The Green Card Crap Shoot

Stephen Webster, American Renaissance, September 2004

Every year millions of foreigners from nearly every country on earth play the lottery–the Green Card lottery–hoping to win permanent residency in the United States. The lottery, officially known as the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, gives a shot at becoming legal immigrants to 50,000 foreigners who have no special skills and no family in the US.

Family ties became the easiest legal way into the United States, thanks to the 1965 Immigration Act. In 2002, for example, the US admitted 1,063,732 legal immigrants, of whom 673,817 (63.3 percent) were family-related admissions. Both US citizens and permanent resident aliens–Green Card holders–can bring in spouses, parents, and children. In 2002, about 300,000 Americans married foreigners, who then became permanent residents. Another 236,000 legal immigrants were parents and children of US citizens. About 85,000 resident aliens married foreigners (or brought in spouses they had left overseas) or brought in their own children. Only US citizens can sponsor brothers and sisters as immigrants, and that accounted for about 60,000 legal immigrants.

After immigrants with family connections, the second largest group of legal aliens admitted in 2002–174,968 or 16.4 percent–were professionals with advanced degrees or “exceptional abilities” (44,468), as well as wealthy foreigners who have a least $1 million to invest (149). The third largest category were the 126,084 refugees and asylum-seekers, who accounted for just under 12 percent of immigrants in 2002.

Anyone who is not a refugee, doesn’t have family in America, and doesn’t have special skills has essentially no hope of immigrating legally–unless he plays the lottery. Winners accounted for just four percent of all immigrants in 2002, but they make the immigrant stream even more exotic than it would be otherwise. We have a lottery because immigration is not diverse enough; we need Africans, Bangladeshis and Arabs, in addition to millions of Mexicans, Chinese, and Filipinos. Very few American even know there is an immigration lottery, but it is of absorbing interest in many foreign countries.

‘The Irish Program’

How did the lottery get started? The 1965 Immigration Act abolished the national origins quota system established in the 1920s to preserve the nation’s ethnic balance (see “Fade to Brown,” April 2003). The quota system favored skilled immigrants from the countries that had contributed the bulk of the nation’s founding stock–Great Britain, Germany and Ireland–and kept out most others, particularly non-whites. Great Society anti-racists opposed this common-sense policy. They wanted to give all foreigners an equal chance to immigrate, and thought family reunification was more important than skills.

The mid-1960s and early 1970s were a prosperous time for Western Europeans, and not many wanted to emigrate. Eastern Europeans wanted to come, but the Communists would not let them. As the following figures make clear, Third Worlders, primarily from Asia and Latin America, filled the gap.

During the 1950s, just 153,000 Asians immigrated to the US (Asians had largely been barred from the 1880s to the early 1950s). The number rose to 428,000 during the 1960s, and more than tripled during the 1970s to 1,588,000. During the 1950s, 259,000 Latin Americans (including Caribbeans) immigrated, but during the 1970s that number more than quadrupled to 1,172,000. In the 1950s, just under 300,000 Mexicans arrived, but in the 1970s that figure rose to 640,000, and more than doubled during the 1980s to 1,656,000. Mexico became the largest single immigrant country of origin during the 1960s and has remained so ever since. In fact, by 2002, Mexico had sent more legal immigrants to the United States than any other country except Germany–6,560,000 vs. 7,219,000. Most German immigration was before1900, but more than half of all Mexicans who have ever legally immigrated came since 1981.

Because the 1965 law for the first time allowed recent immigrants to bring in their families, this started a never-ending cycle of chain migration. Third-Worlders filled all the queues and quotas, so by the 1980s, it was very hard for Europeans to get in. The 1965 Immigration Act had, in effect, become a European exclusion act.

The Irish were especially hard hit. More than four million Irish came to the Untied States between 1820 and 1930, but during the 1970s, the number fell to just 11,490. Many Irish came illegally, and worked in bars, restaurants, and construction. In 1986, as Congress prepared to grant amnesty to millions of mostly Mexican illegals by means of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), Senator Edward Kennedy–who had championed the 1965 Act that was now hurting his kinsmen–added a provision for the first lottery. This granted 10,000 “special visas” to randomly-selected immigrants from countries that had been “adversely affected” by the 1965 law he had helped pass. More than 60 percent of these special visas went to applicants from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada, most of whom were here illegally. Presumably, they played the lottery because they did not meet the criteria for legalization in the 1986 amnesty.

“[T]o this day,” says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), “the lottery is often referred to by congressmen and their staff as ‘The Irish Program.’ But as the program evolved, and as there were fewer and fewer Irish illegals, its emphasis changed, and it’s now more accurately described as the Middle Eastern, East European and African program.” In 2002, there were only 69 Irish diversity immigrants.

How It Works

Both IRCA and the “Irish Program” were supposed to be one-time-only events, but Congress liked the idea of diversity visas, and in 1990 it made the lottery permanent. During its initial phase the program authorized 40,000 visas per year, to be awarded to immigrants from countries underrepresented in the immigrant stream. But between 1992 and 1994, of the 108,436 immigrants who came on diversity visas, 84 percent were from Ireland, Northern Ireland (which immigration law treats separately from the United Kingdom, of which it is a part), Canada and Poland. At this time, it really was something of an Irish program.

In 1995, Congress changed the rules to exclude countries that had sent more than 50,000 immigrants during the previous five years, and raised the ceiling to 55,000 visas. In 1997, Congress made a special allocation of 5,000 diversity visas to Nicaraguans, Cubans, and other Central Americans who had come to the US illegally during the civil wars of the 1980s. This meant the US operated two visa lotteries for a few years, with one just for Central Americans. In 2000, Congress shut down the special Central American lottery, and set the ceiling for all diversity visas at 50,000, where it remains today.

In its present form, the Diversity Visa Lottery Program awards slots to the approximately 167 countries that have sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants during the past five years. This is every country in the world except Canada, China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom (except for Northern Ireland), and Vietnam, all of which already send plenty of immigrants. People living in ineligible countries can still apply, though, if they, their spouses or parents were born in an eligible country. A Canadian whose parents were born in Bangladesh, for example, could apply, as could one married to a Bangladeshi. Diversity immigrants can bring in spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, and since family members are not part of the limit, the program can bring in more than 50,000 people in one year. Once they are here, diversity immigrants can sponsor chain migration just like all other legal immigrants.

Each year’s lottery and selection process takes approximately two years. The application period for the 2004 program, therefore, was 30 days in October 2002. No fewer than 10.2 million foreigners applied, but the State Department rejected 2.9 million applications because they were not properly filled out or didn’t come in on time. To cope with this huge volume of applications the department switched to Internet applications in 2003 for the DV-2005 program.

An applicant now goes to the State Department’s diversity visa lottery website,, and fills in his name, date of birth, sex, city and country of birth, mailing address, country of eligibility if different from that of residence, and marital status, and gives information about his spouse and children. The applicant must also submit an electronic photograph, and one each for his spouse and children. The requirements are surprisingly strict–photos must be 320 pixels wide by 240 pixels high, and be in either 24-bit or 8-bit color or 8-bit grayscale–and anything else disqualifies an application. Applicants may wear religious head coverings provided they leave the face clearly visible.

Applications are divided into six regions–Africa, Asia (including the Middle East), Europe, North America, Oceania and Latin America. The US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) sets regional limits based on immigrant admissions during the previous five years and the total population of the region. The most diversity visas any country can get is seven percent of the 50,000 total, or 3,500.

After the deadline closes, the State Department’s Kentucky Consular Center in Williamsburg, Kentucky, conducts the drawing. It sorts each application into the appropriate region, and a computer randomly picks the winners. The center notifies the winners by mail, instructing them to contact the nearest US consulate if they are overseas, or the BCIS if they are in the United States.

The State Department has learned that many applicants do not qualify even if they are winners, so it selects more than twice as many winners as there are slots. For example, there were 110,467 winners for the DV-2004 program. Forty-five percent were Africans, 32 percent were Europeans, and 17 percent were Asians. Central and South Americans were just over three percent, and people living in Oceania were just over one percent. Because Canadians and Mexicans can’t play the lottery, the only North American DV-2004 winners were 12 Bahamians.

Winning is only the first part of the process, and does not guarantee a visa. It offers only the privilege of applying for one, and there are a few minimal standards. Applicants must either be high school graduates or have spent at least two of the last five years in a job that requires at least two years of training or experience. The would-be immigrant fills out the standard visa application and goes through the screening process, which includes fingerprinting and a security background check. He must also pay the standard visa fee of $335 for overseas applicants or $385 for applicants living in the US. In an unusual twist for a lottery, this one costs nothing to enter, but winners pay an additional lottery application fee of $100. (The State Department makes nothing on the millions of applications it processes every year.)

The winners have exactly one year in which to get their visa applications approved. Winners in the DV-2005 lottery held last fall got the word this summer. They can apply for the visa only after October 1, 2004, and if the visa hasn’t come by September 30, 2005, they are out of luck. If the application got held up in a bureaucratic snarl, that is just too bad; the applicant can enter the lottery again if he wants. There is another way a winner can become a loser through no fault of his own. The program ends once all the diversity visas for a given year have been issued or the deadline passes, which ever comes first. This means someone can apply early, but if consular offices in other countries work more quickly than in his country and fill all the slots before the deadline, his visa is no good even if it would have been issued on time.


Foreigners like the lottery but it is not popular here. One of the oddest charges is that it is somehow racist, despite the fact that it brings in more non-whites than whites. Referring back to Edward Kennedy’s plan to get more Irish into the country, the Center for Immigration Studies’ Mark Krikorian calls the lottery “affirmative action” for white immigrants, and a “racialist throwback,” “harking back to the ‘more-people-who-look-like-me’ immigration policy we had until 1965.” Dan Stein of the Foundation for Immigration Reform (FAIR) believes the program smacks of the “discredited” national origins system laid to rest by the 1965 Immigration Act. FAIR has also implied that Edward Kennedy and the other Irish-American politicians who created the original lottery program were racists because they “apparently were not satisfied with the dramatic demographic change the nation has undergone over the past 25 years.” Presumably, since non-lottery immigration is only 10 percent white, anyone who supports a lottery whose winners are all of 40 percent white must be a “racist.”

In 2002, the bulk of the diversity visas went to Africans and Asians. Ethiopians were the largest single nationality at 3,994 (this figure is larger than the per-country limit of 3,500 because it includes Ethiopians who were not living in Ethiopia when they applied).

In the most recent lottery, DV-2004, Nigeria produced the largest number of winners with 7,145, followed by Ghana at 7,040, Ethiopia at 6,353, Kenya at 5,721, and Bangladesh at 5,126. These are the numbers who won the lottery, not the numbers who got visas. Eighty percent or so of Nigerian winners are usually disqualified, but the process that awards that many slots to Africans is certainly not “racist,” even if many African winners turn out to be frauds (see sidebar, next page) or file their papers late.

Critics of the lottery make a better case when they point to the quality of the immigrants. A National Academy of Sciences study found that immigrants with only a high school education cost US taxpayers $30,000 in government services over their lifetimes (admitting an immigrant with less than a high school education costs $90,000 over his lifetime). The same study found that immigrants with a college education or more contribute $100,000 to the country over their lifetimes. If, over a decade, the lottery lets in 500,000 high school graduates rather than 500,000 college graduates, the lifetime opportunity cost is $65 billion. With its current low requirements, the green card lottery is a net loss to taxpayers.

Green card winners impose the usual cultural costs as well. The World Health Organization estimates the prevalence of female genital mutilation to be 98 percent in Somalia, but that didn’t stop the State Department from issuing 233 diversity visas to Somalis in 2002. (Somalis are also one of the largest “refugee” groups, with more than 12,000 scheduled to come over the next few years.)

The lottery also works as an amnesty program. If he was born in an eligible country, an applicant can apply from within the United States, and it makes no difference if he is here legally or not. If he wins, the BCIS adjusts his status automatically; there is no penalty for having broken immigration laws to get here.

Even some supporters of mass immigration believe the diversity visa lottery program should be scrapped. They note that there are some quotas even on family-reunification visas, and complain that lottery-winners get special treatment because they can bring in their families right away.

The complaint that gets the most attention today is that lottery winners can be a security threat. The State Department generally bars residents of the seven countries it designates as sponsors of terrorism from applying even for temporary visas, but allows those same countries into the lottery, which awards permanent visas. Diversity is apparently more important than security. In 2002 Iran received 695 diversity visas, Iraq, 54, Syria, 27, Libya, 7, North Korea, 3, Cuba, 425, and Sudan, 629. Countries where Al-Qaida terror cells actively recruit also participate in the program. In 2002, 1,161 Egyptians and 109 Saudis immigrated on diversity visas.

In Detroit earlier this year, two Moroccan lottery winners were convicted on terrorism-related charges. On July 4, 2002, Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohammed Ali Hedayet murdered two people and wounded several others at the Israeli airline El Al’s ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport before security men shot him. Hedayet had come to the US in 1992 on a temporary visa, became an illegal alien when it expired, and was scheduled for deportation in 1997 when his wife (also an Egyptian immigrant) won the lottery. Her newly-achieved status meant he could stay.

Even Anne W. Patterson, the State Department’s deputy inspector general, thinks the lottery is a big risk. “The bottom line is it’s a program that can be taken advantage of by hostile intelligence officers or terrorists,” she told the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee in April 2004. Miss Patterson said at the very least the lottery should not permit applications from countries that sponsor terrorism. Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-VA) says the lottery is a “serious security threat” and has sponsored a bill (H.R. 775) to end it.

The program does have defenders, however, including black Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas. At the same April hearing, Miss Jackson-Lee accused critics of the program of wanting “to topple the Statue of Liberty.” Miss Jackson-Lee cites as one of the stars of the lottery the mother of teenage soccer player Freddy Adu, who came to the United States from Ghana after winning the lottery in the late 1990s. Rep. Jackson-Lee does support overhauling American immigration policy–to legalize many illegals already here, and make it easier for immigrants to bring in even more relatives.

Of course, security threats aside, the very idea that immigration hasn’t made the United States diverse enough already is astonishing. Whites are passing judgment on diverse, immigrant-heavy California by fleeing it at a rate of 100,000 a year. Terrorism, racial conflict, ethnic ghettoes, bilingual education, bizarre Third-World customs–these are the consequences of today’s immigration, and none makes us stronger. They only serve to destroy unity and cultural cohesion. We should scrap the 1965 law along with the lottery.

But perhaps the greatest absurdity is the idea of raffling off permanent residency–the first step to citizenship–as if it were a door prize. It would be hard to think of a more frivolous, demeaning, and bone-headed way to build a nation. To think that people who have absolutely nothing in common with each other, scraped up from every corner of the world at random, can live together as loyal citizens and participants in a common culture is breathtaking foolishness. The lottery is–as if we needed it–yet another proof that our rulers have completely lost any sense of nation or peoplehood.

Sidebar: Fraud and Gullibility

Millions of people around the world are desperate to immigrate–it is their ticket out of squalor–and desperation makes them easy prey for con men. Each year, as the lottery deadline approaches, thousands of websites pop up offering to help would-be immigrants process their applications–for a price.

The websites lure the gullible with such official-sounding names as “USA Immigration Services” or “United States of America Foreign Immigration Services.” Most use the URL extension .org (official government websites end in .gov). Website designers try to make the sites look as official as possible, prominently displaying American flags, the Statue of Liberty, bald eagles and even the White House seal. One of the most brazen fake immigration websites in 2002 was www., which billed itself as “United States Naturalization and Immigration Services,” a clever reversal of the old US Immigration and Naturalization Service. People in Rawalpindi, Pakistan ran the site.

The most blatantly dishonest websites tell prospective immigrants that using their services can improve their chances of winning. Since the lottery is random, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) prosecutes this as false advertising if the con men are subject to US jurisdiction. Most sites just offer to help foreigners fill out the forms, charging anywhere from $50 to $200 for what they can do on the State Department’s official lottery website for free. Immigration lawyer Yigel Torem, who runs a website called GreenCard says he provides valuable assistance. “There’s over two or three million [applications] rejected every year,” he explains. “Obviously people are not getting it.” He says he provides lots of free information on his website, and only charges when people ask for help.

The problem is so bad the State Department has begun posting a warning on its website, telling applicants to stay away from sites “that may require you to pay for services such as forms and information about immigration procedures, that are otherwise free.”

Lottery applicants are not just victims of fraud; many also perpetrate it. Because an application does not require any documentation other than a photograph, many visa hopefuls lie on their applications and scramble to get fake IDs and bogus school diplomas and job training certificates after they win. Nigeria and Bangladesh are almost always among the top ten sources for diversity visa winners. They are also the two most corrupt nations on earth, according to Transparency International’s 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index. Not surprisingly, in 2002, the State Department rejected 80 percent of the green card applications filed by lottery winners from Nigeria and 85 percent from Bangladesh. This high rate of rejection explains why the lottery chooses approximately 110,000 winners for 50,000 slots.

Players in the lottery can get ugly when something interferes with their chances. In February 1997, there were riots in the African country of Sierra Leone after fishermen found 5,000 completed and mailed lottery applications in several mailbags floating in Freetown harbor. As word of the discovery spread through the city, thousands of would-be immigrants converged on the country’s central post office, throwing sticks and stones at police and smashing government vehicles. Police fired into the crowd, killing two and injuring more than 20. A local newspaper speculated that the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah may have ordered the mailbags dumped into the harbor in order to conceal the number of people who want to get out of his country. More than 35,000 Sierra Leoneans played the lottery in 1997, but only 343 got visas.

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