Despite Sanctions, a U.S. Immigration Move Nets Iran an Estimated $60 Million

By David North on October 7, 2019

The White House may not be aware of it, but because of one its own immigration policy moves our nation will — despite those widely discussed sanctions against Iran — cause the payment to the Iranian government of an estimated $60 million in cash this year. And will do so again every year in the future.

In the same program, we are causing Ghana, apparently Trump's favorite country despite his obscene characterization of some black nations, to receive an additional $157 million.

Further, while other parts of the government have been slow to send military assistance to the invaded Ukraine, this program seems to be providing more than $19 million annually to that nation.

What's going on here?

The answer is that the Trump administration may, unwittingly, have facilitated these payments. They are predictable by-products of an immigration policy change that was designed for its domestic impact, not the annual payment of a billion dollars or so, every year, to the governments of countries like the three noted above.

This all relates to the Diversity Visa Lottery, which, on the basis of chance, distributes 50,000 green cards each year to the winners. There are concerns in the United States that the people admitted to the nation through this program have relatively low skill levels, as it is open to all with a high school diploma or two years of (fuzzily defined) serious work experience. The program is not open to countries that have sent us large numbers of migrants, such as China, India, and Mexico.

Some years ago, in a move in the same direction, the government decided that to enter the lottery one either had to know how to use a computer, or could either pay or persuade someone who is computer literate to handle the application. Despite the formal requirements, and the computer angle, there were more than 14 million entrants and more than eight million of their relatives involved in the 2018 lottery; those applying had a one in 461 chance of winning.

Evidently hoping to reduce the total number of applicants and to raise the economic level of the remaining ones, the administration recently decided to add one more requirement — those applying have to have a passport from the nation of their citizenship. Since passports are not free, this would seem to lower the number of applicants, but presumably not enough to reduce the number of winners; so the reform would have nothing to do with the total number of diversity immigrants each year.

Assuming that most of the diversity applicants do not have passports, and assuming that many will spend the money needed to buy them, this means that the countries where they live will get a whole lot of passport fees — hence the estimated $60 million for Iran.

In order to make rough estimates, country by country, of how much money this will bring to the leading nations in the diversity program, we assumed that half of the would-be 2018 entrants would not have passports and would decide to buy them. We also assumed, for these calculations, that these proportions would be the same worldwide, which they will not be. It is likely that nations with lower average incomes, or higher passport fees, will be see the number of applicants fall faster than in other nations.

The cost of passports varies, almost implausibly, from nation to nation, with some as low as $7 (Sudan) and one (Togo) as high as $240; the passport information was collected separately for each nation, largely from nations' websites, some of which may be out of date. Another possibility is that rampant inflation has driven down some currencies and passport fees have not been adjusted upwards as yet. When checking Sudan's fee structure, we ran into a news story seeming to say that official, 48-page passports for Syrians could, in fact, be purchased for US$10,000.

To estimate the size of these windfalls, nation by nation, we took half the number of entrants for the year 2018 (from DOS statistics) and multiplied it by the apparent cost, in U.S. dollars, of the passport. We did this for the countries that had more than 180,000 applicants (i.e., entrants) in that year. Our guess that half the entrants, a massive group of more than seven million world-wide, would apply for the passports may be well off the mark — we will see.

These order-of-magnitude estimates are shown for the 23 nations in the following table.

Estimated Yearly Receipts in U.S. Dollars for Nations Caused by Decision on the Visa Lottery

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4
Nations Half the Entrants in the FY -18 Visa Lottery, Rounded Passport Fee (usually the lowest rate quoted) Estimated Receipts
(Col. 2 x Col. 3)
Albania 90,000 $55 $4,950,000
Algeria 115,000 $75 $8,625,000
Cambodia 121,000 $1001 $12,100,000
Cameroon 150,000 $140 $21,000,000
Congo-Kinshasa 212,000 $1852 $13,780,000
Egypt 245,000 $165 $40,425,000
Ethiopia 394,000 $1173 $39,400,000
Ghana 987,000 $160 $157,920,000
Guinea 136,000 $54 $7,344,000
Iran 425,000 $140 $59,500,000
Ivory Coast 104,000 $68 $7,072,000
Kenya 158,000 $45 $7,110,000
Liberia 256,000 $504 $12,800,000
Moldova 158,000 $43 $6,794,000
Morocco 116,000 $132 $15,312,000
Nepal 364,000 $91 $33,124,000
Russia 106,000 $75 $7,950,000
Sierra Leone 484,000 $100 $48,400,000
Sudan 143,000 $75 $1,001,000
Togo 109,000 $2406 $26,160,000
Turkey 102,000 $167 $17,034,000
Ukraine 477,000 $40 $19,080,000
Uzbekistan 616,000 $215 $12,936,000
Totals (23 Nations) 6,068,000 Median: $91 $579,817,000

Sources: Column 2 was calculated from Visa Lottery statistics from the U.S. State Department, "Diversity Visa Program, DV 2016-2018: Number of Entries Received During Each Online Registration Period by Country of Chargeability". Column 3 is from the countries' web sites.

1 A bribe is often necessary as well.

2 Only $65 of this goes to the government according to a Newsweek article; estimated receipts in the table are based on $65.

3 An unknown portion of the fee goes to a service agency, $100 is the estimate used in the table.

4 The Liberian passport application includes this requirement: "BLACK HAIR IS THE ONLY ACCEPTABLE COLOR OF HAIR FOR TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS AT OUR PASSPORT APPLICATION CENTRES. (Emphasis in the original.) We assume that the U.S. dollar, not the local one, is the basis for the cost in this country.

5 This seems low, but it is what the D.C. embassy of this country told us.

6 This seems high, given the others, but it is from the website of the Togo embassy in D.C.

The most extensive participation in the diversity lottery, percentage-wise, seems to be in Albania, where fully one eighth of the nation's population either filed for the diversity lottery or were closely related to those who did; the State Department's term for the relatives in such cases is "derivatives".

Of the 23 countries listed above, 14 are in Africa, four are in Europe, and five (including Turkey and Uzbekistan) are in Asia. No nations in the Western Hemisphere were among the 23.

The U.S. visa lottery is currently underway and the deadline is October 15; it is an annual affair.

Some of the 23 governments at their highest levels may not be aware of the expanded receipts of their passport offices, but all presumably will welcome the new money. The additional funds are not sent to these nations by the U.S. government, they are raised locally from the new passport buyers.

The 23 governments may think: What better way to raise funds than to secure them from the very people who want to leave the country? Typically, members of a nation's establishment do not emigrate, so none of them will be paying these fees and, anyway, they may already have a passport.

We have seen nothing in the U.S. press about the additional passport fees, nation by nation, but those increases may have been noticed in some overseas media.

For more on the inner workings, but not the overseas consequences, of the new regulation, see this (behind a paywall) article from Law360. The article focuses on the fact that the new regulation, effective since June 2019, is the subject of an attack in court by some U.S. immigration lawyers.

While this move by the State Department is creative, and will bring us a group of lottery immigrants with a somewhat higher economic status, I wish future reforms like this would either produce fewer immigrants or at least make a contribution to the U.S. Treasury; this reform does neither.

To reach the twin goals of fewer applicants and wealthier ones, the United States could have levied a modest entrance fee to the lottery of, say $20, which would have produced an estimated $200 million a year or so to reduce our huge annual deficit. It did not do so. (That reform would have also produced a logistical challenge to the State Department, that of collecting $20 each from maybe 10 million people, scattered all over the globe.)

Currently, the millions of aliens entering the lottery pay nothing to the U.S. government, only the 50,000 winners pay fees to Washington.

My position, and that of CIS, is that this program should be abolished.

The writer is grateful to Emma Cummins, a CIS intern, for her research assistance.