The Irish Roots of the Diversity Visa Lottery (Politico)

The Irish Roots of the Diversity Visa Lottery

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The Irish Roots of the Diversity Visa Lottery

President Trump says this obscure U.S. immigration program is allowing in terrorists. But it exists because Irish and Italian immigrants felt they were getting a raw deal.

When an Uzbek greencard holder drove a van through a crowded bike path in New York City on Tuesday, killing 8 and injuring 11, he spotlighted a little-known provision in the U.S. immigration system. President Trump responded to the attack by tweeting this morning, “The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based.” He vowed in a subsequent tweet, “No more Democratic Lottery Systems.”

Schumer did introduce the House version of a 1990 bill that created the current system, as Trump’s supporters are noting. But the legislative origins of the visa lottery and the impetus for the program go back far earlier, to the mid-1960s—when the current Senate minority leader was just a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, New York.

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That year, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965, a landmark piece of legislation that created the modern lottery system. Before then, the United States had picked immigrants based on their national origin. Guided by racist eugenics beliefs, the pre-1965 system deemed the nationals of some countries more desirable than others, and imposed numerical quotas for “undesirable” countries. Mirroring the spirit of equal protection that was embodied in the Civil Rights movement, the new law moved the U.S. to a system that prioritized family ties, employment skills and humanitarian admissions. Later, by 1976, every country, regardless of population, was subjected to a 20,000 per-year limit for permanent immigrants.

The framers of the 1965 Act never anticipated, however, that the immigrants coming to the United States would shift from being largely dominated by Europeans to one comprised mainly of Asians and Latin and Central Americans.

This shift hit two politically powerful ethnic groups in particular: Irish and Italians. After 1965, Irish who had immigrated freely to the U.S. now had difficulty qualifying for permanent visas; many lacked the necessary job skills or didn’t have close enough relatives to petition them. A U.S. aunt or cousin, for instance, couldn’t petition for their Irish relatives because the relationship was too distant. So in the 1970s, struggling with a moribund economy at home, many Irish came to the U.S. on temporary tourist visas and overstayed, becoming undocumented. They had no means to get right with the law under the new 1965 system. Meanwhile, Italians who previously were relatively unrestricted ran up against the 20,000 per-country limit, creating large backlogs—even though many had brothers and sisters petioning to bring them across the Atlantic. A call rose to elected officials to do something to help these would-be Americans.

Some well-placed and enterprising members of Congress of Irish and Italian descent leapt into action, arguing that their co-ethnics had been unfairly shut out by the post-1965 system. In a forerunner of the visa lottery, Rep. Brian Donnelley (D-Mass.) created a program awarding 10,000 special visas to nationals from “adversely affected countries.” The State Department was charged with coming up with a list of such countries that had not used more than 25 percent of their 20,000-per-country quota. That formula was the template for the current lottery.

Other Irish-American lawmakers pitched in. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) filed companion legislation in the Senate, while Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neal, Jr. (D-Mass.) provided a timely assist by informing Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) that his bill (which would later become the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) would not be scheduled for floor debate unless there was some help for the Irish in it.

The word “diversity” was added later. Channeling the multiculturalism movement of the 1980s, proponents of the provision wrapped the label around it since it would have otherwise been difficult to sell a new visa for people without close U.S. ties and who lacked employment skills American employers wanted. The diversity lottery as we know it today became a permanent feature of the immigration system in the omnibus Immigration Act of 1990, an expansionist law that increased the overall number of immigrants admitted for permanent residence each year.

Ironically, the original beneficiary groups, Irish and Italians, lost interest in the lottery by the mid-1990s because the Irish economy had improved and, with the formation of the European Union, Irish and Italians could travel to work in any EU country. But the lottery system kept going. The current beneficiaries are nationals from a number of African countries, and the visa lottery accounts for more than 30 percent of African immigration in recent years.

There are definitely reasons to axe the lottery. The main one is that while the system no longer disadvantages specific countries, it does discriminate against certain individuals who lack close family members or the right mix of work skills. And it’s worth noting that Schumer agreed to scrap the Diversity Visa Lottery in 2013, when the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill—only to see it die in the House.

But the notion that the visa lottery is a pathway for terrorists is wrong. Visa lottery winners undergo the same admissions procedures as any greencard recipient who obtains the status through family, employment or humanitarian admissions. Lottery winners are interviewed at length by the State Department overseas. Their backgrounds are also checked by the FBI before they are admitted to the U.S., as with any other greencard recipient.

Can that process be strengthened? Undoubtedly. But just as we wouldn’t shut down the internet because some people were radicalized by what they read, it would be equally unwise to shut down America’s immigration system because one visa category admitted a killer.

Anna O. Law is a political scientist who holds the Herbert Kurz chair in constitutional rights at CUNY Brooklyn College.

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November 1, 2017 at 12:57PM