Each year, 50,000 people are selected at random to immigrate to the United States. They don’t need specialized job skills or even a relative in the US. What they need most is a little luck, some basic educational or work training qualifications, and to be from a country with few recent immigrants living in the US.
The Diversity Visa, better known as the “Green Card Lottery,” is a little-known program inside the US, but is played by millions of people worldwide each year. It was established in 1990 to diversify the immigration population in the US, designed, in part, to help more Irish settle in the United States.
Over the past two decades though, the complexion of lottery winners has become noticeably darker. Today, about half of visa winners come from Africa.
That’s sparked some anger among Africans living in the US, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus. They say if Africans aren’t fairly represented in the immigration overhaul, they’ll torpedo the bill.
Without the Diversity Visa, Africans like Dominic Tamin would've likely never made it to the US. Tamin's father won the Green Card Lottery in the 1990’s, and Tamin came to New York from Cameroon on January 18, 1997.
“That’s when I arrived here. I remember because it was so cold outside. I’d never experienced that cold weather before.”
Tamin is now a high school math teacher and entrepreneur in Newark, New Jersey. He talks about the high number of African immigrants who work in the healthcare fields, in nursing and in-home caregiving. He’s active in the movement to save the Green Card Lottery.
“It’s something that is dear to my heart. I don’t know how to put this, because I’m so passionate about it.”
So, he decided to express his passion through music. He recently produced this song, “DV Lottery” sung by the artist MayJa Money.
This argument, though, isn’t convincing most leaders in Congress. Many Democrats have quietly turned their backs on the Diversity Visa, giving it up as a bargaining chip.
Republicans, like Congressman Bob Goodlatte from Virginia, have been more outspoken against it. Goodlatte's office turned down an interview request, but here he is speaking against the Diversity Visa on the House floor last year.
In his floor speech, Goodlatte describes the Diversity Visa as "unfair to people from more than a dozen countries around the world that stand in long lines, on waiting lists, and then watch somebody have their name drawn out of a computer at random with no particular job skills, no ties to this country, and they get to go right past them into a Green Card into the United States."
Mark Krikorian, the executive the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, a think tank that advocates for less immigration to the US, agrees with that. He said the Green Card Lottery is ripe for fraud, and that terrorists could steal a winning lottery number and enter the US illegally.
Plus, he said, immigration policy should not be based on national origin.
“And so what the (Congressional) Black Caucus seems to be saying is somehow that (ending the Diversity Visa) is unjust because they want more people who look like them in the immigration flow," Krikorian said. "And what I’d like to know is how is that different from someone saying, ‘Well, I want more white people immigrating to the United States.’ It’s exactly the same thing.”
“C’mon now, let’s look at the population of the nation,” said Democratic Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, when I posed this to her. Clarke represents Brooklyn in the House of Representatives and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Clarke said any new immigration law must include a dedicated flow for African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. Currently, Africans come to the US in three primary ways: asylum seekers, family visas, and the Diversity Visa program.
“We want to be sure that this nation is not one that doesn’t continue to welcome people of African descent and that it is comparable to what we do for others coming from around the world,” Clarke said.
It’s not comparable right now, argues Sylvie Bello, the founder and CEO of the Cameroon American Council in Washington. Bello said the immigration bill includes programs designed to benefit Asians, Latinos and European immigration, such as 10,500 visas annually set aside for Irish immigrants. But there’s nothing specifically for Africans.
“They’re taking us back to the Jim Crow era when we could only come to this country through special programs," Bello said. "Yes, some of us will qualify for the STEM visa, but it was not created with us in mind. Yes, some of will qualify for the DREAM Act, but it was not made with us in mind. Yes, some of us may qualify for the agriculture visa, but it wasn’t made with us in mind. The only visa type that has a high proportion of Africans that come through is the Diversity Visa.”
Bello said she hopes President Barack Obama will speak about immigration on his visit to Africa this week. And that he remembers a time not long ago when very few Africans made it to America, Africans like Obama’s own father. He came here on a student visa.