In the alphabet soup of visa programs, the diversity lottery has been the only way for immigrants without relatives or other sponsors in the United States to have a shot at the American Dream.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, in place since Congress agreed on bipartisan immigration reform in 1990, became the focus of scrutiny because of Sayfullo Saipov — an immigrant from Uzbekistan who entered with that type of visa and is charged in Tuesday’s pickup-truck terror attack in lower Manhattan.
President Donald Trump put the spotlight on this small part of the immigration system, which allows entrance of up to 50,000 people a year from countries as varied as Albania, Algeria, Russia and Sri Lanka. That stands in contrast to the roughly 1 million people annually who come legally to the U.S.
Administration officials, immigrant advocates and legal experts were in agreement Wednesday that those in the program are vetted like all other legal immigrants.
“The fact that this one nut job, this one terrorist, has won the diversity lottery at some point means absolutely nothing,” said Mitchell C. Zwaik, senior partner in Zwaik, Gilbert & Associates, an immigration-focused law firm in Ronkonkoma.
“Most immigration to the United States nowadays comes from a handful of countries, and the lottery system allows people, primarily from Western and Central Europe, to come to the United States,” he said.
The program, whose chief sponsor was then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.
Applicants must be from a preapproved list of countries underrepresented in the U.S. and meet certain criteria, such as having graduated high school or having training in some technical field. More than 11 million people filed for the visa in the 2016 fiscal year, the most recent for which data are available.
The number of applicants is winnowed to somewhere around 70,000 potential qualifying applicants via a random computer process, thus the “lottery” name.
A State Department official said individual applicants then are vetted, with requests for biographical, travel and work history and searches of federal government data with biometric information to look for red flags. Those who pass checks are interviewed in-person.
“The screening is the same for every visa category,” the official said.
Immigrants and advocates expressed dismay Wednesday that the program had become a political target.
Mohamad Sadiq Halimi, 28, a resident of Rego Park, Queens, said the visa lottery was his ticket out of Afghanistan and to a rewarding life in America. He has worked as a cultural adviser to the U.S. Army and is currently managing peace programs for the United Nations. He supports family abroad.
“This is a program that gives opportunities to those immigrants who come and contribute to the United States,” Halimi said. “We talk about diversity and accepting differences, and this is a program that allows us to bring that to our communities and to understand that we are all human and that there are differences, but we accept and learn from each other.”
Daniel Griswold, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a market-oriented research think tank affiliated with George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, said the visa lottery is “an expendable program” — but not for security reasons and only insofar as it is replaced by a better immigration system. He believes it should not be a random lottery that lets a wider variety of immigrants in the country, he says.
“If we were to significantly increase opportunities for employment-based immigration, the concern that prompted the lottery program, I think, goes away,” Griswold said. “If you have a skill and a job offer in a high-need area, there should be a way for you to get in.”