It Is Called Hope! Why We Should Keep the U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa Program
Following the terrorist attack in NYC last week, President Trump jumped on the opportunity to blame lax immigration laws and argue for tightening immigration policies and eliminating the “diversity lottery” for qualified foreigners. He may very well get his wish given the current political climate. Doing away with the diversity program, however, will deeply and negatively affect this country and the world. It will take away hope from millions, betray our core principles and moral values, and undermine our strategic and political interests abroad.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) program or as it is frequently called abroad, “the Green Card Lottery,” has deep historic roots, but has existed in its current form since 1990. It was originally designed to grant immigration access to Irish would-be immigrants but was later redesigned to enhance America’s diversity by each year making available 50,000 permanent resident visas or work permits for randomly selected ‘winners’ from countries with low rates of immigration to the US in the last five years.
Recent commentary and evaluations of the program have focused exclusively on those who come to the U.S., with the Trump administration questioning the merits and motives of the newcomers and advocating for substantial restructuring or outright elimination of the program. What has been largely missing from this public discussion is a broader and more general understanding of the program’s less tangible but more complex and far-reaching global impact.
The Green Card lottery contributes a rather small portion of the overall level of immigration to the U.S. It is, however, the biggest, most popular and life-changing lottery on Earth. This is not necessarily because of the number of winners or the demographic or economic effect it creates, but because of its global symbolism and powerful projection of American values and ideas; its oversized reach and capacity in generating hope and in changing destinies; and finally because of its underappreciated, but notable contribution in building an external constituency connected to and invested in America’s future and well-being.
As an international elections observer and an academic, I regularly travel abroad and communicate widely with people from all social and economic backgrounds. The topic of immigration to America and the odds of winning the DV lottery frequently pop up in conversations abroad. If I happen to be in Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia in October (the month when the lottery opens online), I often hear excited accounts of about how people are submitting their electronic entries and are employing various rituals, players and ‘lucky’ practices, hoping against all odds that Fortuna and America will grant them the chance of a lifetime.
Each year millions of people apply for the Green Card lottery (in year 2015, there were 14,418,063 electronic entries and the change of winning was about 0.3 per cent), and many of the most hopeful and loyal applicants are unsurprisingly the ones given the shortest stick in life. They often lack economic and human security, real opportunities or future in their countries, or happen to live under repressive, controlling and exploitive regimes. I cannot forget the mother from Benin that told me that every night she prays for a chance to win the “Green Card lottery,” and who last year, walked for three hours to reach an internet café and submit her electronic entry, hoping against all odds that this could change the future for her and her two little girls, or my long-term Bulgarian friend who has been entering the lottery since 1992, and tells me that even if she happens to ‘win’ in 2030, she will still be in good shape and able to make the best of it (she will be 58). For millions of people like them, the DV lottery may be the single remaining source of hope for a better future and the only real chance for freedom and a different life. Caught in circumstances they cannot change or escape, they submit their DV lottery entry as a gesture of hope and at times, as acts of perseverance and resistance.
The current format of the DV program uniquely addresses the dreams and hopes of this sea of humanity. It does not discriminate on the basis of gender, education, position and wealth, and does not require powerful connections or hefty fees for one to participate (it is free to enter). This makes it a distinctively American program. It reflects uniquely our historic DNA and the notions of America’s foundational liberalism and exceptionalism. Its design intrinsically reflects our core political beliefs: first, that all people are created equal, and no matter their wealth, social position and proximity to power are equally entitled to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” and second, that America is an exceptional and a superior nation, which stands as a beacon of universal hope and liberty and shines light even in the deepest corners of human misery and darkness.
This is what makes the DV program so different from the meritocratic, qualifications-based, limited immigration programs in Canada and some European states. The fact that the DV program is not exclusionary does not, however, result in bringing in economically weak or undeserving immigrants as was recently claimed by the President. Applicants are required to have either successfully completed a formal course of elementary and secondary education comparable to completing a 12-year education in the USA or to have worked in a number of selected areas for at least two years within the last five years. Those who win the lottery are vetted, made to pass a medical exam, and then are again extensively interviewed. Only then are they allowed to start the green card application process. They do not receive any financial or other assistance to relocate to the US and once in the country, are on their own in adjusting to a new reality and making a living for themselves and their families. The process is difficult, and only the most determined and enthusiastic candidates do actually go through it. In this context, the current format of the Diversity Lottery marries the best of two policy ideals: it stands as a worldwide symbol of American universalism and exceptionalism and works as an effective self-selection mechanism that brings to our shores only those who have the energy and skills to actually appreciate and complete the process.
Finally, the DV program is an influential geopolitical and psychological tool. The current administration’s view of its impact is shamefully myopic. It fails to recognize how deeply and broadly the DV lottery affects people’s attitudes and relationships to this country. Millions of people around the world see the DV lottery as putting the American dream within their reach and presenting a real, if unlikely, opportunity through which one day, they, or their kids can become members of this society and partake in its freedoms and fortunes. Rather than feeling as shunned outsiders, resentful and envious of our prosperity millions of foreigners are allowed to imagine themselves as future Americans and as such feel ‘invested’ in the well-being and the future of this country. As long as people believe that there is a door, an option open for them to share in America’s greatness, their perception and feelings about this country are likely to be positive and supportive. They, together with those lucky lottery winners and their extended families, weave a web of a global community both outside and inside of this country that is wishing us well and is generally sympathetic to our interests and aspirations. Cutting those invisible ties and affections will hurt America’s standing abroad, making the world a much more hostile place for all of us.
Scraping the DV lottery seems to be almost a sure thing now. The loss for us and the world will be much more profound and far-reaching than we care to acknowledge and consider.