On October 31, eight people were murdered and 12 were injured in a terrorist attack perpetrated by Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant who came to the United States through the diversity visa program. Unfortunately, President Trump and other immigration restrictionists are already trying to use this tragedy to justify ending the diversity visa program.
The diversity visa has long been a go-to scapegoat, blamed for everything from terrorism to Ebola. But the truth is, ending the diversity visa program will not reduce terrorism. And, when we consider the benefits of the diversity visa—and not base large-scale policy changes on a knee-jerk response to an isolated tragedy—we should realize it is worth preserving.
Ending the diversity visa won’t reduce terrorism
The diversity visa is not a useful visa for someone intent on committing acts of terrorism to get to the U.S. Based on estimates by Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute, a person is more than 300 times more likely to be killed by a foreign-born terrorist who came in as a tourist, than one who entered on a diversity visa. To be clear, a person is not at all likely to be killed by a foreign-born terrorist of any visa type. In fact, you are more likely to be killed by your own clothes than by a foreign-born terrorist.
Sayfullo Saipov is the only foreign-born terrorist to kill Americans who came into the U.S. on a diversity visa, although immigration restrictionists also want to include Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, the 2002 LA airport shooter. He came to the United States on a tourist visa, overstayed that visa, and then got a green card through his wife, who did win a diversity visa. Even counting Hadayet brings the grand total to two, out of more than a million peaceful, law-abiding, and proud Americans who immigrated here through the program since its inception in 1990.
One of the reasons terrorists overwhelmingly prefer other visas is because a diversity visa is extremely hard to get, and takes a long time to obtain. First, a would-be terrorist would have to wait two years between applying for the lottery and waiting for the results. Then, the would-be terrorist would—quite literally—have to win the lottery; nearly 25 million applicants now compete annually for only 50,000 available green cards.
After winning the lottery, a diversity visa recipient has to go through the same vetting procedures as other immigrants, which includes thorough background checks. All immigrants go through in-person interviews and checks conducted abroad by the State Department, followed by another review by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) once they arrive. And while opponents of the program point to certain examples of fraud, it is far from clear that the diversity visa suffers from any more fraud than other visa programs. In any case, the existence of fraud is an argument to reduce fraud—which the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security work actively to do—not to scrap a valuable program.
Theresa Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center (formerly a DHS official) explained on Twitter that proposed changes to visa policy are entirely unrelated to vetting procedures or preventing radicalization. And, compared to other green card pathways, the diversity visa is disproportionately used by children—who are most likely to assimilate smoothly into the United States.
Officials now say that Sayfullo Saipov did not come to the United States as a radical, but was radicalized here, making it difficult to see how the diversity visa is any more to blame for the attack than natural-born citizenship is to blame for domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh.
America’s national interests are best served by preserving the diversity visa
Putting “America first” necessitates keeping the diversity visa. The program helps American diplomacy and the fight against terrorism abroad, and the American economy here at home.
First, the diversity visa program helps Americans gain friends, allies, and goodwill overseas, while simultaneously undermining terrorist propaganda. Former Ambassador Johnny Young, appointed by both Republican and Democrat presidents, told the 112th Congress how his experience in the foreign service showed him firsthand that “foreign policy interests are served by the diversity visa program.”
The program, he testified is, “undertaken in part to help shape the minds and hearts of those within their borders to regard the United States and the democracy it enjoys as a beacon of hope and opportunity…[a view] crucial to the maintenance of US and American leadership.”
Indeed, the U.S. consular office in Morocco, when investigating how the United States was able to accomplish a surge of goodwill in the Muslim-majority country, pointed, in part, to the record numbers of diversity visa winners.
Historian Carly Goodman concurs, writing that the diversity visa program served “U.S. public diplomacy in the region by sustaining the American Dream” by “making possible for the first time significant voluntary immigration from sub-Saharan Africa.”
Second, the diversity visa program brings in productive immigrants who contribute to our economy and reduce the fiscal burden of our debt. Contrary to misconceptions, the program does bring in skilled immigrants, partly because it requires minimum education and work requirements and in part due to self-selection for participation. One study finds that the program selects for “Africans in well-paying jobs, who are likely to be professionals rather than mere high school graduates.”
The kind of people who use the program are willing to work hard, and by the very nature of immigrating through the program, are natural risk-takers who are more likely to be entrepreneurs than even native-born Americans. In fact, the diversity visa program may bring in talent on the far right-hand tail of value creation who would be screened out under an exclusively merit-based system.
But the diversity visa program is more than just a good diplomatic tool or an economic boost. The program is the legal embodiment of the vision of America as a shining city on a hill, in which people with, “the will and the heart to get here,” as President Reagan put it, are given the chance to share the American Dream. To deny people that chance would not only harm America’s foreign policy and economy; it would degrade the moral foundations of our open country.