Gambling With Visas

By Mark Krikorian on May 1, 2004

The American Enterprise, April/May, 2004

Uncle Sam is running a lottery - the visa lottery, that is.

Because of the overwhelming role family connections play in current immigration law, most U.S. newcomers stem from a handful of countries, primarily Latin American and Asian. In 1986, Congress used this lack of immigrant diversity as an excuse to institute an affirmative action program for white immigrants -- a "diversity lottery." Devised by its sponsors (Irish-American congressmen) as a subterfuge to grant amnesty to Irish illegal aliens, the program continues even in the absence of Irish immigration.

In 2002, only 58 Irish ended up actually getting green cards via the lottery. Nonetheless, the lottery - like the mohair subsidy - has taken on a life of its own. It has evolved over time to offer a maximum of 50,000 visas per year to people from "underrepresented" countries, i.e., nations other than the top dozen sources of immigration. In practice, this means that most visa lottery winners come from the Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa.

Unlike other components of the federal immigration program, the lottery has no constituency: no residents clamoring for the admission of relatives, no businesses seeking cheap foreign labor, no human rights crusaders demanding open borders. Still, when Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a former immigration lawyer, introduced a bill early last year to eliminate the visa lottery, it went nowhere. Supporters of mass immigration don't want to give an inch on any program, lest it upset the status quo.

There are, however, good reasons to shut down the diversity lottery. Here are a few:

* Despite the moniker, it has done nothing to diversify our immigrant flow. More than half of all our legal arrivals in 2002 came from just ten countries (almost exactly the same as a decade ago), and only one of these countries, Bosnia Herzegovina, is European. In fact, the nation's total immigrant population (legal and illegal) has actually become less diverse during the course of the lottery. A recent analysis of census data by the Center for Immigration Studies found that from 1990 to 2000, Mexicans grew from 22 percent of all immigrants to 30 percent, while immigrants from all of Spanish-speaking Latin America increased from 37 to 46 percent. Truly diversifying immigration would require large reductions in immigration from Mexico and adjoining countries. The lottery simply cannot do what it purports to.

* If the lottery took the 50,000 most qualified people among the millions who apply, it might make sense. But the program's requirements are so low they do nothing to ensure that applicants have the skills needed in our modern economy, and final selections are based on luck rather than merit.

* Moreover, fraud is rampant in the program. The two most corrupt nations, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2003 are Bangladesh and Nigeria - perennially among the top ten lottery winners. Since corrupt Third World countries are precisely the places that people most want to get out of, it makes sense that much of the demand for lottery visas comes from them. But this poses enormous problems.

State Department records show that lottery winners often file fraudulent visa information. The country with the largest number of lottery winners last year, Nigeria, had a diversity lottery visa refusal rate of a whopping 80 percent. Since the lottery invites visa applications from almost anyone (about 6 million people applied last year) and only requires credentials after selection, it often prompts a mad rush for bogus documents once the winners are notified.

* Fraud is bad enough when people lie about education or work experience. But in an age of terrorism, immigration loopholes can pose a dire security threat. Weeding out fraudulent lottery applications is a diversion for officials charged with identifying terrorists among the millions seeking to come to America.

This is particularly troubling because the lottery draws about one third of its applicants from Muslim-majority countries, where it provides a disproportionately important means of immigration. Some 20-25 percent of immigrants from Egypt, Bangladesh, and Sudan came that way in 2002, as did nearly half of Moroccan and Algerian immigrants.

Several lottery winners have already been involved in terrorism in the United States. Michigan sleeper cell member Karim Koubriti, convicted this summer of terror-related charges, was a lottery winner from Morocco. So was Ahmed Hannan, who was convicted of document fraud in the same trial. The most notorious lottery winner is Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet, the Egyptian immigrant who went to Los Angeles International Airport to kill Jews on July 4, 2002. Hedayet came to this country on a temporary visa, became an illegal alien when he overstayed his welcome, then applied for asylum, was denied, again becoming an illegal alien, and finally got a green card when his wife won the lottery.

* The visa lottery sets new chains of legal and illegal immigration into motion. No one wakes up in Mecca and says, "Today, I will move to Hoboken!" Immigration takes place by way of networks of relatives or friends already in the United States. The lottery creates networks where none existed.

Even 9/11 didn't make much of a dent. About 2.5 millions applicants from Muslim-majority countries applied in the lottery that started just three weeks after the attacks. Troll the Internet and you can see the lottery's power to spark interest in coming to America. Using the search terms, "green card lottery," Google returns 128,000 hits, including sites like,,, and hundreds of others. The lottery frenzy is so intense that crooked "consultants" have grown fat off of unsuspecting dreamers.

There is a Chinese saying about gambling that suggests it's always advisable to "leave the window open to chance." There is always a chance that some visa lottery winner will be a future inventor, entrepreneur, or other notable addition to America. Unfortunately, "chance" can go both ways, and in the case of this lottery, it already has. The sooner we stop rolling these dice, the better.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.