Unintended Consequences – The Story of the Diversity Lottery

February 14, 2018 6:38 pm
by David Jakeman

The little-known diversity lottery has shot to all-star fame in recent months thanks to President Trump, who is determined to get rid of it after a tragic attack in Manhattan perpetrated by a holder of a diversity visa. As debate rages, it’s worth stepping back and remembering how we got the diversity lottery in the first place.

Diversity Lottery History

In 1965, Congress passed sweeping immigration reform, which totally reshaped who is allowed into the country. As a seasoned immigration lawyer could tell you, much immigration now depended on specific family ties, organized into preference categories. However, if you were a relative who didn’t fit into one of the preference categories, your family member couldn’t file a petition for you to get a visa. Many people were left out in the cold.

Two groups who were hardest hit by this change in immigration policy were the Irish and the Italians.1 Their national economies were not doing particularly well, and it had been common for people to immigrate to America in search of better opportunities. That door was now shut. However, members of Congress with ties to these communities decided to do something. They allocated 10,000 visas to be distributed to nationals of countries that were adversely affected by the immigration change. That program was the forerunner of the diversity lottery we know today.

Subsequent legislation led to the creation of the diversity visa, finalized in 1995, which allocated 50,000 annual visas to applicants from countries who have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the US in the past 5 years. In an ironic twist, just as the lottery came into being, the Irish and Italians lost interest. Their economic opportunities had picked up back home, and it was easy to work in other European countries after the formation of the European Union.

More Popular Than Ever

However, many people from around the world continue to benefit from the diversity lottery. It is immensely popular; over 19 million people applied during the fiscal year 2017.2 Most applicants come from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In fact, in some countries, close to a tenth of the population applied for the lottery: 10 percent of the Democratic Republic of Congo applied, followed closely by Liberia (8%), Sierra Leone (8%), Ghana (7%), and Albania (7%). 3

Critics from Many Quarters

President Trump is not the only voice calling to scrap the lottery. Many people say it makes no sense to randomly allocate such a limited resource as a green card to the US to 5 percent of annual visas. People who are selected might not have strong ties to the US, they’re less likely to speak English well, and they might not be employable. 4

And yet, despite all these very sound arguments, there is something irresistible about people having a moonshot opportunity to come to the United States and have a chance at the American dream. Seattle immigration lawyers have seen firsthand how immigrants can thrive and become major contributors to their communities.

It’s hard to know what will happen to the diversity lottery, since even one of its architects agreed to put it on the chopping block in 2012 during immigration reform negotiations. Only time will tell.


1 – https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/11/01/diversity-visa-irish-history-215776
2 – https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/11/the-diversity-lottery-immigration/544850/
3 – http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/24/applications-for-u-s-visa-lottery-more-than-doubled-since-2007/
4 – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/opinion/diversity-lottery-skilled-immigrants.html

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