The Diversity Visa lottery was created by the Immigration Act of 1990 as a dedicated channel for immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. Each year nearly 50,000 visas are allocated randomly to nationals from countries that have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous 5 years. Although originally intended to favor immigration from Ireland (during the first three years of the program at least 40 percent of the visas were exclusively allocated to Irish Immigrants), the Diversity Visa program became one of the only avenues for individuals from certain regions in the world to secure a green card.

People from eligible countries in different continents may register for the Diversity Visa lottery. However, because these visas are distributed on a regional basis, the program especially benefits Africans and Eastern Europeans.  According to the last Visa Bulletin, in Fiscal Year 2013, 59 percent of the Diversity Visas went to aspiring immigrants from African countries. While supporters of the Diversity Visa system underscore the system’s value as the only equal opportunity provider, opponents tend to emphasize the irrationality of a system that allocates immigrant visas randomly.

The immigration bill currently being debated in the Senate would eliminate the Diversity Visa lottery. The notion of diversity, however, is somehow integrated into the new merit-based point system. Specifically, aspiring immigrants from countries with low immigration to the United States will receive a few points based on their nationality. However, it is unlikely that people from these countries will be able to secure an immigrant visa unless they are also able to acquire sufficient points in the other segments of the point-allocation system (i.e., skills, employment background, education, and English proficiency). Under these circumstances, chances are that aspiring immigrants from certain countries with limited opportunities for the acquisition of educational and employment credentials may not have a real shot at securing a green card.

The question is, then, should the diversity component of our system be preserved? What is the value of guaranteeing immigration opportunities to people from countries with low levels of immigration to the United States?

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  • Andrew Riley

    At the outset, I should say that I’m not fond of the Diversity Visa program’s lottery provision: creating an arbitrary numeric quota seems logically specious. At the same time, the program has been a lifeline for folks from countries with historically low levels of immigration to the US, particularly in the former Soviet Bloc and Africa.

    The idea of replacing the program outright and replacing it with a small number of preference points in a new merit-based track goes entirely in the wrong direction. Rather than folding the Diversity Visa program into a new set of visa regulations which privilege the already-educated and relatively well-off, I’d like to see the program expanded, and redesigned so as not to leave the situation of applicants up to random chance.