What is the Diversity Visa Lottery Donald Trump is Blaming for Yesterday's NYC Attack?

The president has already called for eliminating the program.


Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris/Newscom

Reports that Sayfullo Saipov—the Uzbek-born terror suspect in yesterday's attack in New York City that killed 8 people and wounded 11 others—entered the country thanks the State Department's Diversity Visa Lottery have set off a wildfire controversy about the little-known program.

President Donald Trump in a tweet quickly pinned the blame for the attack on the visa program and demanded "merit based immigration."

Others, like Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.), have hit back, pointing out Schumer supported getting rid of the Diversity Visa Lottery as part of a 2013 immigration reform effort.

Missing from this political Twitter-based tit-for-tat an explanation of what exactly the Diversity Lottery Program is.

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program was created by the 1990 Immigration Act, and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) did sponsor the original proposal to create a "diversity visa" as a way of increasing immigration from countries that send comparatively few migrants to the United States through other channels. Schumer's proposal was later rolled into the 1990 bill.

The program has been controversial. Bills to undo the Diversity Immigration Visas were introduced in 2005, 2007, 2009. The 2013 "Gang of 8" immigration reform bill, which would have allowed for greater immigration in many instances, included a provision eliminating the program, as does the restrictionist 2017 RAISE Act.

Conservatives have long opined that the program allows low-skill immigrants into the United States, and that the program is susceptible to fraud.

Every year, 50,000 visas are made available through a lottery to "low admission" countries, defined as those that have sent fewer than 50,000 people to the United States in the past five years. The Attorney General is responsible for determining which countries count as low admission.

Those hoping to gain admission under the program must have a high school education (or its equivalent), or have worked for two years in a job that requires a further two years of experience or training.

Migrants that meet these qualifications submit their names each year into an electronic lottery run by the U.S. State Department, which then selects winners. Nearly 10 million qualified entrants entered the lottery for the 2015 draw (the last year for which statistics were available), and 125,514 were selected to apply for a Diversity Immigration Visa.

The visa application process includes an in-person interview with State Department staff at a consulate or embassy. Visa applicants must provide a birth certificate, records of a medical examination, as well as any court, police, or deportation records that might exist for the applicant.

State Department staff then confirm this documentation, and issue visas to the 50,000 to lucky winners. Family members of winners are allowed access to the United States as well.

The diversity lotteries began in 1995, meaning roughly 1.1 million have entered the country since through the program.

As a result yesterday's grisly attack in New York City by a lottery recipient, and the president's finger-pointing at the program, calls to eliminate the Diversity Visa Lottery will only grow louder.