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The Diversity Lottery Visa Program Is an Asset to US Immigration Policy

February 13, 2018

Salima Etoka

Salima Etoka is a program manager at the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, a Harry S. Truman Scholar and alumna of Trinity College. She is a Congolese immigrant.


I am a Congolese-American and my family immigrated to the US through the Diversity Lottery Visa Program. My goal today is to bring context to the diversity lottery program, argue against the four myths presented about this program in the State of Union Address and remind us about the contributions of these communities.

I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and immigrated to the US in 2002 when my mom was awarded the Diversity Lottery Visa. My family left a country where more than six million people have died due to violence and war since 1996, the world’s worst armed conflict since World War II. When we arrived in the US, we briefly lived in California before relocating to Boise, Idaho.

In the sixteen years we’ve lived here, we have not seen our extended family that remained throughout Africa. We were reunited with an aunt, uncle and cousins in 2011 through the family reunification process. By then, my mom and sister had not seen each other in nine years. I was reunited with another uncle in 2013 when I was studying abroad in Paris; this was the first time we had seen each other in 11 years. While technology has made it easier to stay in contact with family and friends, it’s not a substitute for visits and living in the same country.

When I reflect on my parent’s difficult decision to leave Congo, I wonder if they knew they were saying goodbye to their home and community. Despite the numerous challenges that my family faced, we’ve embraced the opportunities presented in the United States and have not forgotten what a gift the diversity lottery was for us.

With this background, as a Congolese-American, I’ve discovered that the current administration’s attacks on immigrant communities have no basis in reality and are a ploy to advance a xenophobic, nationalist agenda.

In the State of Union Address, President Trump discussed his four pillars of immigration reform: citizenship for undocumented immigrants, securing the border, ending the visa lottery, and ending family reunification. He remarked that the diversity lottery visa program “randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit, or the safety of our people. It is time to begin moving towards a merit-based immigration system – one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society, and who will love and respect our country.”

It’s clear that his rhetoric about the diversity lottery visa program and family reunification serves to undermine the contributions of immigrants and present a one-sided narrative of immigrants as terrorists, lazy and un-American.

At its core, the diversity lottery program allows immigrants from certain underrepresented countries to apply for an opportunity to obtain a green-card visa. Applicants must have a high school diploma or two years of recent work experience. If selected, their application can include their spouse and minor children. Winners endure background checks, interviews, health examinations and other vetting measures before they are awarded a green card and allowed to relocate to the US. This means that applicants can “win” the lottery but are not able to move to the US if they do not pass the vetting measures. While millions of people apply annually, only 50,000 visas are awarded per fiscal year.

Now to dispel the myths about the program:

First myth: Recipients are not skilled.

Fact: According to a Migration Policy Institute report from 2016, 50% of diversity lottery holders have college degrees, 16% percent reported some college and only 12% had less than a high school diploma. Furthermore, while the Trump Administration makes large statements about being open to skilled migration, they forget that the immigration policy programs they claim they want to model (Canada + Australia) also have viable channels open for non-skilled migration. These diverse immigration streams help to make an overall immigration program more viable as a whole for the broader economy. This isn’t even accounting for the fact that the RAISE Act as a whole would slash the number of immigrants coming in, which is the antithesis of Canada’s and Australia’s, and both American ideals and economic common sense.

Second myth: Recipients do not want to work.

Fact: My parents worked multiple jobs while I was growing up to support us. While they were educators back home, they took the first jobs they were offered to be able to take care of themselves, their kids and their families back home. They were not reliant on the federal government. In fact, most categories of immigrants cannot access the Food Stamps Program or other basic safety-net services on the same basis as U.S. citizens until certain time windows have passed upon their entrance into the country.

Third myth: Recipients do not contribute to our society.

Fact: Immigrants contribute heavily to this society despite their method of entry. Like undocumented, Temporary Protected Status, and family-based immigrants and refugees, diversity lottery winners make meaningful contributions to this country. They work hard, pay taxes, own small businesses and are involved in their communities. Some like to point reference to the terrible terrorist incidents of last fall as justification that this program should be ceded. By the same token, all positive contributions by one or few immigrants who received the diversity lottery visa must be attributed to this group. The current administration loves to project negative attributes about immigrants from one or two incidents involving immigrants but remains silent on our daily contributions.

Fourth myth: Recipients do not love and respect our country.

Fact: Diversity lottery winners respect and love the US. They know the risk they took in moving here and appreciate the opportunities they’ve been offered to achieve their dreams. In my case, my interest in public service is directly tied to my earlier life experiences. I remember coming to the US with nothing but a couple suitcases, not speaking English and unsure about what our future held. Sixteen years later, I am a proud Congolese-American, a college graduate, Harry S. Truman Scholar and concerned citizen who continues to look for opportunities to be involved in her community.

As the debate continues about immigration reform and lawmakers discuss ending the diversity visa, consider stories like my family’s: hard working people whose lives were positively impacted by this program. We, along with other immigrants who received this visa, have made our home here and have diversified the immigrant communities in the US. I urge the American people to stand up and defend the diversity visa lottery program because these immigrants should not be made scapegoats but rather presented as hard-working people who make a positive impact on our society.