Trump is right: The visa lotto has got to go

Trump is right: The visa lotto has got to go

In the pantheon of ill-conceived public policies, our policy of admitting the vast majority of immigrants based on who they’re related to (in other contexts, known as nepotism) would have to rank right up there. But there is a subset of our immigration policy — little known to the American public until Sayfullo Saipov plowed a truck into a crowd of bicyclists and pedestrians on a beautiful Halloween afternoon in lower Manhattan — that actually makes family chain migration seem intelligent by comparison.

Saipov, a self-declared ISIS warrior, arrived in this country seven years ago from Uzbekistan as one of the 50,000 or so lucky winners of the annual Diversity Visa Lottery. Aside from killing eight people and injuring 12 more, Saipov managed to shine a spotlight on the fact that about 5 percent of the people who legally settle in the United States each year do so because their names were picked out of a (virtual) hat. 

Ironically — or perhaps not — the same guy who came up with the idea for endless family chain migration also came up with the Diversity Lottery. That person would be none other than the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. The long-serving Liberal Lion of the Senate was the architect of the Immigration Act of 1965, which still stands as the basis of our immigration policy. His intent in creating a family-based immigration system was actually not all that liberal. At the time, he believed that such a system would enshrine the dominance of European immigration without the overt ugliness of the National Origins Quota System that had been in place since the 1920s.


Twenty-five years later, it was evident that Kennedy’s scheme had not worked out as planned. Half of Europe was enjoying enormous prosperity and had little reason to want to emigrate, while the other half was imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain and couldn’t emigrate. However, in the late-1980s a severe recession in Ireland resulted in a growing desire on the part of Irish citizens to immigrate to the United States. Only they couldn’t because they no longer had the requisite family connections under the system that Kennedy had devised.


But rather than correct the mistake he had made 25 years earlier, Kennedy came up with an even more inane scheme to allow more Irish immigration — something that was politically important in Massachusetts. Together with then-Rep. Chuck SchumerChuck Schumer84 mayors call for immigration to be included in reconciliation Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? MORE (Irish immigration was also important to many folks in Brooklyn) he hatched the Diversity Visa Lottery. It wasn’t exactly a fair lottery — you had a much better chance of winning a visa if you were from Ireland or Italy (another important constituency in Massachusetts and New York). 

Lo and behold, not long after the lottery was established, the Irish economy emerged from the doldrums and demand for immigration subsided commensurately. Once again, the lack of interest by the Irish became a windfall for other nationalities that also could not qualify under the family chain policy.  Uzbekistan, which wasn’t even an independent nation when the visa lottery was concocted, was one. Egypt, home of Hesham Mohammed Hadayet, a deportable illegal alien who got to stay here because his wife won the lottery, was another. Hadayet, like Saipov, used the opportunity to wage jihad when he opened fire on a crowd of people checking in for an El Al flight at LAX in 2002, killing two.

Last week’s attack in New York once again raises question about whether we can adequately vet people who hail from the growing number of failed states around the world. Tafsheen Malik is another recent example. The Pakistani national, and the her half of the his-and-her jihadist duo that gunned down 14 people in San Bernardino in 2015, had more red flags in her file than a May Day parade, and still managed to get through three layers of vetting.

Aside from the security concerns, the Diversity Lottery does not even live up to its billing as a mechanism for bringing skilled workers and entrepreneurs to this country. Saipov listed truck driver as his profession when he arrived in the U.S. in 2010 (a skill that proved grotesquely useful last Tuesday), and his last known employment was as an Uber driver. The ability to pass a driving test is not exactly a sorely lacking skill in this country and will likely be an unnecessary one in a decade or two as driverless vehicles become the norm.

Choosing immigrants because of who they happen to be related to is, to put it politely, stupid, and topped only by picking their names at random. It is time to have a rational immigration policy in the United States, along the lines of the merit-based system proposed by the RAISE Act, S. 1720, now before the Senate. At the very least, Congress should act quickly to pass Rep. Bill Posey’s (R-Fla.) SAFE for America Act, H.R. 1178, which would simply repeal visa lottery program.

If any good can come out of a terrorist attack that cost eight people their lives, perhaps it is that Sayfullo Saipov may finally provide the impetus for Congress to fix a half century of bad immigration policy and a series of cockamamie work-arounds intended to cover up the underlying stupidity. But, then again, we are talking about Congress.

Ira Mehlman is media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a nonprofit group that aims to promote legal immigration.