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Landing on Green

Original illustration by Emmie Wu ’24, an Illustration major at RISD

This year, 54,000 immigrant visa recipients in the United States got here by winning a game. They took a seat at the table, placed their bets, and got the luck of the draw. They won the diversity visa lottery. 

Every year, more than 11 million people send in an application to the Department of State’s visa lottery, all of them from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The no-cost application is open to all persons from eligible countries with a high school diploma or two years of trained work experience. Fifty thousand of the millions of applicants are then allotted a permanent residency card at random. The intention of this game is admirable: It aims to ensure that 5 percent of the green cards offered annually by the US government go to immigrants otherwise lacking a pathway to the United States. However, its results are far less impressive, revealing many of the systemic issues within the broader US immigration system and leaving much to be desired from our immigration processes. 

Irish Americans in Congress first introduced the diversity lottery in 1990 to create a pathway for Irish and Italian families to immigrate to the United States without restrictions. Forty percent of visas in the diversity lottery’s first three years went to Irish nationals. Now, most applicants are from Africa and Eastern Europe. Since the lottery’s creation, the organizational problems of the US immigration bureaucracy, which were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, have become increasingly hard to ignore. The application process—fraught with issues that prevent applicants from obtaining green cards—highlights the backlogged and confusing nature of US immigration bureaucracy at large. 

The first obstacle faced by applicants is the existence of websites impersonating the Department of State, hoping to swindle people out of their money by getting them to apply to a fake diversity lottery. These scams are more prevalent for the visa lottery than any other pathway to US immigration, complicating the unfair and often mystifying nature of the process. Meanwhile, the lucky few who do happen to win the lottery are asked to navigate through bureaucratic red tape before receiving their green cards. They must pass a background check by scheduling an interview at their local US embassy within the next fiscal year. But the severe shortage of available appointments for the interview makes it so that many applicants are unable to schedule an appointment before the fiscal year expires and they lose their green card. For the applicants with the most at stake, this is often harder; embassies are more likely to be backlogged in conflict-prone, under-resourced countries—if they are open at all. In effect, even applicants who beat the next-to-impossible odds and win the roulette never get their prize. 

The game-like nature of the diversity lottery makes immigration to the United States seem like a randomized and juvenile event rather than a sophisticated process dedicated to providing opportunities to immigrants from countries with low immigration rates. By randomizing acceptees without accounting for their humanitarian or economic conditions, this pathway to US residency eerily resembles a game of chance with nearly impossible odds. But this is no simple $5 buy-in: Human lives are at stake, threatened by political and economic stagnation. The resources and time spent to conduct the lottery would be better allocated toward immigration programs that take into account the harsh humanitarian and economic realities of today’s world and function in an efficient and comprehensible way. 

In the past few years, many people have called for the dissolution of the diversity lottery, with some using arguments similar to mine. Others, including Donald Trump, employ a very different rhetoric. Following a 2017 terror attack perpetrated by a diversity visa recipient, Trump openly condemned the lottery system. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he temporarily halted the lottery system along with other immigration services. Trump justified this move with baseless xenophobia, calling for a decrease in the volume of non-European immigration to the United States. Many take a more pragmatic approach, arguing that the diversity lottery has a negligible effect on total immigration numbers and that, with the United States issuing and renewing up to one million visas a year, its resources should be used to make improvements to more common US immigration processes. Overall, the consensus across the political spectrum is that this model is currently a waste of resources and must be overhauled. 

Policymakers should look toward our northern neighbor, known around the world for its advantageous and incredibly efficient immigration services. The Canadian model employs a merit-based points system for its express entry applicants. Potential migrants are given points based on numerous qualifying criteria, including language skills, education, work experience, age, and the more nuanced category of “adaptability.” 

Applicants who score higher than 67 out of 100 points become eligible to submit an application. Forty-five thousand of those who meet this threshold are offered immediate permanent residency based on their likelihood of financial success. The overwhelming majority of them are already temporary residents of Canada, with the others primarily coming from Nigeria and Cameroon. The processing time for this application is, on average, 60 days—just one example of the Canadian immigration bureaucracy’s efficiency. 

While the express entry pathway is primarily concerned with economic immigration to stimulate growth, Canada has a host of other programs resettling humanitarian refugees that repeatedly land it high up on the list of nations letting in the most refugees each year. The total volume of immigration to Canada is tremendous; immigrants comprise almost half of the population in many Canadian cities, and a huge share of the country’s elected members of Parliament are born in other countries. It is predicted that by 2041, Canada will be an “ethnocultural mosaic,” with one-third of the country’s population being immigrants from European and non-European countries alike. 

 The point is not for United States policymakers to replicate the specific criteria of the Canadian express entry program, but rather to learn from Canada’s ability to efficiently evaluate and consider the respective backgrounds of individuals applying for residency. To do this, the diversity visa lottery must be eliminated. To better prioritize diverse visa applicants, permanent residency cards must be adjudicated not only to high-skilled “meritorious” workers, like in the Canadian model, but also to low-skilled workers. In order to thoughtfully build a diverse immigrant population, the Department of State bureaucracy should develop clear quotas for the skill levels and origin countries of its green card recipients and adjudicate accordingly. 

Congress needs to increase funding to the Department of State to resolve the incredible backlog caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and reduce processing times, as it did with the IRS in the Inflation Reduction Act. Yes, to “increase efficiency and shorten wait times,” but really to humanize the experience of those seeking refuge in our state, especially asylees. Efforts to streamline low-skill economic migration would facilitate legal immigration, achieve the lottery’s original goal of creating opportunity for otherwise unlikely immigrants, and stimulate the US economy. 

American politicians and bureaucrats should not reduce the word “diversity” to a helpful push for specific policy priorities. Diversity should be a guiding light for immigration processes that prioritize the cultural, ethnic, religious, and economic variables of people around the globe. With a more comprehensive and human-centered pathway to permanent residency that processes immigrants intentionally, efficiently, and respectfully, we may begin to reshape how immigration is understood in this country.