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Diversity Visas Are a Trump Target, And That Could Hurt Employers (Corrected)

Nov. 14, 2018, 10:42 AMUpdated: Nov. 16, 2018, 6:36 PM

The diversity visa could once again be on the chopping block.

Eliminating the visa, like President Donald Trump wants to, could cut off an avenue for skilled labor to enter the U.S.

The diversity visa “does implicitly select for skills,” Jeremy Neufeld of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, told Bloomberg Law.

There’s “a misconception, that seems to be somewhat widespread, that the people coming on the visa are not skilled,” he said. Diversity visa recipients are more skilled on average than other immigrants and native-born U.S. citizens, he said.

Giving diversity visas can make other skilled workers in the targeted countries more likely to apply for U.S. employment visas, according to Neufeld’s recent research.

The program’s been around since 1990 and currently allocates 50,000 visas a year to immigrants from countries with fewer than 50,000 natives admitted to the U.S. in the previous five years. The visas are awarded by lottery to immigrants with at least a high-school education or two years of qualifying work experience.

Disfavored by President

Trump has made eliminating the diversity visa lottery a part of his immigration platform since an immigrant who indirectly benefited from the program attempted a suicide bombing of the New York subway in December 2017.

The program is “riddled with fraud and abuse” and “does not serve the national interest,” a White House fact sheet says.

But Trump isn’t the first to suggest ditching the program.

Earlier House bills reworking the skilled visa system would’ve gutted it, and a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 would’ve replaced it with a merit-based visa.

‘There Are Higher Priorities’

“There’s nothing wrong with the diversity visa,” former Connecticut congressman Bruce Morrison told Bloomberg Law. But if Congress wants to rework the immigration system without increasing visa numbers, “there are higher priorities” that can take its place, he said. Morrison sponsored the House version of what became the Immigration Act of 1990, which established the current diversity visa program.

“On the whole it’s been a net benefit to the United States because it has made the country more diverse,” Chad Blocker of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy in Los Angeles said. Diversity visa recipients have made “unique contributions” that often “get overshadowed” by “a few bad actors,” he told Bloomberg Law.

As for the State Department, its guiding principle “is our core belief that every visa decision is a national security decision,” an agency spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law. “Every applicant undergoes extensive and continuous security screening, both at the time of their visa application and afterwards, to ensure they remain eligible to travel to the United States,” she said.

Potential Exclusion

Blocker is concerned that reallocating the visas to a merit-based program could require would-be immigrants to have a job offer and employer sponsor in the U.S. before being awarded a visa.

That could exclude skilled immigrants who have the potential to make contributions to the U.S. economy, he said.

Blocker mentioned a French couple who came to the U.S. after one of them received a diversity visa. After five years they’re ready to apply for citizenship, having started a software company that employs 10 people, he said. It’s a “real American success story.”

It’s “the nature of the politics where the latest bad actor who has entered on a certain visa type” results in that entire visa program getting scrutinized, Blocker said. The “critical thing” isn’t to scrap the program, but rather to “make sure that the government is performing sufficient background checks and security screenings” so that applicants are properly vetted, he said.

Purpose Served

Morrison, now an immigration attorney, said he thinks the diversity visa’s purpose has already been accomplished. That purpose was “to open the door to regions that had been neglected” in prior immigration laws, such as Africa and Eastern Europe, he said.

Twenty-eight years later, the source countries that were underrepresented in other visa categories no longer are, he said.

For example, 6,340 immigrants came from African countries through family- and employment-based channels in 1990, according to a paper from IEEE-USA, which represents U.S. engineers. That figure jumped to 52,483 in 2011.

Egyptian immigrants received the most diversity visas in fiscal year 2017, with 3,580, according to State Department data. They were followed by Nepal with 3,477 and Uzbekistan with 3,199.

“Immigration is about setting priorities within whatever numbers you decide are appropriate,” Morrison said. The diversity visa “did its job; it’s probably not the highest priority any more,” he said.

(Story corrected to update Bruce Morrison's title.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at; Cheryl Saenz at; Terence Hyland at