As so often happens, President Trump reset the day’s political conversation with a tweet on Wednesday morning.
Sayfullo Saipov, the man accused of driving a rented pickup truck on a bike path in New York on Tuesday, “came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ ” Trump tweeted. (The Department of Homeland Security later confirmed that this was the case.) “I want merit-based,” the tweet continued.
During the White House press briefing later in the day, the New York Times’ Peter Baker asked about Trump’s suggestion that visa granted through the diversity visa program weren’t merit-based, since there are clear qualifications for admission listed by the State Department.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed the question:
“The fact that we have a lottery system that randomly decides who gets the greatest opportunity in the world — One of the best things that we have in this country is the fact that everybody wants to be here. And to give that away randomly, to have no vetting system, to have no way to determine who comes, why they’re here, and if they want to contribute to society is a problem. And the president strongly supports making sure that the people that come here want to be here for the right reasons and not to bring harm to our country.”
Baker noted that this wasn’t true, that the program in fact isn’t entirely random.
“Peter, the whole idea is that they’re randomly selected! This isn’t — It’s the lowest level of criteria that any part of our immigration system has is through the lottery system. And so, to try to argue that this is a system that thoroughly vets people shows a total lack of understanding for what this process is.”
There are a number of claims being made by Sanders, claims which evolved as she replied to Baker’s questions. At the heart of what she’s saying, though, is a falsehood: That those receiving diversity visas through the lottery process are not vetted (as in the first response) or are somehow vetted less thoroughly than other visa recipients (as in the second).
The State Department website makes clear that there’s a vetting process that’s applied to these applicants. There’s even a flowchart showing how it works.
First, someone hoping to participate in the program submits an application. If he or she is selected in the lottery, they may then submit a visa application. Once that application is submitted, the vetting begins. Each year, 50,000 people go through this process and receive visas.
Immigration attorney David Leopold, former president of American Immigration Lawyers Association, explained how the vetting process works in a phone call with The Post.
“The bottom line is: Of course they’re vetted,” he said of diversity visa applicants. After an application is submitted, “at that point they got through vetting. Background and biometrics and everything else that immigrants go through when they are vetted for the green card.”
When asked if somehow this vetting was less thorough than for other applications for entry to the country, Leopold said that there wasn’t.
“In order to actually get the visa, they have to be ‘admissible to the United States,'” he said. “And what that means technically is there can’t be any ground under the law that would exclude them. Whether it’s criminal, whether it’s health, whether it’s national security, whether it’s previous immigration violations. And that’s the same for everybody.”
Leopold pointed out that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans and pointed to the number of people admitted to the country under the diversity visa program — over a million since its implementation in 1990 — as evidence that the vetting process worked.
Saipov was vetted and earned his visa in 2010. Why wasn’t he barred entry? In part, it seems, because he was radicalized only after entering the U.S. Speaking on CNN on Wednesday morning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) said that Saipov was “radicalized domestically.” Assuming that’s the case, his case would as much to do with a failure to screen him thoroughly as did other attacks carried out by native-born Americans, like those in San Bernardino or Orlando.
Leopold was unsparing in his assessment of Sanders’s comments.
“Sarah Huckabee Sanders ought to either read the statute,” he said, “or call the State Department to find out what the facts are.”