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Diversity visa lottery, criticized after New York terrorist attack, was invented to help the Irish

Jack Corson, 9, watches the Alexandria St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 2014. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

President Trump said he has begun dismantling the diversity visa lottery Wednesday, hours after blaming the program and one of its sponsors for Tuesday’s deadly terrorist attack in New York City.

“I am today starting the process of terminating the diversity lottery program,” Trump told reporters at the White House during a meeting with his Cabinet. “I am going to ask Congress to immediately initiate work to get rid of this program.”

“Diversity lottery. Sounds nice. It’s not nice. It’s not good,” the president added. “It hasn’t been good. We’ve been against it.”

The president’s vow to dismantle the program, better known as the green-card lottery, came hours after he claimed the attacker came to the United States through the program and singled out one of its original sponsors, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “A Chuck Schumer beauty,” Trump tweeted of the lottery Wednesday morning.

‘A Chuck Schumer beauty’: Trump calls for end to diversity visa program

Schumer quickly shot back. “I guess it’s not too soon to politicize a tragedy,” he tweeted.

Debate over the program that brings 50,000 people to the United States each year is nothing new — lawmakers have sought to kill it repeatedly, without success — but its origins might be surprising to some.

The lottery dates to the mid-1980s, when the United States had an Irish problem.

Hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants were flocking to the United States, fleeing an economic crisis back home. They arrived too late to qualify for amnesty. Few had the family ties or job experience to qualify for green cards. And many of them were undocumented, coming as tourists and overstaying their visas.

Irish American members of Congress came up with a solution.

A green-card lottery.

Despite Trump, millions hope to win what could be the last U.S. green-card lottery

More than 30 years later, what was once openly pitched as a way to aid the Irish has now evolved into a global operation that each year brings up to 50,000 people to the United States, most of them from Africa or Eastern Europe.

At noon on May 2, millions of people around the world clicked on the State Department website to find out if they had won.

This year’s lottery could be the last, however. Amid debate about immigration, at least two bills in Congress would eliminate the program.

Now Trump, who has long called for a “merit-based” immigration system, has endorsed a bill that would kill the lottery.

Despite criticism, a program that awards U.S. permanent residency through a lottery has been around for more than 20 years. This is how it works. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Historians have mixed emotions about the idea of axing the green-card lottery.

Anna Law, a political-science professor at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, said she would shed no tears if the raffle comes to an end.

“It was about straight-up pork-barrel politics,” she said of the lottery’s pro-Irish origins. “The start of it was very cynical.”

The roots of the phenomenon can be traced to the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated a quota system and instead prioritized reuniting families and attracting skilled laborers to the United States.

The act had an unanticipated effect on the mix of people coming to the United States, according to Law. Asian and Latino immigration rose while immigration from Ireland, Italy and other Western European countries dropped.

Previously, Ireland had been a “high quota country with a demand for immigration that was below the supply of visas,” Law wrote in a 2002 paper. “The procedure for non-preference immigrants to get a visa was fairly simple, and ‘pretty much any Irish man or woman who wanted to immigrate could just pick up and do so, with relative ease.’ ”

After 1965, however:

The majority of the Irish who wanted to immigrate had only distant relatives in the United States (cousins, aunts, uncles) and none close enough to petition for them. Those who had no relatives to petition for them could theoretically obtain a visa by qualifying through one of the employment preferences, but few of the Irish possessed the skills and education to qualify via an employment preference. The last nail in the coffin was that now the new “affirmative” labor certification requirement was in place and the requirement applied fully to non-preference immigrants. The labor certification requirement devastated Irish non-preference immigration. With no close relatives to petition for them, unskilled, semiskilled, and even some skilled workers had great difficulty qualifying under the employment preferences.

For a decade, Irish American lawmakers offered ways of increasing legal Irish immigration but weren’t able to pass them.

By the early 1980s, Ireland was undergoing an economic crisis that earned it the nickname “the sick man of Europe.” Unable to immigrate legally, tens of thousands of Irish came to the United States as tourists and then overstayed their visas.

“About 150,000 Irish immigrants came to New York as students or tourists over the last six years and stayed on as undocumented aliens,” the New York Times reported in 1988.

In 1986, Rep. Brian J. Donnelly (D-Mass.) proposed an amendment to the Immigration Reform and Control Act that would provide 10,000 visas on a first-come, first-served basis for nationals of countries “adversely affected” by the 1965 changes. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) filed similar legislation in the Senate. Then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill — yet another Irish American Democrat from Massachusetts — ensured that the amendment passed.

The Irish were well prepared. Undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States applied en masse, submitting multiple applications, which was allowed at the time.

The Irish government even got involved, “chartering planes and literally depositing the applications in post office boxes on Capitol Hill,” according to Law.

“People still talk about Donnelly-visa parties, held in the United States and in Ireland, where guests spent the early evening filling out hundreds of applications for the host,” the Times reported. “Some applicants were known to have sent as many as 500 forms.”

As a result, the first green-card lottery was very green indeed.

“Of a total of 1.5 million pieces of mail received in the lottery, 200,000 of the earliest applications came from Irish citizens, winning 4,161 of the 10,000 visas,” according to the Times.

Donnelly’s NP-5 program was a one-off. But he and others in Congress — including Schumer, then in the House — fought for a permanent version of the green-card lottery in the Immigration Act of 1990, couching it as an issue of “diversity.”

“That was the rhetoric they used,” Law said. “They couldn’t call it the ‘White-Europeans-who-don’t-have-job-skills-American-employers-want-and-don’t-have-ties-to-anyone-in-the-United-States-but-want-to-come-anyway’ lottery.”

The diversity visa lottery as we know it — in which 50,000 winners are chosen randomly from around the world, with high-immigration countries such as India, China and Mexico excluded — went into effect in fiscal 1995.

But the Immigration Act of 1990 also included a transitional program that ran from 1991 to 1994.

Unsurprisingly, the Irish again dominated with 40 percent — or 18,000 — of the 40,000 visas for fiscal 1992 to 1994, according to Law.

As the economy improved in Ireland in the late 1990s and 2000s, fewer and fewer Irish entered the green-card lottery. (In fiscal 2016, only 36 Irish received a diversity visa.) Instead, over time, the program has primarily come to serve Eastern Europe and Africa.

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Despite its pro-Irish origins, the “diversity” visa lottery now lives up to its name, Law said.

“It’s much more diverse now,” she said. “You can’t even make fun of it anymore.”

Still, Law said she wouldn’t be upset if the program were scrapped, since family- and job-related immigration now provides “a lot of diversity.”

Carly Goodman, a historian who has written a book about the diversity lottery, disagrees.

“This program is pretty powerful public diplomacy for the U.S. that signals its openness and generosity,” she said, noting that many Africans she spoke with for her book viewed the lottery as aid or a gift from the United States to Africa. The lottery also pays for itself in visa application fees, she noted.

“Its elimination would be very shortsighted,” she said.

Even Law, who is ambivalent about the lottery, said that the United States could miss out on a particular type of immigrant if it axes the program.

“Put the funky, pork-barrel politics aside,” she said. “You could argue there is some value in bringing people to this country who, by their own gumption, are willing to leave everything behind — they have no ties here — and they are willing to have a go at it.”

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