How the immigration program Donald Trump wants to end helped diversify America


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Tuesday’s dispatch: How the immigration program Trump wants to end diversified America

In 2017, more than 14 million individuals applied to be one of 50,000 to win a chance at coming to America via the diversity visa lottery program. That means .35% of applicants will be accepted. More than half of them are likely to hold a college degree. Before entering the country, they will undergo a rigorous screening to win a permanent legal right to live in the United States. They’ll all pay taxes, though they will not be able to vote and must show they are not likely to become dependent on welfare programs.

Each year, the U.S. grants about 1 million immigrants obtain the right to live in the U.S. permanently, making the group of immigrants entering on diversity visas around 5% of the total.

The program is being targeted for elimination by President Donald Trump and conservative Republicans. They argue the program’s charge of choosing immigrants based on random selection, not merit, does not benefit the U.S. They also argue it has brought terrorists into the country, citing a New York City attack in October by a man who was radicalized after he came to the United States on a diversity visa.

Since the program began to award visas via lottery in 1995, it has increased America’s diversity by offering visas to residents of countries that have sent relatively few immigrants to the U.S. And the program has brought more than 1 million immigrants who would have had no other legal way to reach the country.

That’s because the U.S. immigration system is largely set up to benefit people already living or working in the country. An employee can sponsor a foreign worker to come to America, or a husband can apply to bring his wife and young children into the U.S.

For those without existing U.S. ties, the diversity program is one of the only means to enter the U.S. legally and have a path to citizenship, said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

“If you’re a striver coming from somewhere in the world and you want to start a new path and move to the U.S., the diversity visa is one of the few ways to come to the U.S. without previous ties,” Gelatt said in an interview. In other words, the program is one of the few remaining ways foreigners can work toward the “American dream.”

Between 2001 and 2016, more than 1 million immigrants were granted legal residency in the U.S. in all but three years of that 15-year span. Yet as a percentage of the total population, legal immigrants to the U.S. each year account for a smaller share of the nation’s population compared to the early 1900s when immigrants flooded into the country.

In 1907, nearly 1.3 million people came to the U.S. — the highest number prior to World War I, and in U.S. history to that point. That was equivalent to about 1.5% of the nation’s population. The 1.2 million legal immigrants to the U.S. in 2016 was equivalent to nearly .4% of the total population.

“We’re talking about very small numbers of people,” Carly Goodman, a historian at the American Friends Service Committee, said of the diversity program’s 50,000 annual visas. “The visa lottery creates opportunities that didn’t exist. It draws on very rooted, mythic images about what America is. The admiration a lot of visa applicants have for the United States can be really inspiring.”

The U.S. immigrant population has grown to more than 40 million, and now accounts for more than 13% of the U.S. population. Most of those foreign-born people living in the U.S. are from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The number of African immigrants living in the U.S. more than doubled between 2000 and 2015, to 2 million. That’s been driven, in part, by refugee resettlement. But each year, 20,000 of the U.S. diversity visas are allocated to African countries. This has led to tens of thousands of people from Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya — to name a few of the African countries that consistently post millions of applicants for several thousand visas annually — immigrating to the U.S.

Immigration experts say Nigeria presents a prime example of the diversity program changing the fabric of America. When the program began, few Nigerians lived in the U.S., which meant it was more difficult for Nigerians to find someone in the U.S. who could help them immigrate.

Millions of Nigerians applied for diversity visas year after year, with several thousand granted annually. That created an “immigration pathway” to the U.S. that grew as Nigerians who gained diversity visas sponsored their families to follow them, Gelatt said. However, Nigerians lost eligibility for the diversity program in 2015 because more than 50,000 immigrants came from Nigeria to the U.S. over a five-year period.

“The diversity lottery has been one of the key mechanisms of immigration from Africa,” Goodman said. “Nigeria is a good example of it. ... Before the diversity visa lottery was created, so few Africans had access to family reunification visas. So few Americans had close family relatives in Africa.”

This “key mechanism” of diverse immigration to the U.S. is on the chopping block in the immigration debate, with the Senate considering a Trump-backed proposal that would end this program.

Today’s question: Should immigrants come to the U.S. based on connections and merit or a desire to become American?

Please email us at with your thoughts.

Tuesday in Trump’s America:

Rob Porter: The White House has been consumed by a nearly weeklong scandal, as its story has changed about former staff secretary Rob Porter. Accounts have emerged that suggest chief of staff John Kelly did not want to, or did not move quickly to, address allegations that Porter committed domestic abuse.

An op-ed by Porter’s ex-wife led Washington Post website Monday as she described being abused by her former husband. As this all unfolds, Congress is working on legislation to help victims of domestic violence.

Immigration: Trump called the next few weeks the “last chance” for Congress to find a legislative solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. A conservative plan introduced Monday, similar to what Trump outlined in his State of the Union, won support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but it is unlikely to advance given the need to win 60 votes to pass.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the leading Trump critic in Congress, plans to introduce Tuesday what he pitched as an immigration compromise. The plan would continue to offer a pathway to citizenship for more than 1 million immigrants and increase border security funding, but it would pare back Trump’s reforms, which would dramatically reduce legal immigration. Both proposals would eliminate the diversity visa program.

“This is going to be done or not done this week,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Budget: As in 2017, Trump’s new budget proposes major cuts to social safety net programs, like food stamps. But he also wants to cut Medicare — defying a campaign promise to leave the program untouched.

South Africa: The ruling party in South Africa has called on President Jacob Zuma to resign. Zuma is embroiled in a corruption scandal and lost the support of an overwhelming majority of his party, the African National Congress.

Special election: Trump will campaign in Pennsylvania next week ahead of a March 13 special House election. Republicans are concerned about losing a House seat in a district Trump won handily in 2016.

Census: Trump’s pick to run the 2020 census has withdrawn from consideration. Thomas Brunell had been criticized for defending Republican gerrymandering in more than a dozen states. The census determines once a decade how many Americans live in each state, determining how many seats that state has in Congress.

Corker back in? Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has been asked to reconsider his decision to not run for re-election. Polling shows Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) could lose in a bid to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Trade: Trump may announce a new “reciprocal tax” this week aimed at countries that benefit more from trading with the U.S. than America does.

Today’s MicBite:

Fifty years ago the iconic “I am a man” protest sign captured hearts and changed minds at the height of the civil rights movement. Mic’s Aaron Morrison takes a look at the psychology of why it worked.