WASHINGTON - What could be more American: enter a lottery, win a chance at U.S. citizenship.
Sure, the likelihood of getting the Diversity Immigrant Visa is slim — about 0.3 percent. But if you’re one of the 14 million applicants to win one of about 50,000 spots, you’re on your way to becoming an American.
As of early February, though, the diversity visa is once again facing an uncertain future. Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia proposed a bill ending it, in addition to dramatically cutting the number of other legal immigrants and refugees allowed every year.
A similar bill in the House of Representatives narrows the scope, only proposing to end the diversity visa.
The 22-year-old visa lottery has been on the chopping block before in legislation sponsored by Republicans and Democrats as recently as last year. But it was rolled into broader bills that never became laws.
On the chopping block
Now with a Republican-controlled Congress and a president who has focused on immigration changes from his first week in office, the program is once again at risk with the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act.
In a statement announcing the bill, the senators claimed it will “help raise American workers' wages.”
"We are taking action to fix some of the shortcomings in our legal immigration system," Perdue said. "Returning to our historically normal levels of legal immigration will help improve the quality of American jobs and wages."
While research has shown that correlation is tenuous, there are other anti-diversity visa arguments.
For one, the program is susceptible to fraud, both by and against applicants, as the U.S. General Accountability Office found a decade ago.
The State Department improved the application process to reduce the number of people who submit multiple applications in the same year — an automatic disqualification; it also warns against businesses charging aspiring immigrants to submit lottery applications on their behalf, since applying for the lottery is free.
For would-be Americans who don’t have family in the U.S., or an employer to sponsor them, or who aren’t refugees, the diversity visa is the only option.
It’s a visa that sounds like it could have been created by Oprah, a feel-good program that evokes the American dream abroad. It requires a high school degree or a few years of work experience just to qualify.
If the application is valid, your number is chosen and you pass the other requirements for immigrants, you still need the money to get to the U.S. It's a small portion of immigration to the U.S. every year, but larger than other cornerstones of the program, like employment-based immigrant visas.
In Fiscal Year 2015, the U.S. issued 48,097 diversity visas out of 531,463 total immigrant visas.
“For the cynics: It's not everybody who you get on your shores - it's people who have access to that technology," says Carolien Hardenbol, a diversity visa recipient from the Netherlands.
She moved to the U.S. in the late 1990s from the Netherlands with her husband, new parents with advanced degrees and a sense of adventure. Uncertain they would be sponsored for permanent residency through work, they applied for the diversity lottery — and her husband won.
"I envisioned this big hat where these envelopes were drawn,” she joked.
What started as a volunteer position with Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization in New York that provides legal services to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, turned into a career for Hardenbol. After getting her legal permanent residency, she became co-director of the Immigration Intervention Project there.
At its core, the diversity lottery was designed — as the name suggests — to diversify the immigrant stream to the U.S. from countries with lower immigration rates.
A country that sends more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five years will be excluded from the eligibility list.
Natives of Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Peru, South Korea, the United Kingdom (excepting Northern Ireland), and Vietnam were excluded from the most recent round of applications.
The visa succeed in that goal, says Hardenbol, because it “positions the United States in the center of ensuring diversity."
"Without diversity there would be no United States of America," she added.
The bill’s announcement follows a series of executive orders by President Donald Trump targeting immigrants, which have been met with lawsuits and protests.
It also reflects the policy suggestions of immigration restrictionist groups. Nixing the diversity visa has long been a central part of the platform for groups who want significantly to reduce immigration to the U.S.
Roy Beck, who heads NumbersUSA — an advocacy group for lower immigration — said in a online statement about the bill, “we will do all possible to ensure that lives on through history as one of the great achievements of this period of our country.”
Maurice Goldman, an immigration lawyer in Tucson, Arizona, said he once felt the diversity visa was a negotiable issue in the bigger picture of immigration reform. He changed his mind after a fellow attorney at a conference shared how he received the diversity lottery, and likely would not be working in the U.S. legal community without it.
“When he got up and said that, he convinced me,” Goldman says.
Unlike some earlier attempts to terminate the diversity visa, which would have reapportioned those visas to other categories, for example, by increasing employment-based visas — the RAISE Act offers no such balance.
It calls for cuts in family preference visas, refugee admissions, and the diversity lottery, while only adding a new W visa, to allow the foreign-born parents of adult U.S. citizens to visit for renewable five-year periods, without a path to citizenship or work approval.
“That’s the problem with this proposal,” says Goldman, the son of a German refugee and grandson of Holocaust survivors. The RAISE Act, he says "has all these cuts, but not a whole lot more about what they’ll do to increase or maintain the immigration benefits or visas that we so dearly need.”
Some immigration supporters believe the 50,000 visas could be better used.
Florida-based immigration attorney John Gihon supports ending the diversity lottery, but only in favor of making more family visas available and creating a different opportunity for highly trained immigrants.
“People with degrees in STEM subjects, medicine, nursing, etc, that we know will provide them with an opportunity to find work and contribute to the country should not be denied the green cards simply because there is currently no employer to sponsor them and give them a job,” says Gihon.
Tekleab Elos Hailu applied a few times before winning the lottery. The father of three is a native of Eritrea; his wife is Ethiopian. They applied for the lottery while he was on a graduate scholarship in the United Kingdom, following a conflict between their home countries in the late 1990s.
His first job in the U.S. was working security at a rental car company, though he eventually returned to academia, researching the experiences of fellow diversity lottery recipients and finishing his doctorate. He now works at a community college in Colorado.
Because of the education or work experience required by the lottery, and the needs to be able to apply - like access to the internet and the funds to pay for the eventual green card fees, health screening, and travel - he believes diversity immigrants generally come from relatively well-off positions in their home countries, and as such are a net positive for the U.S.
“They sacrifice what they have had in their own countries, just to bring to change for their children,” says Hailu. “On the other hand, the United States gains from people who have been educated, without spending any money on these people. So why would you [cut it]?”