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Immigration reform and the uncertain fate of the lottery for diversity visas

No, it's not that kind of lottery. But the diversity visa lottery, which awards green cards to about 55,000 people a year, is partly based on random selection.
No, it's not that kind of lottery. But the diversity visa lottery, which awards green cards to about 55,000 people a year, is partly based on random selection.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A segment on today's Take Two featured an interview with a immigration policy expert on the Diversity Visa Lottery, a quirky program based partly on random selection that rewards applicants from countries that are under-represented among the nation's immigrant diasporas. The Senate immigration reform bill proposes doing away with the program.

If the diversity visa sounds familiar, that's because a related fiasco made headlines two years ago: In the spring of 2011, thousands of applicants were mistakenly informed they'd won an immigrant visa by the U.S. government, and then — whoops! —  told there had been a computer glitch and that the good news was a mistake. 

It may have proven to be the proverbial final blow for the diversity visa, which has faced trouble on-and-off from the start. Since the program's inception in 1990, there have been issues with fraud and scams targeting applicants. There have also been complaints from critics about immigrants who win diversity visas about having a rough time adjusting because they lack family or another support network in the U.S.

The goal when the visa lottery was created was to diversify the nation's population by bringing in people from nations that aren't traditional immigrant-sending countries. In practice, it allows many who can't find a way to the U.S. via traditional legal routes — family or employers — a chance at a green card. 

A large share of the roughly 55,000 diversity visas awarded each year go to applicants from African countries, and the program's potential elimination has drawn complaints from the Congressional Black Caucus. From The Hill, which recently interviewed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York who co-chairs the CBC's immigration task force:

"With respect to the abolishment of the diversity visa lottery program, the CBC is extremely concerned that it might limit the future flow of immigration for people from certain parts of the world,” Jeffries said. “That’s troublesome, and we’re evaluating the merit-based visa proposal to determine if it's fair and balanced.”

The senators who authored the reform bill have proposed a merit-based system, which would award visas based on points tied to education, skills, family ties and so forth.

The diversity visa lottery is initially based on random selection, with the final winners chosen after they meet certain criteria. This includes a high school education or its equivalent, and at least two recent years of work in an occupation requiring a set amount of training or experience.

When the U.S. State Department announced two years ago that its lottery results would be scrapped due to a computer glitch — and that a new drawing would have to be held — angry applicants who thought they'd won visas took to social media to complain, launching a petition drive and a Facebook page. Some filed a class action lawsuit, which was dismissed.

Listen to Take Two's interview with Migration Policy Institute analyst Madeleine Sumption here.