Visa Lottery Still An Inviting Option

By Jessica M. Vaughan on April 1, 1997

pp. 10-13 in Immigration Review no. 28, Spring 1997

At noon on March 5, the State Department closed the application period for the 1998 diversity immigration visa program, often referred to as the visa lottery. The National Visa Center, which runs the selection process, reports that roughly seven million applications were submitted from around the world and within the United States.

The diversity program was established by the Immigration Act of 1990 (actually, reincarnated from two similar programs that had existed earlier), ostensibly to offer the opportunity of immigration to individuals in countries that had been sending few immigrants to the United States so as to diversify the U.S. immigration flow. It is widely believed, however, that the Congressional sponsors of the visa lottery adopted the "diversity" mantra as cover for a program that was actually designed to admit more European immigrants in general, and to legalize the entire population of illegal Irish immigrants, in particular. The program has also won praise from a few observers as the ideal kind of immigration program, because it tends to attract relatively young, motivated, and educated applicants who tend not to bring along many family members.

Today, however, the visa lottery has developed a personality of its own, far different from what its creators had apparently envisioned. As early as the second year, the number of Polish recipients began to surpass the number of Irish applicants. In 1995, the program was opened to far more countries and is now dominated not by European applicants, although they are entitled to 43 percent of the available visas, but by immigrants from underdeveloped countries. What's more, what was sold as a harmless and feel-good visa program has now become riddled with fraud.

Demand Remains Strong

Approximately 7.6 million applications were received for the current round ending on September 30. After more than one million of these were disqualified, 100,000 lucky winners were randomly selected to apply for the 55,000 visas that can actually be awarded (which includes family members of winners). Only 3,850 can be admitted from any one country. Since a significant number of winners will drop out after being notified that they have been selected, the State Department overbooks the program in order to ensure that all the visas are taken. Visa Office spokesman Charles Oppenheim says that the three main reasons winners drop out are: 1) they can't meet the requirements of the program; i.e., have a high school degree or two years of experience working in a skilled occupation; 2) they find out they have to pay $200 in visa fees; or 3) they find out that the United States government is not going to take care of them when they get here.

Details on the 1997 winners suggest that the diversity program has become a welcome escape chute for enterprising individuals seeking to leave some of the world's poorer nations. Out of the 168 foreign states with winners this year, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Albania had the most winners, and therefore probably the most applicants (See Table). Out of 32 Asian countries that qualify, Bangladesh alone produced more than half the winners. The 12 countries that currently send the most legal immigrants are excluded from the program.


Table: Top Ten Nationalities on Immigrant Visa Waiting List, January 1997


There continues to be considerable demand from European countries, overwhelmingly from the former Eastern bloc countries. Germany was the only western European country to have more than 1,000 winners (it had 2,330); most other western European countries had just a few hundred winners. Even Ireland had only 990 winners.

Disappointed Applicants Get Second Chance

Like so many other government programs that have been established to benefit certain groups over others, the diversity program has already spawned additional spin-off special interest legislation. A little-noticed section of the 1996 immigration reform law, known as the Diversity Visa "Second Chance" provision, allows anyone who was selected as a winner in 1995, and who applied from within the United States (meaning they were probably here illegally), but who did not receive an immigrant visa due to heavy demand, to apply for a 1997 visa. These applicants do not have to enter the lottery again, but are put at the head of the line in front of the new 1997 winners. While the law applies to applicants of any nationality, it was expected to benefit primarily Polish applicants. INS regional offices were charged with tracking down all those who might be eligible.

A senior INS official very familiar with the program guessed that 700-800 Poles would obtain a green card by this route. However, the State Department's notice announcing the 1995 winners reported that a total of 49,985 Polish applicants were registered that year, of whom only 3,850 could have been awarded visas, because of the per-country limits. Some of the remaining 46,000 applicants probably opted out of the program voluntarily, but it would not be unreasonable to expect that as many as half of them would still be interested. Even if only one-fourth of those individuals were still living here, that would leave over 5,000 potential beneficiaries just from Poland.

The second chance diversity visa is reportedly the brainchild of Rep. William Lipinski, a Chicago Democrat. It may well be the last chance for prospective Polish applicants to qualify for a diversity visa, because Poland was dropped from the list of countries eligible for future lotteries due to recent high admissions levels.

The existence of the second chance program helps confirm that the visa lottery has helped create an attitude of entitlement among prospective immigrants that can be fulfilled through special interest pressure points in Congress. By broadcasting an invitation to immigrate to nearly every nation in the world, the lottery also seems to have unleashed new demand in places where previously there was little interest or hope to do so. In February of this year, the downtown area of Freetown, Sierra Leone was literally shut down by stone-throwing rioters who stormed the central post office after 5,000 completed and posted diversity visa applications were found floating in the city's harbor. According to the Associated Press report, police had to use tear gas and live ammunition to restore calm. A local newspaper theorized that the government had tried to dispose of the applications in order to hide the fact that so many wish to leave. In FY-1995, the latest year for which statistics are available, 919 immigrants from Sierra Leone were admitted to the United States. In 1997, 2,440 winners from Sierra Leone were registered in the diversity program alone.


Table: Diversity Visa Refusal Rates for Selected Consulates, 1996


Fraud a Serious Problem

In addition to stoking demand for visas, the diversity program has imposed additional burdens on the State Department's consular corps, which (openly) grudgingly administers the program. An internal audit recently conducted by State characterizes the visa lottery as a costly unfunded mandate that saps personnel resources. The report warns that more resources must be devoted to the program, not only to address the increased workload, but also to help fight fraud, which has emerged as a serious problem.

State Department records indicate that in some countries diversity visa fraud has become the most troublesome immigrant visa problem and that in general, refusal rates are higher for diversity visas than for any other immigrant visa category. The worst case is Nigeria, where four out of five diversity winners' applications are denied, nearly all due to fraud. This is a logical consequence, Department officials say, of a program that invites applications from almost anyone, and only requires them to show they qualify after they are selected, prompting a mad rush for documents once the winners are notified.

In addition to identity fraud and use of bogus documents to establish eligibility, the visa lottery has also given rise to scams in the United States, as crooked attorneys and "consultants" boast to unsuspecting would-be immigrants that they can guarantee a winning application, for a fee ranging from $50 to $2,000. These rackets have become so widespread that the Federal Trade Commission has issued an official warning on the practice.