House Hearing Lays Down Record for Ending the Visa Lottery

By Janice Kephart on April 15, 2011

On April 5, 2011, I testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement on a bill that would eliminate the Diversity Visa lottery (DV) program. The hearing was specifically on H.R.704, the SAFE for America Act, is sponsored by Rep. Goodlatte (R-VA), who has been seeking to do away with the visa lottery for years. This was the first time Goodlatte has received a legislative hearing on this bill.

The lottery provides 50,000 visas every year to those from more than 170 nations who send relatively few immigrants to the United States, including state sponsors of terror and nations with known radicalized, anti-U.S. populations. Organized crime also takes advantage of the program in a multitude of ways. In addition, the program is riddled with fraud, and none of the problems outlined by CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian in his 2005 Congressional testimony on the subject have been reduced sufficiently to justify maintaining the program.

The hearing included Subcommittee Chairman Elton Gallegly (R-CA), Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI), as well as Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico. Hearing testimony covered the economic, criminal, and national security vulnerabilities created by the DV program. (Watch the hearing here, beginning at 59:00.) The witnesses included the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Goodlatte, who testified based on his prior experience as an immigration attorney; Tony Edson, a recently departed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services in the State Department, who provided an operational outline of how the DV program is administered and its effect on consular time management; myself, based on my work as a former 9/11 Commission counsel as well as recent work on diversity visas as CIS' National Security Director; and Johnny Young, former State Department civil servant and ambassador representing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

National Security bottom line

The DV Program cannot assure that people are who they say they are nor that a diversity visa – which is an immigrant visa enabling holders to travel in and out of the U.S. and can quickly lead to naturalization – will not be used by terrorists or those with nefarious intentions to legally enter and embed in the United States. Such a vulnerability enables infiltration and perhaps worse. During my oral testimony, I emphasized that the United States should not operate any immigration program in a vacuum, without consideration of national security concerns. The Visa Lottery not only fails to assure identities, but the security problems are compounded because state sponsors of terror like Iran are obtaining such high numbers of DV every year. Last year, Iranians received the ninth-highest number of visas last year at 1,854 issued, even though the U.S. knows that Iran seeks infiltration into the U.S. and actively supports both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda. The fact is, we have no real idea who these visas were issued to last year, or any year prior either. That story repeats around the world. Will the DV Program remain an exception to 9/11 Commission recommendations about assuring identity prior to entry?

Economic bottom line

Rep. Goodlatte said it best: "Usually, immigrant visas are issued to foreign nationals who have an existing connection with a family member lawfully residing in the United States or with a U.S. employer. These types of relationships help to ensure that immigrants entering the country have a stake in our nation's continued success, and have needed skills to contribute to our nation's economy. However, under the visa lottery program, visas are awarded to immigrants at random without meeting such criteria." During the hearing, Goodlatte also discussed that the DV program is unfair to those waiting their turn to enter the United States and offer a job skill; pure luck does not guarantee skills that will help our economy.

Bureaucratic bottom line

According to Tony Edson, nearly the entire budget for the program goes to fraud prevention. In fact, a quick Google search of the past 30 days of news pertaining to this visa turned up fraud alerts in countries representing four continents: China, the United Emirates, Ghana, and the U.K. No matter what may be said in terms of the upgrades to evaluating applicants, given the fact that scams exist worldwide, and the State Department must spend nearly all its programmatic time fending off such scams, how can a program such as this one be justified in tough budget times when we need to trim trillions off our budget?

Where the bill stands

In the 112th Congress, the SAFE Act is beginning to gain momentum, up six more co-sponsors since the hearing and includes two Democrats. The SAFE Act currently has a total of 32 co-sponsors in the House, starting to mimic prior Congresses where the bill has passed but never garnered sufficient support in legislative conferences to be signed into law. Subcommittee Chairman Gallegly and Judiciary Committee Chairman Smith (R-TX) are two of the bill's co-sponsors. The Senate has similar language in a bill offered by Sen. Hatch (R-UT) and co-sponsored by Sen. Roberts (R-KS). Let's see if this Congress has the gumption to finally eliminate this program, reducing our debt one inept program at a time.