News reports indicate that Sayfullo Saipov, who allegedly killed eight and wounded 11 in a truck attack on Tuesday, entered the country from Uzbekistan through the diversity visa lottery. He is not the first presumed terrorist to enter using the program. Lottery terrorists include Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet, who shot up an El-Al ticket counter in 2002, killing two, and Imran Mandhai, who planned to bomb power stations in Florida the same year.
The diversity visa lottery seems ideally suited for terrorists, as it randomly distributes visas to people who often have no family or other ties to the United States. Many recipients come from countries with significant terrorist problems and where fake documents and fraud are widespread. The lottery serves no rational purpose and Congress should end it as soon as possible.
Enacted in its current form in 1990, the lottery was meant to increase diversity by allowing more immigration from countries that send relatively few people to the United States. Often, citizens from these countries lack the skills to qualify in one of the employment-based visa categories. Besides living in such a country, the only prerequisites are a high school education or two years of work experience in a job that requires two years of training. The roughly 50,000 winners receive a green card (permanent residence) for themselves, their spouses and children. After five years in the United States, they can become citizens and begin to sponsor other relatives.
The diversity visa lottery seems ideally suited for terrorists, as it randomly distributes visas to people who often have no family or other ties to the U.S.
The whole idea was based on the very odd notion that every individual in the world should have some chance of coming to the United States. The interests of the American people were certainly not a paramount consideration when Congress created this program.
National security problems with the lottery have long been known. At a 2003 congressional hearing, the inspector general of the State Department, which oversees the lottery, testified that the program “contains significant risks to national security from hostile intelligence officers, criminals and terrorists attempting to use the program for entry into the United States as permanent residents.”
The concerns identified at that hearing 14 years ago remain. In 2016, Immigration and Customs Enforcement created a list of countries that “promote, produce, or protect terrorist organizations or their members.” Of the top 10 source countries for lottery winners in 2016, four were on ICE’s list: Egypt (No. 2), Iran (No. 3), Uzbekistan (No. 5) and Sudan (No. 7). Many other countries on the ICE list also send significant numbers of lottery winners.
Putting aside the terrorism risk, there is an even more basic problem with the program: It is administratively burdensome to run. In 2015, 14.4 million individuals plus family members successfully registered for the annual drawing. The State Department has to weed out those who do not qualify. After a computer randomly selects 100,000 names. State Department employees interview and vet the finalists, whittling down the list to the 50,000 cap. This is no simple task, since most applicants come from countries where recordkeeping is spotty and documents are hard to verify. Screening for visa lottery fraud takes up valuable State Department resources that could be allocated elsewhere if the program did not exist.
Given our modern economy, it makes no sense to run a program that brings in tens of thousands of immigrants each year, many of whom have very modest levels of education. In 2012, 63% of households headed by an immigrant with only a high school education accessed one or more of the nation’s major welfare programs. Moreover, real wages for Americans with this level of education have either stagnated or declined over the long term, and the share of less-educated Americans in the labor market is at or near historic lows.
Programs that allow in the family members of immigrants already here or that bring in skilled immigrants or refugees have their pluses and minuses. But the diversity visa lottery is not about keeping families together, nor does it select people based on their skills or satisfy any humanitarian concern. Ending this ill-conceived program would be good for national security, workers, taxpayers and the country as a whole.
Steven Camarota is director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. He has testified before Congress several times on the problems of the diversity visa lottery.