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America's "Green Card Lottery" Could Soon Be Eliminated

It is an American immigration program that is well-known everywhere in the world except the United States, and it could be eliminated before the end of the year.

The Diversity Visa Program - or what is sometimes called the "Green Card Lottery" - has been targeted for elimination by the United States House of Representatives. If the Senate adopts a similar move, a program that has brought more than half a million immigrants to the United States will end.

Among the people who have benefited from this program is Freddy Adu, the young "DC United" soccer player whom many are hoping will finally bring international respect to America's soccer program. Adu came to the United States nine years ago from Ghana. He was just 8 years old when his mother won a visa in the Green Card lottery.

The Diversity Visa Program was launched in 1995 as a way of expanding the immigrant population to include people from countries that were not strongly represented in the immigrant pool. Believe it or not, in the mid-1990s, that actually meant northern Europeans - especially the Irish -- who were given favored status in the early years of the program, since their numbers had been plummeting since the 1960s.

Today, anyone from an under-represented country who has a high school diploma and access to a computer can submit his name -- and hope it is one of the 50,000 randomly selected to receive a green card, allowing him to live and work in the United States.

"Overseas, it's such a positive promotional tool for living the American Dream," says California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, who has been a staunch supporter of the program. "It gives people the chance to hope and dream about coming to the United States one day."

Ms. Sanchez says the green card lottery enriches American culture by enabling people with unique talents who might not otherwise be allowed to come to the United States to get a green card. "Because most immigration is family-based petitions - that means people who have relatives currently living in the United States (are) sponsor(ed by) them, and then they come - you tend to have immigration from specific countries more than others," she says. "And the Diversity Program was created so that you would make that pool a lot more diverse, and that adds to our country, in terms of expertise that people bring from other countries, and knowledge."

Unfortunately, sometimes green card winners bring more than just knowledge with them when they come to the United States - they bring angry politics and a tendency toward violence. That was the case with Hisham Hedayet, an Egyptian-born immigrant who received a green card through the Diversity Visa Program, and then, in 2002, killed and injured several people at an Israeli airline ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport.

Hedayet is part of the reason Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia has campaigned heavily to eliminate the Diversity Visa Program. "The State Department has identified this program, which gives 50,000 green cards away, not based upon having a job skill that's in short supply in the United States, not based upon family re-unification, but simply based on pure luck, as an opportunity for terrorist organizations," Mr. Goodlatte says. "(These groups can) submit names of people and get permanent residence in the United States."

But if a terrorist gets in, according to Linda Sanchez, it is because the screening process has failed - not because of the Diversity Visa Program itself. Green card lottery winners undergo the same background checks that all potential visa recipients receive, and Congresswoman Sanchez says that screening process is in dire need of improvement.

But Bob Goodlatte says terrorists are just part of the problem. He says it is also an issue of fairness. "People who have legitimate reasons for coming to the United States," he notes, "wait in long lines, sometimes for years, while somebody who has no ties to the United States simply puts their name into this lottery program and has it drawn, and then they cut to the head of the line."

It took him a few years, but in December of 2005, Congressman Goodlatte convinced a majority of his colleagues in the House to end the Diversity Visa Program. The issue now goes to the Senate, and both Mr. Goodlatte and Ms. Sanchez expect lawmakers there will vote to eliminate the program.