This tiny visa program, aimed at diversifying the pool of immigrants to the United States, selects 55,000 applicants at random each year. Unlike the other U.S. visa programs, it offers the “winners” and their spouses and children U.S. residency with almost no strings attached. Although the odds of winning are infinitesimal, the program is so wildly popular that last year almost 8 million people applied. And now it is likely to be quietly cut.
“In my country, whole cities wait to hear the results of this lottery. I can’t believe they would take it away,” said Ermais Amirat, 29, an Ethiopian lottery winner who lives in Alexandria and drives a limousine. “We may not earn a lot, but on $200 a month, your whole family can survive back home.”
Under a Senate compromise, the program would be eliminated and its visa slots would be subsumed into a broad system that stresses skills, education and other criteria for legal immigration.
A few defenders, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have urged that the lottery be preserved. They say it helps compensate for the lopsided history of legal immigration, long dominated by a few large countries with high-skilled workers, such as China and India, and those with strong family ties to the United States, such as Mexico and the Philippines. They also note that it creates wide international goodwill for the United States at a low cost, amounting to only 5 percent of legal immigrants.
“Diversity visas are one of the few ways people from Africa and the Caribbean can come to this country,” Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “We are talking about creating a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people, and I wholeheartedly support that. But why do we need to cut a program where millions of people are competing for only 55,000 visas? I’m sorry, but I just can’t accept that.”
But senators who negotiated the proposed massive immigration change, which is being aired in a series of hearings, said the diversity program crumbled under Republican insistence on finding more visas for skill-based immigrants. They said it also has lost appeal by shifting from its early goals. Launched in the early 1990s with a focus on Africa, the program has recently brought in large numbers of people from countries including Albania, Nepal, Bangladesh and Iran.
“I was an author of this program. I care about it,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key negotiator, said during a recent televised panel. But he said that between Republican opposition and the sense that the lottery had strayed from its original purpose, “we decided we couldn’t continue it.”
Despite its good intentions, the program has also lost luster because of its notorious vulnerability to scam artists. Dozens of unscrupulous businesses offer applicants help through Web sites and e-mails that appear to be from the U.S. government and trick desperate people into sending them money.