How The Diversity Visa Lottery Works

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 1:52 pm

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in this week's New York terrorist attack, is a native of Uzbekistan who came to the U.S. through the diversity visa lottery. It's a system for people from countries that have sent relatively few immigrants to the United States in the past five years.

Now, the attack that killed eight has brought heightened scrutiny to the program and prompted calls to end it.

The diversity visa lottery program goes back to the 1980s when its earliest version was created largely to benefit Irish immigrants. In the 1990s Congress changed the program so that anyone from a country that doesn't already send many immigrants here can apply.

In 1995, Darakshan Raja's Pakistani parents applied to enter the U.S. through the lottery. Her mother, a professor of English, wanted to pursue her career here. Raja recalls the long list of documents and certifications her parents had to provide: birth certificate copies, entire academic history, government reference letters, family and marriage records, financial statements, multiple English test results and certificates from the police that the applicants don't have a criminal record.

And there was something else. At the age of 6, Raja herself was questioned by an American Embassy official in Islamabad. She says she was asked: Do you believe in democracy or do you believe in communism?

"Now you can imagine at that age? I had no idea what the word meant," she recalls.

After Raja's parents were vetted, they were entered into a computer lottery.

Fifty thousand visas are administered each year through an Internet site and the application period is open until late November.

The program has its critics. Some say the diversity visas could better be used to reduce the current backlog of people who have been waiting many years to enter this country.

"If I'm a U.S. citizen and I have a brother or sister in the Philippines that I want to sponsor for a green card, that brother or sister will have to wait over 20 years," says Cornell Law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr. "And why should they have to wait that long when someone else can waltz into the United States in one or two years under the diversity program?"

Security has been a concern, too, since the spouse of a diversity visa holder from Egypt shot and killed two people at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. And now after the terrorist attack in New York, President Trump is calling on Congress to shut it down.

"It's a disaster for our country," Trump said Thursday. "The program grants visas not on the basis of merit but simply because applicants are randomly selected in an annual lottery. And the people put in that lottery are not that country's finest."

In 2016, nearly half of the visas were granted to immigrants from Africa. The highest-ranking individual countries were Nepal, Egypt and Iran, followed by Uzbekistan, the home of the New York terrorism suspect.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the details we've learned about the suspect in the New York terror attack is that he was a native of Uzbekistan. He came to this country through a visa lottery system. This lottery is open to people from countries that have sent relatively few immigrants to the U.S. in recent years. Now, though, that program is under heightened scrutiny, prompting calls to end it - those calls even coming from President Trump. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: In 1995, Darakshan Raja's Pakistani parents applied to enter the United States through what's called the Diversity Visa Lottery. Her mother, a professor of English, wanted to pursue her career here. Raja recalls the long list of documents and certifications her parents had to provide.

DARAKSHAN RAJA: You need to get all original copies of your birth certificate, your entire academic history, your medical history. You need government reference letters. You need police certificates that say that the individuals who are applying for this don't have a criminal record.

GONZALES: Plus family and marriage records, financial statements proving her parents weren't poor and multiple English tests. And there was something else - at the age of 6, Raja herself was questioned by an American embassy official in Islamabad. She was asked...

RAJA: Do you believe in democracy, or do you believe in communism? Now you can imagine, at that age, I had no idea even what the words meant.

GONZALES: After Raja's parents were vetted, then they were entered into a computer lottery. This Diversity Visa Lottery Program goes back to the 1980s, when its earliest version was created largely to benefit Irish immigrants. In the 1990s, Congress changed the program so that anyone from a country that doesn't already send many immigrants here can apply.

Fifty thousand visas are administered each year through an Internet site, and the application period is open until late November. The program has its critics. Many say the diversity visas could better be used to reduce the current backlog of people who have been waiting many years to enter this country.

STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR: If I'm a U.S. citizen and I have a brother or a sister in the Philippines that I want to sponsor for a green card, that brother or sister is going to have to wait over 20 years.

GONZALES: Cornell law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr.

YALE-LOEHR: And why should they have to wait that long when someone else can waltz into the United States in one or two years under the diversity program?

GONZALES: Security has been a concern, too, since the spouse of a diversity visa-holder from Egypt shot and killed two people at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. And now, after the terrorist attack in New York, President Trump is calling on Congress to shut it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's a disaster for our country. This program grants visas not on a basis of merit but simply because applicants are randomly selected in an annual lottery. And the people put in that lottery are not that country's finest.

GONZALES: In 2016, nearly half of the visas were granted to immigrants from Africa. The highest-ranking individual countries were Nepal, Egypt and Iran, followed by Uzbekistan, the home of the New York terror suspect.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAID'S "HELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.