The 29-year-old man from Uzbekistan charged as a terrorist for driving a truck into a New York City bicycle path, killing eight and severely injuring dozens, entered the United States legally seven years ago on a permanent legal residency permit that he had “won” through a unique immigration program known as the USA Diversity Visa Green Card Lottery program. The Diversity Visa program is administered by the State Department. Ever since it was created in 1990, it has been controversial.
Getting a green card is the gold standard for immigrants. It’s highly competitive. That’s because it gives permanent-resident status to the holder with almost all the rights of a citizen (holders do not have the right to vote or to run for high public office). It is the only permit from which an immigrant can apply for citizenship, generally after five years. But no one is required to become a citizen and the majority of green-card holders do not.
Today, the United States issues more than 1.1 million new green cards to applicants every year. Most apply from their homelands in a process detailed in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Priority for green cards is given to family members of citizens and green-card holders; about 60 percent of all green cards go to extended family members. The process can take years.
Originally, the number of green cards to be given out annually was capped at 200,000. But that has grown over the years due to a number of special programs. Work skills were never the priority and, over the years, a variety of temporary work and non-immigration student visas were developed to allow in needed workers and scholars, typically for up to six years. Few of these visas can be “adjusted” to become green cards, however.
Immigration laws expressly prohibit discrimination against or for any applicant based on race, religion, creed or national origin. Every nationality is to be treated equally in a process that will allow no more than seven percent of all green cards (about 70,000 per year) to be granted to any one nationality.
Applicants from large, well-educated countries with a long history of immigration to the United States such as China, India and Mexico greatly exceed the number allowed and are put on waiting lists. But there are dozens of smaller countries, many of them poorer and with less mobile populations, that have low numbers of applicants.
The Diversity Visa program was created to grant 50,000 permanent immigrant visas a year through an expedited process for applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States — fewer than 50,000 a year. Applications close mid-November (this year on Nov. 22) and then the winners are selected at random. Most come from Africa — almost 21,000 in 2016. That year, more than 15,000 came from Europe, mainly Eastern Europe, while almost 9,000 came from Asia.
Uzbekistan, the country of origin of the “truck terrorist,” received 2,378 diversity visas in 2016; in 2010, when Sayfullo Saipov entered, his country of origin received the most diversity visas of all countries: 3,596.
With a growing focus on work and skill-based immigration visas in Congress the past five years, the diversity visa has increasingly been regarded as a trading chip. In 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included removing the diversity visa and filling the 50,000 slots with skilled workers instead. In exchange, more than eight million immigrants living and working in the country illegally would be legalized.
Many members of the Republican-majority House of Representatives believe that the diversity visa should end. In 2013, they wanted to do it as a stand-alone bill, not as part of a comprehensive package that would legalize millions of other immigrants. Today, most still feel that way.
The program has always been vulnerable to fraud. Even the State Department website has a Fraud Warning page with the headline: “Diversity Visa Program Scammers Sending Fraudulent Emails and Letters.”