An Infuriating New Online Game Asks: Would You Be Able To Immigrate to the U.S.?

Players can experience for themselves how difficult, expensive, and exhausting it is to come to the country legally.


Many critics of illegal immigration argue that foreigners should get in line if they want to move to the United States. It shouldn't be so hard or time-consuming, they argue, for a law-abiding foreigner simply to wait his turn to get a green card.

The reality of the U.S. immigration system is much more complicated and costly than that. To that effect, the Cato Institute, a free market think tank, has released The Green Card Game. Players must navigate the game's twists and turns in the hopes of securing a green card, which will allow them to live and work in the U.S. legally and eventually become a citizen.

Players start the game with no close family in the U.S. and no prior travel there. They can play with randomly generated backgrounds or fill in their own characteristics to see how they'd fare against the system. Each misstep pushes a player's arrival date later and immigration costs higher. At any point, players can ask for advice from an attorney (for a fee) or a bureaucrat (for a headache).

"The legal immigration system is extremely complicated," says David J. Bier, associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute. (Bier and Alex Nowrasteh, vice president of economic and social policy studies at Cato, were responsible for game design.) "The game illustrates that even if you figure the rules out, getting a positive result still depends a great deal on luck and other factors outside your control."

The game starts off simple, asking a player whether he is fully vaccinated, has a criminal record, is a Communist, or "participate[d] in Nazi Germany persecution from 1933 to 1945." After answering those asks correctly, a player has to try to qualify for a green card under one of four categories: the refugee system, the Diversity Visa lottery, employer sponsorship, and self-sponsorship.

"The first choice a player will make in the game (your country of birth) could end up mattering more than a $100,000 job offer," explains Bier, noting that players will repeatedly have to grapple with the "Bureaucratic Wheel of Fortune." Many scenarios come down to pure chance: "Will a government adjudicator believe you? Will you win a lottery? Will a U.S. worker apply for the job before you get a green card? Will your paperwork get lost?"

I started the game with a randomized background: a 65-year-old Bhutanese therapist with a bachelor's degree and $11,130 in savings, married with six minor children, Buddhist, and hoping to reach Montana. I figured the Diversity Visa would be a good option, since it caters to "individuals who are from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States." But I quickly found out that there's no consulate or embassy in Bhutan processing immigrant visas. My chances further fell apart when I said I didn't have a job offer in the U.S. and the government didn't think I could financially support my family on my savings.

With all options exhausted, I was out $2,150 for required travel, translation, and medical costs. Round after round, different background after different background, I was unable to get into the country legally. I never even came close to the citizenship test. At one point, as a highly educated Afghan doctor fleeing religious persecution, I had no choice but to spend thousands on a journey from South America to the U.S.-Mexico border. My arrival date ticked up to 2045—only for a judge to reject my asylum case. (Unfortunately, that exact journey is a reality for many.)

The game relies heavily on Bier's June policy analysis, "Why Legal Immigration Is Nearly Impossible." The report noted that "fewer than 1 percent of people who want to move permanently to the United States can do so legally," thanks to factors such as low annual visa caps, a lack of U.S.-based sponsors, and application costs. "Legal immigration is less like waiting in line and more like winning the lottery," wrote Bier. "It happens, but it is so rare that it is irrational to expect it in any individual case."

"A lot of people might play and conclude that the game is biased," says Bier. "But the reality is that the game is easier than real life. In real life, you can't set your profile, pick your country of birth, and play as many times as it takes."