Analysis: the Green Card lottery


The Hallowe’en terrorist attack that left 8 dead in New York is believed to have been carried out by Sayfullo Saipov, a Uzbekistan national. President Trump lost no time in linking terrorism and immigration:

“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program,” a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based.”

“I am calling on Congress to TERMINATE the diversity visa lottery program that presents significant vulnerabilities to our national security.”

So just what is the diversity visa lottery program?

The diversity visa lottery program is often called the Green Card lottery. Every year 50,000 visas – which make the holder eligible for permanent residency and offer a pathway to future US citizenship – are given to nationals from countries with historically low rates of migration to the United States. Countries with higher rates of migration – calculated as states from which 50,000 of more citizens have immigrated to the US in the past five years – are excluded.[1] For the lottery which is currently running (until 22 November 2017), for Green Cards to be awarded in 2019, that means citizens of 19 countries are barred.  This list includes Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, India Pakistan, and the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland – more on that later).  The visas quotas are distributed across six geographic regions, and a maximum of 7% of total DV winners can come from any one country. Over 9 million people entered the DV Lottery in 2016.

Can anyone “win” a visa if they apply?

No. There are still minimum requirements which must be met. Although it is free to apply, the lottery still requires applicants to demonstrate that they have a certain degree of skill and wealth. Applicants must have a high school education or equivalent professional experience, and they must also, if selected, be able to prove they will not be a “public charge”. This requires them to show proof of funds – or a pre-existing job offer – which equates to income of greater than 125% of the US Government’s current poverty guideline (in 2017, that was $30 750 for a family of 4).  If you can’t show that, the other option is to depend upon connections, by getting a relative or friend already legally resident in the US to sponsor your application.

The DV lottery isn’t an option for the very poorest: they’re unlikely to meet education or financial requirements. Nevertheless, compared to other migration systems which are designed to weed out the poor, the DV Lottery stands out as offering relative equality of opportunity, including those from poor developing countries who don’t have family in the US who qualify to sponsor them for a reunification visa, and aren’t eligible for a high-skilled H1-B visa. In the past decade the Green Card lottery has become a particularly important route for African migrants to the US.

What are my chances?

When it comes to this Green Card lottery, you actually are more likely to win than to be struck by lightning: the odds of “winning” the DV lottery are pretty reasonable. The US government actually selects 125,000 entrants at random for further processing – meaning that in last year’s lottery, about 1 in every 100 applicants “won” a visa processing number.  The extra “winners” are chosen because every year, less than half of successful applicants actually complete their Green Card application – failing to finish the paperwork in time, or falling short of the eligibility criteria.  Despite Trump’s stated concerns over vetting, lottery winners must successfully pass through a series of interviews and have all their papers in order before they can arrive in the US.  Their biometric data is also collected.

So the Green Card Lottery helps the poorest migrants?

Social mobility isn’t the point of the lottery – ostensibly, it’s ethnic and cultural “diversity”. But in practice the “diversity” can sometimes be hard to spot. The visas’ regional quota system means the “winners” of the 2015 lottery included a number of citizens from wealthy developed countries: 1798 Australians, 1354 Germans, 816 French and 589 New Zealanders.  Another quirk of the system: quite a number of Green Card winners are already in the United States, legally residing as workers or students on visas that don’t make them eligible for permanent residency.  For these DV entrants, the Green Card lottery is less a ticket to the US and more a means of escaping other notoriously slow-moving and bureaucratic immigration channels.

Why is there a Diversity Visa lottery in the first place – was it a “Chuck Schemer beauty”?

Far from being intended to promote diversity, the DV lottery actually began as a classic example of pork barrel politics.[2] In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act finally opened the US up to non-white immigration (ethnic and racial quotas introduced in 1924 had effectively prevented any non-white immigration, reserving half of visas for German, British and Irish migrants, and allocating just  2% of visas to non-Europeans).   The 1965 Immigration Act was a vital step away from the use of migration quotas to institutionalise racial discrimination.  Yet for the Irish and Italian communities – who had benefited from the extremely generous quotas on offer over the past four decades – the 1965 reforms actually reduced their opportunity to immigrate legally to the US.  The result was that in the late 1980s, a number of politicians representing Irish and Italian communities in the US – sought to redress this loss by introducing a “diversity lottery”. This would offer – especially at the outset – additional visas to those nations “adversely affected” by the immigration reforms of 1965. And the most “adversely affected”? The Irish.  From 1992-4, 40% of the diversity lottery winners were Irish citizens. Remember I said we’d get back to why Northern Irish residents can still apply for the lottery, even though other British citizens can’t?  That’s a legacy from the early days of the lottery.  Chuck Schumer was one of a number of Representatives and Senators who collaborated on the program.  More famous advocates at the time included Senator Teddy Kennedy.

So is the DV lottery a stitch-up?

Critics today certainly argue that the programme is ripe for corruption, with many self-appointed “visa agents” in sending countries trying to fraudulently charge applicants fees for their services. And there are charges that these “winners” don’t deserve immediate access to green cards and permanent residency, especially when many skilled workers holding H1-B visas are forced to wait years before they are granted anything other than temporary status.   There’s also the argument that privileging “diversity” over other forms of migration is not in the US’ interest. This in effect returns to the idea that it’s those with skills, money or connections who should be admitted, because this is both fairer to “the brightest and the best” who want to migrate, and more likely to serve US interests.

In 2013, with lobbyists for a number of industries keen to secure higher numbers of H1-B and other temporary visas for highly-skilled migrants, the Senate agreed to scrap the Green Card lottery and opening up more labour market visas instead. That immigration reform bid failed in the House, but it’s worth noting that Chuck Schumer was one of the “Gang of Eight” who came up with the plan.  Given the complex politics surrounding immigration, it seems unlikely that Trump’s call to scrap the DV lottery will gain much traction in Congress, except as a quid pro quo for some other concession (DACA, anyone?)

Does anyone think the Green Card Lottery is a good idea?

Philosophers and economists argue that lotteries can be the fairest way to distribute a good when demand outstrips supply, as is the case with US visas. African migrants have been particularly vocal in expressing concerns about the possible ending of the lottery, largely because there are relatively few other routes available to them. Visa lotteries – by distributing a small number of visas on the basis of luck, not skill – help to counter a global drift towards migration systems that lock those without connections out.

The counter-argument, of course, is that the US isn’t just “distributing” visas: it’s also “accumulating” migrants, and not all migrants are equal. Choosing blindly may be just, but it’s not necessarily strategic, nor is it in the national interest.  If you follow this logic, visas shouldn’t be distributed by ballot: they should be auctioned.

Yet other defenders point to less tangible benefits. The DV lottery contributes to the idea of America as a place where anyone can come and work for a better life. It helps build the idea of an open and welcoming America prepared to give all-comers a chance. The mythology of the US as a nation of immigrants is a powerful story, but it’s one that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The US immigration system as a whole is bureaucratic, complicated and costly: the continued existence of Green Card lottery helps to shore up the ideal of America as a place where newcomers can still arrive with nothing and build a new life.

Will the Green Card lottery survive?

For the DV lottery to end, Congress has to act. There is bipartisan support for reform: the Senate has already voted once before to scrap the lottery.  But that was as part of a comprehensive immigration package. It’s not clear whether there’s any interest in just getting rid of the Green Card lottery.  For businesses and families, the Green Card lottery is expendable.  Businesses want more visas for workers with the specific skills they need.  Families want to keep reunification channels open. Both routes have already been threatened by Trump’s administration. Campaigners for undocumented children and their parents want a pathway to legal residency and citizenship and a stop on deportation processes.

For all these groups, the DV lottery is relatively unimportant. By giving the lottery new political weight, Trump’s statements this week may actually open up the opportunity for negotiation on these other issues.  It’s not too hard to imagine a compromise being struck whereby Congress agrees to end the DV lottery in exchange for protecting some of the other immigration programmes under fire.

But equally, it’s not too hard to imagine Congress doing nothing at all.

And if that’s case, the Green Card lottery will continue to offer would-be immigrants from around the globe a chance every year to see if their number comes up, and allow a lucky few winners to start a new life in America.

Should the Green Card lottery survive?

The question of whether the DV lottery will survive is ultimately a political one.  The question of whether it should survive is harder to answer. Trump’s concerns about security are ill-founded: there’s no evidence that the lottery is any more liable to being “used” by terrorists than other visa categories (follow the fear of infiltration to its logical conclusion, and you’ll end with totally closed borders). The diversity lottery is vulnerable to corruption and fraud — but the victims are applicants who pay scam agents and not the US.

So the real question is whether a lottery is the best way to distribute some US visas to would-be migrants. Many would argue the lottery should be scrapped because it doesn’t serve the national interest. And at first glance, the idea that immigrants should be admitted on “merit” and not chance is seductive.  It’s particularly attractive to those who can make a claim that their employees or family members “deserve” a visa most, or who can afford to pay for visas through auctions or investment schemes.  But the total number of US visas available is not fixed: this is not a zero-sum game. There’s no reason why securing more H1-B visas, for instance, requires fewer visas to be available through the lottery. And it’s worth remembering that the DV lottery is tiny: 50,000 places are at stake. The US welcomes a million immigrants a year.


In the final analysis, the best case for keeping the DV lottery isn’t one about numbers.  It’s one about identity: American identity. And it’s one about hope.  The American dream is rooted in the ideal that with luck and hard work you can come to the US and beat the odds. It’s a myth —  American immigration history has always been complicated by inequality and prejudice and displacement — but the DV lottery is a tiny way in which that myth is made a little more real. In the end, the most compelling case for keeping the DV lottery isn’t about the migrants at all: it’s about America.


For anyone interested in learning more about the experience of Green Card lottery winners, I would highly recommend listening to BBC/NPR radio documentary “Abdi and the Golden Ticket”.

You can find another great personal account of applying for the Green Card lottery in the New York Times here 

For policy analysis, check out the Migration Policy Institute’s work on this subject here.

[1] Although this number is calculated without including those admitted as refugees or asylum seekers, or through other humanitarian visa programmes like NACARA, or those admitted as diversity visa-holders.  This explains why citizens of countries like Iraq, Cuba and Guatemala remain eligible for the lottery, despite more than 50,000 nationals from these countries having arrived in the US in the past 5 years.

[2] Law, A. O. ‘The Diversity Visa Lottery: A Cycle of Unintended Consequences in United States Immigration Policy’Journal of American Ethnic History  Vol. 21, No. 4 (Summer, 2002), pp. 3-29: p.21