The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The visa lottery wins America goodwill. Ending it is a mistake.

Yes, security is a priority. Diplomatic outreach should be one, too.

Soon-to-be U.S. citizens listen to speeches at a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 15. (Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

After reports that the accused perpetrator of Tuesday’s violent vehicle attack in New York City entered the United States via a visa “lottery,” the Diversity Immigrant Visa program drew sudden and unexpected scrutiny, with President Trump stating Wednesday morning that “I am today starting the process of terminating the diversity visa lottery program,” adding, “It sounds nice. It’s not nice. It’s not good.”

Of course, security must be a priority, but the president’s view of this program is shortsighted.

Each autumn, cafes and campuses across Africa are transformed when the time comes to enroll in the Diversity Immigrant Visa program — the diversity visa lottery. In cities and towns across the continent, there are signs, banners, and people with laptops and cameras advertising offers to help register, for a small fee, aspiring lottery entrants. Of the millions who enroll in the lottery worldwide, only about 50,000 are admitted each year to the United States. The lottery, while a minor component of the U.S. immigration system, has taken on major significance in many African countries, where winning a diversity visa is one of the only ways to emigrate to the United States. And ending it would only play into the hands of anti-immigrant hard-liners with a narrow view of who belongs in the United States, cutting off an important avenue of African immigration and a vital source of goodwill toward the United States.

Since 1995, more than 400,000 people from nearly every African country have received diversity visas. This year, 53 African countries are eligible. Larger countries tend to send more diversity immigrants to the United States: In 2016, African nations in which more than 1,000 diversity visas were issued include Algeria, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco and Sudan. Nigeria, the largest country on the continent, previously dominated the diversity visa lottery, but is no longer eligible, having become what’s known as a “high-sending” country.

Once in the United States, diversity visa immigrants, like other lawful permanent residents, can gain U.S. citizenship after several years and petition for their family members to join them. Because of the lottery, for the first time in U.S. history, there has been significant voluntary immigration from the region.

Individual visa recipients, their families and their communities have benefited from the lottery, particularly through remittances sent back by immigrants, contributing to prosperity and stability in their home countries. One economist who has studied the impact of the lottery on Ethiopia found that having a family member win the lottery had a significant positive effect on the family’s standard of living.

Visa lottery entrants recognize the benefits that come with being granted a visa and they have tended to attribute those benefits to U.S. generosity. In 2013, Henry Nti Antwi, a Ghanaian lottery applicant, said that in his view, the United States created the lottery because Americans “wanted to help other nations.” Similarly, in 2015, a man in Cameroon said that the lottery was designed to help individuals achieve their dreams. “To me, it’s to help the world,” he said. The lottery “can help them to actually see how they can make their dreams come true.” Although the legislative origins of the lottery aren’t specifically related to African nations, citizens of these countries have become the major beneficiaries of the program, and many people interpret that as by design.

The United States benefits from this interpretation, as the visa lottery has made the idea of the American Dream concrete for people around the world who otherwise would have no opportunity to emigrate to the United States. Not only does the program project an image of the United States as open and generous, but its name suggests that the United States is interested in fostering meaningful diversity by welcoming people from everywhere in the world. “America is a land of nobody,” an IT technician in Cameroon said in 2015. “Meaning that, people come from every part of the world, bringing in their talents.” Being open to people from so many countries, Ambassador Johnny Young testified in a 2012 hearing, means that the visa lottery “engenders hope abroad for those that are all too often without it.”

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Other diplomats have recognized how the diversity visa helps the United States promote its interests abroad. After the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that Morocco had the most favorable view of the United States of any predominantly Muslim country, the U.S. mission in Rabat noted in a 2005 cable that Moroccans’ “positive views of U.S. lifestyle and economic opportunity are also reflected in the record number of Moroccans who have won the annual diversity visa lottery.” In a focus group conducted by the U.S. Embassy, a participant said, “Everyone dreams of winning the [visa] lottery to go to the U.S.” Yet these kinds of diplomatic considerations are rarely heard during debates about immigration policy, which are often driven by domestic politics instead.

“America is the only country that has given that opportunity,” Walisu Alhassan, from Tamale, a city in northern Ghana, said in 2013. “In the whole world, it is only America that is open.”

Abruptly ending the lottery would raise the possibility that many people worldwide would no longer consider the United States a beacon of opportunity. Indeed, recent polls show that the United States’ image abroad is already suffering because of Trump’s policies. In Ghana and Kenya, confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs has plummeted, but remains much higher than elsewhere in the world. Ending the visa lottery would decrease immigrant visas issued to those countries, and confidence in the United States could diminish further. The standing of the United States in the world has an effect on our economic and security interests, and the visa lottery is an easy way to strengthen peaceful ties between our country and others. As the United States has expanded its military presence in Africa, policymakers should be more attuned to U.S. public diplomacy in the region as well.

To be eligible for the diversity visa, applicants must have at least a high school diploma or its equivalent, or work experience at a skilled job. Not only would the United States’ image suffer if we ended the visa lottery, but Americans would miss out on attracting talented, ambitious immigrants who are willing to take the leap and bring their skills here.

Applying for the visa lottery is a long process. After entering the lottery in the fall, winners are selected at random in the spring. But winning the lottery is only the first step; once selected, winners must undergo the same screening that other aspiring immigrants go through. They must submit to a security background check and undergo an interview at the U.S. embassy in their country of origin.

Congress should resist Trump’s misguided impulse. Ending the lottery would harm aspiring immigrants, their communities, as well as U.S. interests at home and abroad. For millions of people worldwide, if the president gets his way, it would be the end of the American Dream.