Diversity visa lottery doesn’t make us less safe, but ending it might

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In an autumn marked by several tragic incidents of mass violence, only the attack in New York City spurred President Trump to take to Twitter and call on Congress to take action. That’s because the alleged perpetrator of that attack, a native of Uzbekistan, had entered the United States as an immigrant through the diversity visa lottery.

Although there is ample evidence that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens, the president seized upon the attack as an opportunity to crack down on immigration and to reinforce a link between immigrants and crime that is not substantiated by the evidence. He called on Congress to end the diversity visa immigration program. 

{mosads}But ending the visa lottery program would do nothing to make Americans safer, and it could damage America’s standing in the world.


That’s because the visa lottery is a unique part of our immigration system that strengthens U.S. ties to the rest of the world. We are scholars who have spent years studying the visa lottery, uncovering its history, and speaking to lottery entrants in West Africa and beyond, as well as those who have won the lottery and settled in the United States.

What we have learned is that the program appeals to talented individuals all over the world, and that the lottery reinforces the ideal of the American dream in far flung villages. We have also seen that visa lottery winners undergo rigorous screening at U.S. embassies in their home countries.

Contrary to the opinions of immigration restrictionists — those who are eager to drastically limit not only unauthorized but also lawful immigration to the United States — immigration, including through the visa lottery, is not a threat to us.

Few people in the U.S. understand how the visa lottery works. Each year, there is a month-long period during which people submit applications for the lottery. The electronic lottery has made it easy for the Department of State to screen the online registrations for duplicate or fraudulent entries, which are eliminated from consideration.

Six months after registering, applicants can check their registration number to see if they were selected, a process that is done at random by computer. The odds are very low — there are many more registrants for the lottery than visas available (with up to 15 million applying each year for 50,000 visas). If a person is lucky enough to be selected, she may then apply for a diversity visa at the U.S. embassy in her home country.

This is its own process that involves pulling together documentation, paying a hefty fee, and going for an in-person interview within the designated time period – being vetted exactly as are all immigrant visa applicants. More importantly, this vetting — which can last up to two years — removes all luck from the system and thrusts applicants into a rigorous merit-based set of selection protocols.

To even be considered for the visa, a candidate must have an advanced degree (the baccalaureate or high school diploma – in West Africa, less than 1 percent of the population can boast such an accomplishment) or two years of experience in a job on the U.S. Labor Department’s jobs-needed list.

The long time involved in the application, the low probability of winning, the layers of screening, including biometrics, and the skills of U.S. consular officers all make the visa lottery a mechanism that would be difficult to exploit, despite critic’s baseless charges against it. At an earlier moment, during the 1990s, some applicants applied multiple times with different names, and some sold their winning numbers to others, but such fraudulent practice was eliminated in the early 2000s by the introduction of biometrics and the requirement that applicants submit a digital photo.

There is no evidence that anyone who presented fraudulent documents at their visa interviews received a visa. Actually, consular officers have been attuned to the risks and screen visa applicants carefully.

The diversity visa lottery brings immigrants of tremendous talent and hard work to this country. In making the rounds of West African DV winners in the U.S. — in places like Omaha, Minneapolis, Moline, Newark, Raleigh, and Washington, D.C. — we have been struck by their hard work and determination to succeed in America.

A current in-demand job for men from Togo, for example, is joining the U.S. Army, with several we met now serving abroad. They and other DV immigrants appear model citizens and members of American communities in every way. But this should not be surprising. Anyone who picks up and comes to the U.S. from a distant land will be highly motivated to succeed and make the most of their opportunity.

Plus, the lottery does important work of signaling to people around the world that the United States embraces diversity and welcomes people from every corner of the planet. This improves America’s standing in the world and is an amazingly effective form of “soft power.”

Across West Africa, because of the visa lottery, the United States is described as “the country of our dreams.” During the sign-up period every fall, and at the time of lottery selection in May, the churches are filled with people praying that they will win the visa lottery and land in the States, and the streets are replete with signs celebrating life in America.

But Trump’s efforts to gut the Department of State may undermine the good work that the visa lottery does in the world. American diplomacy under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is collapsing, with both seasoned and entry level positions going unfilled. The dwindling ranks of thoughtful people to administer the visa process should be of concern to everyone.

People seeking visas to come to the United States — whether as students, visitors, or immigrants, including visa lottery winners —will encounter longer waits, less oversight, and more cursory adjudications.

What little evidence there is that the visa lottery could be subject to fraud shows that it is aspiring immigrants themselves who are vulnerable, not the United States. To address this risk, the United States should engage in more public diplomacy and outreach, educating applicants about lottery procedures, and obviating the need for people to pay for assistance to enter.

Not only would this help lottery applicants avoid scams, but it would help U.S. diplomacy to have more outreach in communities where the United States is a mere abstraction rather than a country with real people and a sense of shared humanity.

The visa lottery is open to nearly every country in the world, except for those that have sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous five years. Critics have argued that individuals from certain countries should be banned.

But to ban a person from the United States based on his or her country of origin is not only discriminatory but also reflects flawed thinking. That the visa lottery is open to people who seek to depart authoritarian countries and countries that abuse human rights and limit freedom — should be a good thing. 

The United States benefits tremendously from the visa lottery as well as from a well-trained, well-funded Department of State. Immigration is a critical, personal link between people in American communities and people around the world. By strengthening these ties, enabling exchange, and embracing the chance to give hope to aspiring immigrants, the visa lottery punches above its weight.

In the aftermath of the president’s calls to end the visa lottery, several members of Congress said as much in a statement, “The program promotes American ideals and goodwill, including ensuring that individuals from low immigration countries have some chance at the American Dream.

Trump is using this tragedy to again demonize immigrants and seek to close America’s doors.” As scholars of the DV lottery, we have seen first-hand the benefits of the visa lottery both to aspiring immigrants themselves and to the United States. Congress should preserve it.

Charles Piot is a professor of African & African American Studies and Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, with a forthcoming book on the DV lottery. Carly Goodman is a historian of U.S. immigration and foreign relations and a Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellow.

Tags Diversity Visa Lottery Immigration Rex Tillerson

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