MEMO: Eliminating the Diversity Visa Lottery the Right Way

Nov 08, 2017

On October 8, 2017, the White House released a letter from President Trump to Congress outlining several “principles” for immigration reform. The letter called for ending “extended-family chain migration by limiting family-based green cards to spouses and minor children” and replacing these policies with a “merit-based system that prioritizes skills and economic contributions over family connections.” The letter also called for elimination of the diversity visa lottery.

The Halloween terrorist attack in New York City drew attention to a decades old immigration program known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program because the 29-year old suspect, Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, used it to migrate to the United States from Uzbekistan. Following the attack, President Trump reiterated his support for eliminating the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, or “diversity visa lottery.”

The Heritage Foundation has long opposed the diversity visa lottery, calling for its elimination and replacement with a system that favors employment-based visas and merit-based applicants. While the terrorist arrested in the New York City attack used the visa system to enter the United States nearly a decade ago, this is not a failure of the current vetting system in general or the suspect’s visa in particular.

Saipov is a homegrown terrorist who was radicalized in America subsequent to his legal entry. James Carafano, an expert in national security and foreign policy at Heritage, makes this point in The Daily Signal: “No visa program per se represents a particular terrorist threat if proper vetting and security practices are in place,” adding:

Proper measures are determined by competent risk assessments. Terrorists have tried every manner to come to the U.S. that can be imagined. If we banned a method of travel because a terrorist tried to use it, we would have to ban all travel to the U.S. The president was right to criticize the lottery visa—it’s not a useful or efficient or appropriate tool for determining who should immigrate here. We need a merit-based system.

Brief History

The U.S. State Department, which administers the diversity visa lottery using U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) vetting processes and data, explains that Section 203 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides for a category of immigrants known as “diversity immigrants” from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.

The diversity category was added to the INA by the Immigration Act of 1990 and awards green cards, or legal permanent residence, to eligible applicants among six geographic regions with no single country receiving more than 7 percent of the total available visas in any one year. The State Department recently stated that 50,000 diversity visas will be available for fiscal year 2019, the application period of which closes on November 22, 2017.

Like numerous other government programs that award a valuable commodity—in the diversity lottery’s case, green cards or legal permanent residence—the program is subject to fraud and abuse. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found pervasive fraud in the program, concluding in a 2007 report:

Since its inception, the DV [diversity visa] program has facilitated thousands of individuals from countries currently underrepresented in the U.S. immigrant pool to immigrate to the United States. However, consular officers at 5 of the 11 posts we reviewed reported that fraud in the DV program is a major challenge […]. While fraud is an issue across all immigrant visa categories, there are specific aspects of the DV program […] that make it particularly vulnerable to manipulation from an unscrupulous visa industry in some countries.

As the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) plainly summarized in a warning years earlier, “The DV [diversity visa] program is subject to widespread abuse.”

A Better Approach

As noted above, the application period for the next round of diversity visas closes on November 22, 2017. Recent media reports suggest that the president and several Senate Republicans will meet to discuss “progress on Capitol Hill thus far of any legislative fix to the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA] program” or a potential “DACA fix.” Another report suggests Senate Republicans are “looking to move an immigration bill to the floor early next year.”

Any proposed deal to simply swap elimination of the diversity visa lottery with blanket amnesty for DACA recipients should be a nonstarter. Neither of these policies would address the underlying problems in our current family-based, or chain-migration, system which prioritizes immediate relatives before meeting the more pressing needs of our country – including demand for high-skilled migrant applicants seeking employment-based visas.

Congress could simply amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate the diversity immigrant program altogether. Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) proposed a bill to do just that (H.R. 1178). Indeed, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) outlined, recent Congresses have attempted to eliminate the diversity visa lottery. Legislation similar to H.R. 1178 passed the House in 2005 after a thorough committee process. However, the effort was subsequently blocked by Senate Democrats.

Beyond eliminating this misguided and pervasively fraudulent program, a rational immigration policy—one that makes sense for our nation’s economic needs—would reallocate the 50,000 visas in favor of awarding visas to foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM.

According to State Department statistics on numerically-limited immigrant categories, as of November 1, 2016, the number of applicants on waiting lists in employment-based preference categories totaled 4,367,052. In other words, Congress mandated that USCIS and State—agencies it has tasked with administrative responsibilities to meet our nation’s immigration needs—vet and award thousands of visas annually under the moniker of “diversity” while leaving millions of prospective workers on a waiting list.


Lawmakers should take concrete steps to end the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program and begin reforming our legal immigration system to serve American interests in the 21st century. Specifically, Congress should reduce costly, low-skilled immigration, eliminate blanket family-based chain migration, and move toward a rational, merit-based migration system.