Lucky Visas

By Mark Krikorian on March 14, 1996

The Washington Post, March 14, 1996

Tuesday was the last day to play the lottery.

The Immigration Lottery, that is.

Since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, a few countries in Asia and Latin America have dominated the immigrant flow. In 1986 Congress, addressing what it perceived to be an inadequate number of European immigrants, authorized the State Department to hand out "diversity visas" - a kind of immigration affirmative action, mainly for Europeans but now also for residents of certain Asian and African countries that are considered to be "underrepresented" in the immigration flow. This year's applicants were vying for a jackpot of 55,000 visas. Last year, 6.5 million people, living overseas or here (some legally, some illegally), sent their applications to the National Visa Center in Portsmouth, N.H. The federal government's equivalent of the "prize patrol" notified lucky winners by mail.

The program has few defenders - even immigrant advocacy groups had resigned themselves to its elimination. Rep. John Bryant (D-Tex.), ranking Democrat on the House immigration subcommittee, has called the lottery a "damn outrage." But an attempt by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the subcommittee, to remove it from the books was blocked when Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered a successful amendment to restore the program, though at a lower level. Apparently Ireland's Ambassador Dermot Gallagher was instrumental in engineering this congressional action, accompanied by representatives with large Irish American constituencies (when first conceived, the lottery was designed as an amnesty for Irish illegal aliens, and last year Irish were still the second-largest group of beneficiaries, after Poles).

Whether the lottery survives will be decided over the next few months, as both the House and the Senate take up their respective immigration bills.

But what's wrong with an immigration lottery? After all, many states now run their own lotteries, as do private companies.

First, the diversity it is supposed to introduce into the immigrant flow is a mirage: Lottery winners accounted for only about 5 percent of total legal immigration last year. Even with the lottery operating, four countries - Mexico, Communist China, the Philippines and the Dominican Republic - accounted for one-third of all legal immigrants in 1994.

Second, it is rife with fraud. The State Department's director of fraud-prevention programs calls it a "visa giveaway." The program requires documents to be presented regarding identity, education and work history. But corruption is so widespread and documents so insecure in much of the world that there is no way of determining whether an applicant's claims are true - or even whether a lottery winner arriving to pick up his visa is the actual applicant and not an impostor.

Third, the lottery program is little more than a rerun of the national-origins quotas that marked the racialist immigration policy of the 1920s. Far from favoring countries that send few of their sons and daughters to America, the lottery was born as an affirmative-action program for white immigrants. Even the new version of the lottery, as resuscitated by Rep. Schumer, includes in its list of eligible countries eight of the top 20 sources of immigrants between 1992 and 1994, while many "low admission"' countries, as they're called, are not eligible. It's not clear how the countries included in the lottery even got on the list, but it appears that ethnic politics played a major role, harking back to the "more-people-who-look-like-me" immigration policy we had until 1965.

Finally, by offering much of the world's population the opportunity to take a chance on a lottery visa, we may well be encouraging people to immigrate who previously may have had no inclination to take such a step. When, as in the case of most lotteries, the would-be immigrant ends up empty-handed, the seed of an idea - migration to America - remains as a possible inducement to pursuing that aspiration through illegal means.

In short, the immigration lottery is a sham: It doesn't perform as advertised, it is a corrupt, racialist throwback, and it may exacerbate illegal immigration. Its supporters in Congress should be asked to explain what national interest it serves.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.