Fu­ture un­sure for visa lot­tery

For many, pro­gram re­mains lone route to Amer­i­can dream

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Lomi Kriel

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s racially tinged com­ments about im­mi­grants from Haiti and Africa have fo­cused at­ten­tion on a rel­a­tively ob­scure pro­gram known as the di­ver­sity visa lot­tery.

The dis­parag­ing re­marks, in which the pres­i­dent re­port­edly re­ferred to those na­tions as “shit­hole coun­tries,” came dur­ing a pri­vate meet­ing Thurs­day on a ten­ta­tive im­mi­gra­tion deal. It would have pro­tected so-called “dream­ers” who came here il­le­gally as chil­dren, while re­al­lo­cat­ing visas from the lot­tery pro­gram to mi­grants pre­dom­i­nantly from Cen­tral Amer­ica who are here through a pro­gram known as a tem­po­rary pro­tected sta­tus.

The fall­out has left the fu­ture of the larger im­mi­gra­tion de­bate yet again in flux, with the pres­i­dent’s lan­guage spark­ing alarm even among some Repub­li­cans and crit­ics say­ing it demon­strates his racial in­sen­si­tiv­ity. Two top House Democrats said they will pro­pose a res­o­lu­tion next week to cen­sure the pres­i­dent.

Once again in the spot­light is the lot­tery pro­gram, which of­fers a speedy two-year path to

le­gal res­i­dency for peo­ple across the world. Un­like other im­mi­grants who gain ad­mis­sion to the United States, re­cip­i­ents do not need a close rel­a­tive here or any sort of spe­cial skill. About half have hailed from Africa.

“The pres­i­dent’s un­to­ward lan­guage clearly high­lighted his is­sue with race,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jack­son Lee, a Hous­ton Demo­crat and mem­ber of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus, which has op­posed scrap­ping the pro­gram. “This is not the kind of at­mos­phere we need to ad­dress the di­ver­sity visa.” ‘Worst of the worst’

Trump has pushed to end the pro­gram since an Uzbek­istan im­mi­grant who came to the United States on a di­ver­sity visa plowed his truck onto a New York City bike path in Oc­to­ber, killing eight peo­ple.

“They have a lot­tery. You pick peo­ple. Do you think the coun­try is giv­ing us their best peo­ple? No,” Trump said dur­ing a speech in De­cem­ber at the FBI Na­tional Academy in Vir­ginia. “What kind of a sys­tem is that? They come in by lot­tery. They give us their worst peo­ple … the worst of the worst.”

In fact, ap­pli­cants ac­tu­ally are picked through a ran­dom com­put­er­ized lot­tery

“It sounds very sim­ple, like, ‘Oh, get­ting paid for the work you do,’ but for an im­mi­grant, it is so com­pli­cated to be paid if you don’t have a green card.” Elena Lacheva, Bul­gar­ian pi­anist and di­ver­sity visa holder

“The pres­i­dent’s un­to­ward lan­guage clearly high­lighted his is­sue with race. This is not the kind of at­mos­phere we need to ad­dress the di­ver­sity visa.” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jack­son Lee, D-Hous­ton

sys­tem, so no coun­try can send its most egre­gious of­fend­ers.

More than 1 mil­lion peo­ple have re­ceived green cards through the pro­gram since it be­gan in 1995. Like other le­gal per­ma­nent res­i­dents, they can ap­ply for cit­i­zen­ship af­ter five years.

The lot­tery is just a frac­tion of the larger im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem, how­ever.

Each year, only 50,000 im­mi­grants qual­ify for green cards out of the roughly one mil­lion that are an­nu­ally dis­trib­uted through other means. Di­ver­sity visas are avail­able to peo­ple around the world, ex­cept in coun­tries such as Mex­ico, China and In­dia that al­ready have large num­bers of cit­i­zens im­mi­grat­ing through tra­di­tional routes.

It is the only op­por­tu­nity for many im­mi­grants, es­pe­cially those from Africa and cer­tain parts of Asia, to come to Amer­ica legally and get in the so­called line, said Sarah Pierce, a pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.based think tank Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute.

“The di­ver­sity visa is the clos­est we get to hav­ing a line into the United States for peo­ple who don’t have other path­ways to im­mi­grate,” she said. In great de­mand

De­mand is so great that in the fis­cal year end­ing last Septem­ber around 19 mil­lion peo­ple ap­plied, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. State De­part­ment.

The pro­gram came about af­ter coun­try quo­tas fa­vor­ing Western Euro­peans were dropped in the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1965 and re­placed with a sys­tem fo­cused on fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion. Mi­gra­tion from some Asian and Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries sky­rock­eted as a re­sult, while the num­ber of Euro­pean ar­rivals, par­tic­u­larly from Ire­land and Italy, plum­meted.

“The di­ver­sity visa was to help flows that orig­i­nally were com­ing but were no longer,” Pierce said. “Specif­i­cally, the Ir­ish.”

In 1990, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Demo­crat, helped make per­ma­nent a 1980s mea­sure al­low­ing a path to res­i­dency for cit­i­zens of coun­tries, like Ire­land, that had been “ad­versely af­fected” by the 1965 re­forms.

At first, re­cip­i­ents were over­whelm­ingly Euro­pean. In re­cent years, how­ever, most have hailed from Africa and Asia. In 2016, Nepal, Egypt and Iran re­ceived the most di­ver­sity visas, ac­cord­ing to the State De­part­ment.

To qual­ify, ap­pli­cants must have a high school ed­u­ca­tion or two years of re­cent work ex­pe­ri­ence. They un­dergo an ex­ten­sive back­ground/se­cu­rity vet­ting process, and can­not have com­mit­ted a crime, suf­fered a se­ri­ous health prob­lem or have pre­vi­ously over­stayed a visa in the United States.

Groups that sup­port re­duc­ing im­mi­gra­tion have called to end the di­ver­sity visa pro­gram for years. They say it brings in lowskilled im­mi­grants and peo­ple with no con­nec­tion to the United States, ar­gu­ing that such mi­grants strug­gle to as­sim­i­late.

“Out of the pan­theon of dumb gov­ern­ment pro­grams, this would rank right up there,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman with the Fed­er­a­tion for Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Re­form, a group push­ing to limit im­mi­gra­tion. “Pick­ing 50,000 new Amer­i­cans vir­tu­ally out of a hat ev­ery year makes ab­so­lutely no sense.”

He said the pro­gram posed se­cu­rity risks, point­ing to the case of an Egyp­tian im­mi­grant who gained his res­i­dency through his wife’s di­ver­sity visa and killed two peo­ple at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port in 2002.

The Se­nate’s 2013 im­mi­gra­tion bill that ul­ti­mately died in the House would have elim­i­nated the di­ver­sity visa. Fol­low­ing Trump’s push last fall, sev­eral mem­bers of Congress said they would again sup­port re­peal­ing it. Texas Repub­li­can Sen. John Cornyn said the im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem should be “more fo­cused and more merit-ori­ented.”

Stephen Yale-Loehr, an im­mi­gra­tion law pro­fes­sor at Cor­nell Univer­sity, said that de­spite Trump’s claims, no gov­ern­ment or even in­di­vid­ual can game the sys­tem since it is a true lot­tery. Un­til re­cently YaleLoehr was a critic of the pro­gram. In Novem­ber, he told The New York Times that a lot­tery is a “crazy way to run an im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem. … No other coun­try se­lects im­mi­grants based on a lot­tery.”

But in De­cem­ber, YaleLoehr pub­lished an oped in the New York Daily News ar­gu­ing that re­cip­i­ents of di­ver­sity visas are, in fact, not less skilled than other im­mi­grants.

Cit­ing a 2011 re­port from the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice, he said a higher per­cent­age of im­mi­grants who en­tered the United States through the di­ver­sity visa pro­gram had man­age­rial and pro­fes­sional oc­cu­pa­tions in 2009 than green card hold­ers over­all, about one-quar­ter com­pared to 10 per­cent. They also had a lower un­em­ploy­ment rate — 3 per­cent — rel­a­tive to the 8 per­cent of all re­cip­i­ents that year. Sec­ond thoughts

Ac­cord­ing to re­cent De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity data, about a third of those who came through the di­ver­sity visa pro­gram in 2015 were em­ployed in man­age­ment or pro­fes­sional oc­cu­pa­tions, com­pared to the 12 per­cent who re­ceived their green cards through rel­a­tives.

“Philo­soph­i­cally, you would think you could do a bet­ter job of pick­ing peo­ple to come to the United States through im­por­tant cri­te­ria, like peo­ple who have a unique tal­ent, or are very smart, rather than just through a lot­tery,” Yale-Loehr said. “But af­ter I looked at th­ese sta­tis­tics, and I saw that di­ver­sity visa lot­tery peo­ple are pretty much gain­fully em­ployed with a very low un­em­ploy­ment rate, I am now hav­ing sec­ond thoughts.”

He said it helps bring a di­verse pool of im­mi­grants to the United States, not­ing that few peo­ple from Africa or cer­tain Asian coun­tries have fam­ily mem­bers here who can spon­sor them, and find­ing em­ploy­ers to do so is largely im­pos­si­ble be­cause of the over­whelm­ing de­mand and their lack of con­nec­tions.

Ruth Falomo, who came to Hous­ton from Nige­ria on a di­ver­sity visa in 2014, pointed to her own fam­ily’s back­ground as proof that most such mi­grants were, in fact, well-ed­u­cated. She and her hus­band are both nurses, her el­dest son is a psy­chol­o­gist at the Hous­ton In­de­pen­dent School District, and two other chil­dren are grad­u­ate stu­dents in en­gi­neer­ing. Tied to em­ployer

Elena Lacheva, an ac­claimed young Bul­gar­ian pi­anist at the Hous­ton Grand Opera, ap­plied for a di­ver­sity visa three times be­fore re­ceiv­ing one in 2013. Her pre­vi­ous em­ploy­ment visa had tied her to the opera, mean­ing she couldn’t par­tic­i­pate in any paid out­side en­deav­ors.

“I was in­cred­i­bly elated,” she said. “It meant I could fi­nally take own­er­ship of my life.”

She be­gan teach­ing at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton and worked with Opera in the Heights. She co­founded the Col­lab­o­ra­tive Pi­ano In­sti­tute, a sum­mer pro­gram in Min­nesota fea­tur­ing world-renowned fac­ulty.

“I wouldn’t have been able to be part of it had I not had the green card,” she said.

Be­fore, she would have had to per­form at her own ex­pense as her work visa meant she could only ac­cept pay­ment from the com­pany who spon­sored her.

“Now I am able to travel and give con­certs in dif­fer­ent cities,” she said. “It sounds very sim­ple, like, ‘Oh, get­ting paid for the work you do,’ but for an im­mi­grant, it is so com­pli­cated to be paid if you don’t have a green card.”

It re­mains com­pli­cated for her part­ner, a Venezue­lan pi­anist who is on an em­ploy­ment visa at Louisiana State Univer­sity and not per­mit­ted to do paid work for oth­ers.

Lacheva, who also teaches there, said their friends are al­ways stunned when they hear that af­ter liv­ing here for years and work­ing at such pres­ti­gious in­sti­tu­tions as the opera, she was, un­til re­cently, so re­stricted and that her part­ner re­mains in such a bind.

“I don’t think most peo­ple un­der­stand how dif­fi­cult it is to get a green card,” Lacheva said.

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