Sen. Hatch's Proposal to Do Away with the Diversity Visa Lottery

By Janice Kephart on February 11, 2011

The Diversity Visa (DV) Program is an unfortunate blind spot in our immigration system that has outlived whatever purpose it might have had. The applicants for these 50,000 "visa lottery" immigration slots require few skills. Neither their qualifications nor identity can be properly vetted. The program does not know, really, who these applicants are or their true purpose in coming to the United States. The program is a national security vulnerability, and has been used by terrorists and organized criminals to not only enter the U.S., but bring others as well.

According to unofficial statements from the State Department, the program is rife with fraud in part because application standards are so low. The program claims to have strict eligibility requirements, but only calls for a high school education or its equivalent or two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation requiring at least two years' training or experience. In most of the countries eligible for a diversity visa, neither education nor work experience can be verified, let alone identity. Consular officers in U.S. embassies abroad thus spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to determine if people are who they say they are and actually qualify for the program. Checking watch lists based on names or prior U.S. immigration histories thus often has little bearing on making a solid determination of identity, qualifications, or legitimate national security concerns.

National Security Concerns Associated with the DV Program

Looking closely at the worldwide distribution of visa lottery winners from the most recent compilation of statistics by the State Department, almost the entire world is represented in the nearly 50,000 visas issued in 2009 (citizens of all but the top source countries of immigration may participate). What is perhaps most troublesome is that the low threshold of requirements to obtain a diversity visa and the wide breadth of foreign nations eligible for DVs means that foreign nationals from states sponsors of terror, states with terrorists operating within their borders that threaten U.S. national security, and struggling third world nations whose citizenry include economic migrants with few skills and no means to support themselves upon arrival, all are issued visas annually through the program.

Of the 173 foreign states and territories represented in the State Department's 2009 catalogue of actual diversity program visas issued (and adjustments of status for people already here), Iran – a designated state sponsor of terror since January 19, 1984, and the country with one of the longest, most tangled, and unnerving terrorist resumes in the world – received 1,117 visas or adjustments of status. Thus, Iran was the third largest recipient of DVs amongst the 29 nations in Asia that also obtained DVs. Iran is known for its active security forces that seek infiltration abroad; support terrorist acts around the world (the 9/11 Commission made clear that Iran was involved to some degree in supporting the nineteen 9/11 hijackers); provide training and financial support for Hezbollah; and currently harbor al Qaeda. The United States has admitted more than once that our nation has little visibility into the actual terrorist on-goings of Iran on a day-to-day basis. Yet, the DV program provided Iran with the 13th largest number of DV visas in 2009. There is a possibility that among those Iranians obtaining legal permanent residence through their DVs are those who do not support the United States, or perhaps worse.

The three other state sponsors of terror – Sudan, Syria and Cuba – received a total of 835 lottery visas between them. Nations with active terrorist populations such as Yemen and Somalia, as well as governments known to support terrorist causes and terrorist travel, such as Venezuela, also benefit from the lottery program. Again, there are no stop-gaps against fraud to determine qualifications or properly vet identity or derogatory intelligence to assure that radicalized individuals applying from Yemen, Somalia, or Venezuela, for example, do not enter the United States on a DV.

Not surprisingly, at least one terrorist incident was helped by the DV program. Hesham Hedayet, an Egyptian who had entered the United States in 1992 and claimed asylum based on his "radical religious beliefs" for which he "was persecuted." His asylum claim was denied but he eventually obtained legal permanent resident status when his wife won the visa lottery in 1996. On July 4, 2002, Hedayet drove to the L.A. Airport with two guns and a hunting knife, approached the Israeli Airline El Al ticket counter, and killed an employee and man waiting in line. He was killed by a security guard.

Organized Crime Concerns Associated with the DV Program

Diversity visas have also been used to support significant organized criminal enterprises. In December 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder presented a coveted Department of Justice award to a team of federal prosecutors and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who had busted a human trafficking organization that was using the visa lottery to obtain forced child labor for salon-type retail shops in New Jersey. The main perpetrator was Akouavi Kpade Afolabi, formerly from Togo, who, with her husband and son, had essentially used the DV program to create their own personal slave trade. Attorney General Holder described the case while presenting the "Superior Performance by a Litigative Team" on December 8, 2010, to three federal prosecutors and three senior ICE agents:

[For their] outstanding investigation and prosecution of Akouavi Kpade Afolabi and co-conspirators for human trafficking, alien smuggling, and visa fraud in the District's most significant human trafficking case to date. For over five years, defendants obtained the forced labor of two dozen African girls, ranging from 10 to 19 years old. Through physical beatings, threats of voodoo curses, shame, and isolation, defendants forced the victims to work without pay seven days per week, for 10 to 14 hours each day. Many of the victims were subjected to repeated sexual abuse. The team did a superior job working with severely traumatized victim-witnesses and investigating the case, resulting in three pleas, the convictions of two defendants in separate jury trials, and over $3.9 million in restitution.

Fraud Associated with the DV Program

The fraud employed by the Togolese criminal enterprise described above is not unusual. The DV program is permeated with fraud from all over the world, and while fraud pervades immigration programs, the DV program's issues (especially attempts at defrauding applicants) are so profound that warnings were issued in January 2011 by U.S. embassies in Ghana, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bahrain. In addition, a general warning is posted at the State Department and Federal Trade Commission websites:

Fraud Warning
Please Note: There have been instances of fraudulent websites posing as official U.S. Government sites. Some companies posing as the U.S. Government have sought money in order to "complete" lottery entry forms. There is no charge to download and complete the Electronic Diversity Visa Entry Form. The Department of State notifies successful Diversity Visa applicants by letter, and NOT by e-mail. To learn more see the Department of State Warning and the Federal Trade Commission Warning.

Sen. Hatch's Proposal to Do Away with the Diversity Visa Program

As our immigration landscape has changed since the creation of the visa lottery in 1990, our security landscape has shifted significantly since September 11, 2001, and our economy has struggled to recover since 2007, the DV program – which brings into the U.S. 50,000 low-skill, low-educated individuals whose identities cannot be fully vetted – seems an anomaly to a secure, economically vibrant nation. In fact, the House voted to abolish the diversity program in 2005 by a vote of 273-148. At that time, concerns over fraud and national security won the House, but the Senate never passed the bill. In 2007, another bill was introduced in the House to eliminate the program. In June 2007, the Senate and House both agreed to negate funding for the DV program, but the final bill included DV appropriations.

So where does that leave us? There is now another attempt to deal with the DV program head-on. Sen. Hatch has just re-introduced a tweaked version of his interior enforcement immigration bill, "Strengthening Our Commitment to Legal Immigration and America's Security Act.'' In general, Hatch's bill addresses illegal alien issues with practical, doable solutions which include, for example, preventing known organized crime figures from obtaining a U.S. visa – an obvious loophole Congress has not shored up to date.

If there is one theme of this bill, examined last session in my posting "Senator Hatch Drops a Helpful and Thoughtful Border Security Bill", it is to address the fraud that the illegal alien population uses to embed in the United States. Specifically, the bill proposes solutions for such abuses as identity theft, illegal immigrant access to welfare, and the diversity visa lottery program. As pertains to the DV program, the Hatch bill repeals the program unless Congress specifically reauthorizes it. Either way, the bill requires the State Department provide a report back to Congress that explains how fraud will be reduced and why the program should continue. The exact language is:

1 (1) IN GENERAL.—Section 203 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1153) is amended by striking subsection (c). [This is the Diversity Visa Program, and is following by technical conforming amendments.]
(4) REPORT.—Not later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit a report to the Committee on the Judiciary of the Senate and the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives that includes recommended changes to the Diversity Visa Program to combat fraud and eliminate abuse.
(5) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—It is the sense of Congress that the Diversity Visa Program will be discontinued … unless Congress enacts legislation to authorize the continuation of the Diversity Visa Program with appropriate changes to reduce fraud and abuse.

Sen. Hatch is not shying away from what is obvious and understated: the DV program, which assertively creates national security vulnerabilities by admitting foreign nationals it cannot viably vet from state sponsors of terror, acts to support criminal human trafficking, and perpetrates low-skill economic migration during a time when Americans need jobs desperately, has outlived its usefulness. If this nation seeks more diversity in our immigration population, the DV program is not the path to do so.

UPDATE: Sen. Hatch quoted from this post in a speech at the Heritage Foundation earlier today. For the full text of his comments, entitled "Strengthening our commitment to legal immigration", see here.