New Zealand Also Has an Immigration Lottery

By David North, July 17, 2015

This is a little awkward for me to write. As one who has spent a lot of time looking at immigration policies in other democracies, as well as the United States, I had long believed that ours was the only nation on Earth crazy enough to have an immigration lottery.

The so-called Diversity Visas are dealt out to aliens winning our lottery at the rate of 50,000 a year. None of the newcomers needs a skill or a tie to the United States -- they simply have to come from a nation that does not send us lots of immigrants, have a high school diploma or the equivalent, and be lucky. It is a policy that is hard to defend.

I have now discovered, through the most obscure of sources, that sensible little New Zealand has a similar policy. This chagrins me because I was not aware of it, despite my having spent a year (decades before the policy was developed) as a Fulbright Scholar in Wellington, the capital of that nation.

Not only does New Zealand have such a policy, it is, per capita, much more generous (or foolish) than ours. New Zealand's population (4.5 million) is one-seventieth as large as ours (319 million in 2014), so while NZ allocates only 1,750 slots to its lottery, that would come to about 122,000 if projected against our larger population.

Their policy is designed to offer a legal way for residents of five more or less nearby island nations to come to New Zealand; these little nations all share the legacy of the British Empire, and all are south of the equator, as is New Zealand. It carries a long name: Samoan Quota and Pacific Access Category or PAC.

The nations are Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), for decades a New Zealand colony; Tonga, a kingdom that was once a British protectorate; and Fiji, Kiribati, and Tuvalu, all former British colonies.

There are certain parallels between the Philippines' relations with the United States and Samoa's with New Zealand. The former was a Spanish colony before we acquired it in 1898, and the latter was a German colony before Word War I, when it was occupied by Kiwi troops. The colonial status in each case lasted about 50 years, and during those years the attractions of the imperial nation set in motion large streams of migration from the two sets of islands to the governing countries.

While Samoa gets the largest allocation of these NZ visas (1,100 a year), the Philippines has been barred from our visa lottery on the grounds that is among the nations that have sent us large numbers of migrants in prior years. Our program began in 1995; New Zealand's came along seven years later, and one wonders if that nation checked with our people about our lottery. The other allocations are: 250 slots to Fiji, 250 to Tonga, and 75 each to the lightly populated nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu (once the UK's Gilbert and Ellice Islands).

New Zealand has done some interesting things with this program. First, there is the nomenclature: an alien files for a ballot number, and the word "lottery" does not appear in their official publications. Second, those applying must be native-born citizens of the country in question and must be between the ages of 18 and 45. Thirdly, those with winning ballots must, before they get the visa:

  • Have an acceptable offer of employment in NZ, or their partner must have one;
  • If they have children, meet a minimum income requirement;
  • Meet a minimum English language requirement; and
  • Meet the health and character requirements set for all migrants to NZ.

This set of requirements is far more selective than our system. If one is a resident of New Zealand at the time of drawing a winning ballot, and meets the requirements, one can convert to immigrant status. The same is true of our program — some of the winners each year are already in the United States.

The other interesting aspect of the system is that Wellington can use it to pressure the island nations when they get out of line regarding international standards. The Fiji allocation has been suspended at least once because of that nation's military coups. That suspension has since been terminated. We have never done anything like that.

Whereas we have always had many more applicants than slots, with 12.5 million applying in 2013 for example, sometimes the New Zealand system has not had enough applications to fill all five of the quotas, but with global warming threatening the low-lying islands, particularly those in Kiribati and Tuvalu, that is no longer the case. (Kiribati, incidentally, is pronounced keer a bas.)

I was tipped off to the NZ program by the obscurest of sources, the Ki-Tu News, the newsletter of the London-based Kiribati and Tuvalu Philatelic Society; I may be the only member of this 100-member organization in the States. As a recovering stamp collector I joined when I was the U.S. correspondent of the then Fiji-based Pacific Islands Monthly, a publication subsequently killed by its owner, Rupert Murdoch. There are not a whole lot of journals, of any kind, dealing with the Ki-Tu islands.