoting genuine diversity.

A third, albeit more controversial, reason against continuing the Diversity Lottery is that those visas could be used to grant residency to individuals with deeper ties to the U.S. A widely shared Vox article from last year described William Han’s inability to obtain a green card even after having legally resided in the U.S. for 15 years and having completed a law degree from Columbia. Han explained how he strongly identified with American culture and considered the country to be his home. It seems unfair to reject his claim to continue living in the U.S. while at the same time allowing many individuals with virtually no ties to the country to settle here permanently.

Thus the main options for positive reform, going forward, are: 1) keep the lottery system but make individuals from all countries eligible to apply; or 2) eliminate the lottery altogether and use the resulting spots to increase quotas for other immigration categories. In 2012, the House passed a bill pursuing option 2), but unfortunately, the Senate blocked the legislation.

The law thus enjoys significant sticking power, and part of this no doubt owes to the buzzword ‘diversity’. Nobody wants to be against diversity. But labels can be misleading, and in this case it’s really hard to see, upon closer inspection, how the lottery system promotes diversity in any meaningful sense.

Joshi is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Princeton University, focusing on ethics and political philosophy.


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