The diversity visa lottery program Trump wants to kill isn’t the free-for-all he claims
Thousands of residents in Dhaka, Bangladesh, jam the General Post Office to submit their entries for the U.S. immigration lottery in February 1996. Mufti Munir/Getty Images

President Donald Trump took aim at the diversity visa lottery in his State of the Union address Tuesday, calling for an end to the lottery as a pillar of his immigration plan and describing it as “a program that randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit or the safety of our people.”

This isn’t the first time Trump has targeted the visa lottery. In November, Trump lashed out against the program after it was determined Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in a New York City terrorist attack, had immigrated to the U.S. from Uzbekistan through the lottery.

The lottery system, which has a rocky history, isn’t the unfettered free-for-all Trump claims. And the president isn’t the first politician to scrutinize the program.

What is the diversity visa lottery?

The diversity visa lottery is an immigration program that awards 50,000 visas annually to immigrants from countries with “historically low” rates of immigration to the U.S. The visas are randomly distributed among six geographic regions, with no single country receiving more than 7% of the total available visas, according to the State Department.

The visa lottery is available to citizens from most countries around the world, other than those which have had more than 50,000 citizens immigrate to the U.S. over the past five years. Countries whose citizens are barred from entering the upcoming 2019 lottery include Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and Vietnam.

While Trump claimed Tuesday that the program “randomly hands out green cards,” the lottery does have restrictions. To apply for the visa, entrants must have at least a high school education or its equivalent, or two years of work experience in a profession requiring at least two years of training or experience.

Once selected for the program, applicants must undergo additional vetting, including a medical exam and consular interview. According to the Congressional Research Service, criteria barring potential immigrants from receiving visas include but is not limited to health-related grounds, criminal history, security and terrorist concerns, and immigrants who have been previously removed from the U.S.

“No visa can be issued unless all concerns raised by the screening are fully resolved. As part of this screening process, information that might suggest an individual is a potential threat is shared with all appropriate U.S. government agencies,” a State Department official previously told Politifact. “National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications.”

Studies have also shown that countries aren’t sending their “worst people” to the U.S. through the lottery system, as Trump has claimed. According to the Cato Institute, 2015 incarceration rates for immigrants from the 20 countries who sent the most diversity visa immigrants was roughly one-fifth of the incarceration rate for native-born Americans. The CRS also noted that diversity visa recipients in 2009 were more likely to report having professional or managerial employment positions than legal permanent residents overall.

History of the program

Today, the diversity visa lottery is used to bring in immigrants from around the world — particularly Africa. Forty-one percent of lottery visas issued in 2015 went to immigrants from African nations, while 30% went to Asian immigrants, according to the Cato Institute.

Much like family-based immigration, the lottery’s impact on the United States’ actual diversity is an unintended consequence. After the 1965 Immigration Act put a focus on employment and family-based immigration, Irish and Italian immigrants found it more difficult to settle in the U.S., and the economic turmoil in Ireland during the 1980s led many to flee to the U.S. and overstay their tourist visas.

Irish and Italian-American groups lobbied Congress for immigration policies more favorable to their citizens, resulting in a 1986 lottery system for immigrants from under-represented countries. Because the first lottery system used a first-come, first-serve policy, the well-organized Irish immigrants were awarded over 4,100 of the 10,000 total visas, according to the New York Times.

The lottery system was repeated again in 1989, the year before Congress officially established the diversity visa lottery in the Immigration Act of 1990. Republicans who voted in favor of its establishment included current Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, among others.

The visa’s diversity moniker was chosen because lawmakers realized, “It’s not going to be politically feasible to tell people, ‘We have created a new visa for people who have no close family relationships in the U.S. and no job skills,’” Anna Law, political science professor at City University of New York-Brooklyn College told History.com.

“There’s a multiculturalism movement going on, so the creators of this program sort of wrapped themselves around the diversity language of it,” Law added.

Though the program initially catered to Europeans — who won 91% of the visas in 1993, according to the Cato Institute — the program became more diverse as the Irish economy improved and the formation of the European Union allowed European citizens to freely immigrate to other EU countries. Only 45 Irish citizens won diversity visas in 2015, the Cato Institute noted.

Past efforts to repeal

The diversity visa lottery program has had critics before Trump. According to the CRS, past debates over the visa lottery have centered on questions of “fairness and security,” as critics have challenged the program’s potential ability to let in terrorists — despite evidence suggesting otherwise — and the fairness of letting in randomly selected immigrants while others have to wait years to receive family visas. The U.S. Government Accountability Office also noted in 2007 that the program is “vulnerable to fraud,” citing corruption by visa agents who aid with applications.

“It really never worked. I’m actually surprised it hasn’t already been repealed,” former Rep. Brian J Donnelly (D-Mass.), who created the 1986 lottery, told the Guardian in May. “Frankly, I can’t see it surviving into the future. I think America is going to move to a more needs-based immigration system. And this system is just random.”

There have been several attempts to repeal the program. The House passed such bills in 2005 and 2012, both of which that did not make it past the Senate.

The program was put on the chopping block as part of a comprehensive immigration bill crafted by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in 2013. In addition to eliminating the visa lottery, the bill would have included border security protection and the elimination of “70,000 green cards reserved for brothers, sisters and adult married children of U.S. residents,” as well as give certain undocumented immigrants “registered provisional” status. The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 68-32, but was ultimately struck down in the Republican-controlled House.

The bipartisan group behind the bill most notably included current Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, whom Trump attacked for his support of the visa lottery in the wake of the recent New York subway incident.

Benefits

Despite the controversy behind it, the diversity visa has its benefits. Economist Ethan Lewis of Dartmouth College noted in a blog post that the diversity of lottery winners, as compared with the merit-based system Trump favors, ultimately benefits the U.S. economy, as diversity-based initiatives “[tend] to attract more people who specialize in occupations uncommon among U.S.-born workers.”

A study published in the Journal of Economic Geography similarly concluded that cultural diversity had a beneficial impact on U.S. citizens, finding a correlation between cities’ expanding foreign-born populations and the rising wages of their U.S.-born residents.

Although less quantifiable, proponents have also pointed toward the symbolic benefits of having a program where everyone, regardless of skill or family ties, has an equal shot at the American dream.

“This is the only instance where an average Joe, housewife or a mechanic, just an ordinary person — not a Ph.D. holder, not a Harvard professor, not an engineer — could apply. And that continues to be the beauty of it,” immigration lawyer Andy Semotiuk told the Guardian. “Nowhere else are you going to find ordinary people, from different parts of the world, feeding the American melting pot and enriching the lives of Americans in the way this program does.”