To the Biden Administration: Let's Get Creative with Our Immigration Policy

The first of several occasional posts from a life-long Democrat

By David North on January 12, 2021

I recognize, as a member of the Democratic Party, the incoming administration's desire to eliminate as much as it can of the legacy of the Trump administration. It will stop building walls and will ease some of the enforcement of the immigration law — that's inevitable.

But, being the new party in power, it also has the opportunity (and the obligation) to do some fresh thinking in this field and to try new approaches to old problems. With that in mind, this is the first of several occasional posts on the administration's opportunities to reform the immigration system, or at least parts of it.

Today's subject is a narrow one: How can we use the Diversity Visa Lottery program to ease the migration pressures from Central America, such as the caravans from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that are threatening our southern border?

At first glance, the two subjects would seem to have no relationship with each other. The Diversity Lottery is part of the legal immigration system and the people from the Northern Triangle are trying to enter the nation illegally.

In 2018, the lottery gave 50,000 green cards to people from all over the world, such as 4,494 to those from Uzbekistan and 1,020 to those from Tajikistan, compared to none in El Salvador, 144 in Honduras, and 120 in Guatemala. The lottery seemed to deliver much less than 1 percent of its benefits to people from the Northern Triangle. What's the connection?

Let's step back a bit and suggest a new approach to immigration policy: How can we use existing systems to discourage illegal immigration without necessarily expanding the huge number of legal immigrants (more than one million a year, a number most Americans find daunting)? This represents a more sophisticated way of thinking about illegal migration than, say, building a wall (which is not a totally bad idea, but that's a subject for some other day).

We Democrats believe in government, and that government can and should play a positive role in people's lives, even though some of the mechanisms are complex (like our tax system). It is within this broad context that I bring up the matter of the Visa Lottery and the threat from the Northern Triangle that my colleague Todd Bensman writes about from time to time.

The Idea. My notion is not brand new. It is that if the possibility of legal migration can be offered to a specific population it will, to some extent, stay put instead of seeking to move illegally. New Zealand, where I had a Fulbright Scholarship some decades ago, has long run a small-scale lottery for some of the small island nations north of it. All of the nations involved are, as is New Zealand, former British colonies or, in the case of Tonga, a protectorate; they are Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga, and Tuvalu.

The Kiwi lottery was created to discourage illegal immigration; our lottery, in contrast, was not the result of that kind of planning (something that New Zealand is good at), but rather a reflection of a globalist desire to expand opportunities to migrate to the U.S. to people who would not otherwise qualify to do so. I am pretty sure that the Visa Lottery is a bad idea, but it is in place, and could be used (as it is not now) to ease the pressures on the southern border.

The Plan. As we noted earlier, the lottery causes the admission of thousands of people from Central Asia, among other places, which have no history of massive illegal migration to the U.S. Why not reduce some of those numbers and use those visas to discourage illegal migration to our country? This would not increase the level of legal migration to the U.S. and would serve a highly useful public service.

I suggest that 10,000 visas be drawn from the current total to be used only in the Northern Triangle countries. It would simplify things if the rather loose current qualifications would continue: One must have a high school degree or two years of specialized training, a passport, and one must make an application on a computer (or hire someone to do that chore). I would lay on one further qualification in the Northern Triangle countries — one must not have a record of entering the U.S. illegally.

The details of the plan would be designed to keep applicants in their home countries while they wait for a visa possibility. They would have to re-apply every year, and they would be subject to unscheduled home visits by a junior U.S. diplomat, who would simply make sure that they are in-country, and not in the U.S. In subsequent years, people who had filed the previous year would have some greater chance of getting the visa than new applicants, and that advantage would increase further in the third year, and so on.

Introduction of the program would also be useful in our relations with the home countries, as it would be a carrot rather than a stick.

The Precedent. But would not the countries that used to get large numbers of visas object to the 20 percent reduction (from about 50,000 to about 40,000)? Possibly, but that would mean that they wanted to encourage emigration, a rejection of their own country. Further, reduction of chances for legal migration is not the same as the elimination of them.

And there is a precedent for nibbling at the total numbers of visas granted to provide special benefits for a special set of nations. Back in 1997, as NumbersUSA has written, "5,000 of these visas were reserved for individuals who qualified for legal permanent resident status under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act. Those 5,000 visas are not granted under a lottery process."

So once there were 55,000 visa provided by Lottery, and now there are 50,000, and the difference was created for an earlier round of Central American asylum seekers. Why not do it again to offer some benefits to the citizens of the U.S., i.e., less illegal migration?

This would need an act of Congress, or a rider on one of those omnibus appropriations bills.

North, now a resident of Arlington, Va., was his party's candidate for Congress in New Jersey's Fifth District more than 60 years ago and was, later, assistant to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and worked on immigration policy in the LBJ White House.